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Midnight at the Oasis: Clicking with Camels

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Recently, Alexandra Kurland, author of Clicker Training for Your Horse, Clicker Training Your Horse, Step-by-Step in Pictures, and a series of videos corresponded with Jim Wiltens, co-leader for the Camels Over the Himalayas Expedition. Jim came to ClickerExpo to get his first exposure to clicker training and met Alexandra Kurland at her sessions. Immediately, he set out to use his education in the field. The piece is a great example of the transformative nature of clicker training and how people and animals learn quickly together. The log of Jim's training adventure begins below.

Dear Alexandra:

Again, thank you for taking the time to talk to me on the phone about clicker training camels. I spent the last week in the desert in Nevada working with camels. I parked my truck next to their corral. Living out of my truck put me within six feet of the camels 24 hours a day. I immersed myself in camel behavior—sitting on the fence watching and taking notes on how they interacted, doing the daily feeding and watering, raking their coats, walking into the corral and scratching the ears of camels that would come up to me, riding, waking up late at night to check on the one pregnant female, and of course, clicker training.

I spent the last week in the desert in Nevada working with camels.

From your book, I picked three modest clicker goals to start: get a camel to nuzzle a target (tennis ball on a 3-foot wooden dowel), head lowering (yes it is a calming response), and backing. I started with Chewy, an untrained three-year-old who was skittish about human approach. To get him to come to the fence rail, I had to be creative. I put hay on a rake while I remained outside the fence. Then I got him comfortable hearing the clicker followed by hay being passed though the fence on the rake. I guess you could say I was charging the rake. Soon I came closer to the fence and shortened up on the rake handle. When he was relaxed I presented the tennis ball target, using carrots for treats (I tried apple slices, but after several days I had a sticky mess in my pocket so I reserved whole apples for jackpots).

In your book, you mention that you can see the light bulb switch on when the student figures out what you want. I was to see this again and again. In no time, Chewy was target trained. That's when I moved into the pen. It took a long stretched-out arm, but he came to the target. After a while I started raising and lowering the target adding cuing words like "lower." Soon I had him willing to go high and low, so the lowering goal was ticked off. Then I tried some variations, such as walking to the far end of the pen, and requiring that he come to me for the target. Again success. This was followed by mounting the target stick on the corral and cuing with "target." Chewy would go to the fence and touch the ball and then come over to me for the treat. Pretty impressive, considering it all occurred in several hours, part of which I spent reading and rereading your book to pick up information I missed on the first scans.

I had trouble with backing because Chewy was already more than willing to back when I would reach out. I clicked this behavior in an attempt to shape it with the cuing signal, "back." But I felt that what I really wanted was for him to come to me. So, I began to shorten up on the target stick, until I replaced it entirely with my gloved hand (he seemed more comfortable with the glove than with my skin, though later he would nuzzle my bare hand; maybe he just grew more comfortable with my presence). Now I had him close to my body targeting on my hand.That's when I jumped beyond my three initial goals.

That's when I jumped beyond my three initial goals. I started training him to step on a piece of plywood. Initially I tried a grain bag, but he was more interested in eating the bag than stepping on it. Again, he was hesitant and would do everything to circle the target and avoid stepping on ply so he could reach the target stick. As was to happen many times, the camel got me to think and became my teacher. I got a bigger piece of plywood, and, laying it on the ground, pushed it against the fence. My body acted as a post on the other side of the board. Now to reach the target stick he would have to pass between the fence and me, stepping on the board. At first he acted like the board was a 200-foot chasm. He stretched his neck like a slinky to reach the target and avoid the board. Inch-by-clicker-treat-inch I edged him closer to the board until he bumped it. It was just a matter of patience to get him to finally step or walk over the goblin board.

The big test came when I released him back into the corral later in the day. I let him reacquaint with his buddies, and, about 15 minutes later, I held up the target stick and said "target." He came back into the stall with me, something that wouldn't have happened a few hours earlier.

You've been through this many times, but I was excited by the response I was getting from clicker training. And though you said that it is necessary to give a break, Chewy and the other camels I was to work with seemed more than willing to go through marathon sessions and really enjoy it. I ended up having to go to the store and buy 20 pounds of carrots since I was going through so many (you can cut a single carrot into about 10-15 treats).

Chewy was my original student, but I also worked with an older female, Shirley, who picked things up in half the time it took Chewy. Either she is smarter than Chewy or Chewy trained me so I had a better idea of what to do. Then I worked with a 1,200-pound easy-going male, Milagro. This was my first chance to get into backing, as he was more than willing to mug me and see if he could get his huge head into my carrot pocket. I used the target stick close to his body so he would have to back to touch it. This gave me some space to feed the carrot without having a camel munching a carrot six inches from my face.By the time I was working on my fourth camel, I could get the responses to occur very quickly

By the time I was working on my fourth camel, I could get the responses to occur very quickly. It didn't take as much time to cement a behavior. The camels just seemed to "get it." Gary, the owner of the Nevada Camel Company, kept telling me that camels are intelligent. I'm a believer.

My biggest test came with Saddam, a 1,400-pound male. Size alone makes Saddam an intimidating animal, but he also wants to be herd leader. This can make him aggressive. At one point he got into a battle with Milagro. He got Milagro down—they throw one another when fighting, like wrestlers on a mat-and went into a suffocating death grip. It looked like he might kill Milagro, who had part of its hump wedged under the fence and was at Saddam's mercy. Like his namesake, Saddam didn't look like he was going to show any. As Saddam kneeled on the windpipe of Milagro, I futilely yelled and swatted with my hat (very un-clicker-like), careful to keep my distance from thrashing legs and snapping jaws. I then ran and got a bucket of water and threw it in Saddam's face. He didn't like that, and backed off. But all the time, he paced back and forth trying to get back at his floored opponent as I waved a bucket in his face. I then yanked some hay into another section of the corral and his desire to eat overcame his desire to fight. Whew!

The day I worked with Saddam I decided that I wanted to do something that would go beyond what I had done previously. So my goal was to be able to get him to lower his head and let me hold his nose peg. Referring to their nose peg, Gary likes to say that camels have been into body piercing for thousands of years, the original punkers. (They have a peg inserted in their nose instead of a bit like a horse. Reins are attached to this peg). Saddam can be aggressive when you reach towards this peg. He bares his fighting incisors, bellows, and grabs at a hand reaching for the peg. Having seem him bite other camels and leave puncture wounds, this is not a display to be taken lightly. In other words, it is not easy to put his reins on.

Like all the other camels, I started clicker training outside the fence and worked my way through the various stages. He responded beautifully. But then, how would I get him to let me calmly touch his nose peg? I came across the clicker training solution by chance. While using the target stick, Saddam accidentally touched the ball with his nose peg. Fortunately, I was fast enough to process the potential of what had just happened and managed to click. Then when offering the target stick I waited. He bumped the stick but no click. At first he was confused. You could see his surprise, "I insert my behavior quarters into the vending machine which always pays with carrots. But not this time?" So he started experimenting; rubbing this way, then that, mouthing the target ball. Still no click. Not until he presented the right side of his muzzle, where the peg is located, did he get a click. The light went on. Soon I had him touching the target on muzzle right or directly on the peg. That's when I began to shorten up on the target stick. Then I got rid of the stick altogether and used my hand as a target. With my first reaches for the peg I had to snap my hand away to avoid his snap. At this point, Gary made suggestions that were to speed up the process. He recommended I stand on the peg side of Saddam, which gave him a better sight line on where my hands were. Previously I'd been reaching across his muzzle, blind-siding him and making him nervous. Eventually I got Saddam to lower his muzzle and let me hold the peg without yanking away. The behavior was still inconsistent due to the rapidity of reaching this point, but with a little more training spread over several days, I'm convinced he would nail this behavior down, and I felt I really worked on something that would be useful for riding.Like all the other camels, I started clicker training outside the fence and worked my way through the various stages.

In my week with the camels they taught me a huge amount. In April I return for a few days of working with the camels. This will be an opportunity to check and see how much they remember or how quickly they can relearn what I have taught to this point. One of the biggest lessons is that I'm the slowest element in their training. Breaking a behavior down into clicker-trainable bite-size pieces has me thinking as much as the camels. Your book has been an invaluable aid and as I nail down certain behaviors I find it considerably easier to train the next time around. Poor Chewy, my first student, had to put up with my clumsy attempts to figure out such basic things as how to hold the clicker, the target stick, and give a treat without fumbling it to the ground.

One thing I would like is a clicker that leaves both of your hands free. Many times I wanted one hand free and the other for the treat. I can see why sea-life trainers use whistles. But the whistle would make it harder to give a verbal cue (I know you said that verbal cues aren't what the animal concentrates on, but maybe the cue is for me to feel like I know what behavior I want). I can see a high-tech electronic clicker activated by batting your eyes or some such thing.

Have you ever noticed if other animals in a herd become jealous when one animal is getting click and treat and they are left out? Once the herd figured out that class was going on in the separate pen, I had a peanut gallery leaning over the fence in hopes I would fumble a carrot pass close to the fence. At one point they bent the steel fence rails.Have you ever noticed if other animals in a herd become jealous when one animal is getting click and treat and they are left out?

I will mention your book on our Web site along with a Web link. The pictures make it easy to follow the text. I found myself returning to the book again and again. Even when I thought I understood a principle, there is usually something I missed when I was just passing it around in my noodle. When I stepped into the corral, my students quickly taught me when to go back to the book. So your book sat open, close enough to refer to, and even get a little camel drool on it. Who knows, maybe the camels were looking at the pictures to figure out what I wanted them to do.

I will keep you updated on our progress. We will be using clicker training on the camels we purchase in India.

In the Spirit of Adventure,

Jim Wiltens
(co-leader for the Camels Over the Himalayas Expedition)

About the author
User picture

Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Spirit of Adventure.

I have just acquired a pair of 3-month-old Ayrshire calves to raise up
to be working oxen. They were bottle-raised and are comfortable around people. I want to use a clicker approach rather then the traditional goad/prod approach for training. RIght now, I have a baby-sized yoke for them. I have been told not to use food, because the animals will learn to expect it and won't work w/o it. Hmmm, sounds like the comment of an uninitiated trainer to me.

Anyway, it appears that the horse book would be enlightening in terms of starting w/ a large animal. I have successfully used a clicker w/ my dog. This post about observing the camels and their behaviors is very helpful. Mostly, I want the boys ( Nip and Tuck) to enjoy the training process as much as I do.


trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

It works with camels, too!

I always love reading about other species and OC. :-) Good training is good training and should work on everything, not just a certain species or a particular temperament. Thanks for posting this!

Laura &

  • Ascomannis Laevatein YTT RL1 (www.CaninesInAction.blogspot.com, www.clickertraining.com/blog/179)
  • Inky (couch dog)

It works with Ferrets

I trained my ferrets with the clicker, and they love it now. My dog is deaf and she is clicker trained too... gotta say it makes life wonderful

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