Most pet owners are familiar by now with clicker training. Versions of the training, also known as operant conditioning, have been used to teach commands to dogs, cats, dolphins, and a number of other creatures.
And now trainers have another use for it—controlling animals during visits to the veterinarian, or a stay at a shelter.
Karen Pryor, a scientist in marine mammal biology and behavioral psychology and one of the founders of pet clicker training, has been promoting clicker training in clinics and shelters. "It reduces stress and risk for everyone involved," she said.
Clicker training works by pairing a short, distinctive sound—usually the "click" from a hand-held device—with positive reinforcement, such as treats. Clicker training works so well in a veterinary or shelter situation because it's so generic. "The click is anonymous," Ms. Pryor said. "It doesn't depend on a social bond at all. The dog doesn't have to know you."
With a few minutes and a clicker, animals up for a veterinary exam can be taught to hold still for an exam, relax their stomach muscles, relax their legs so their paws can be held, and any number of other difficult-to-achieve behaviors, she said. Clicker training's benefit lies in the fact that the animal will try to do whatever it takes to get the "click" and the treat that comes with it. "Their attention goes from â€˜What's happening here, I'm afraid,' to â€˜Oh, this is a great way for me to get hot dogs,' " Ms. Pryor said.
In shelters, clicker training can be used to quiet barking dogs or apply medications. Zoos have been using operant conditioning for a long time to accomplish necessary tasks, such as trimming giraffe hooves or drawing blood from the big cats, Ms. Pryor said. An animal can be taught to "target" a certain object—perhaps touch a padded pole with its head—while zoo workers draw blood from its opposite end.
Diana "Dee" Ganley, a trainer and behavior counselor, has been working with the Upper Valley Humane Society, Enfield, N.H., for several years. The shelter takes in about 500 to 600 dogs per year.
When she first arrived, the shelter brought out its most problematic dog—a rottweiler cross with fear issues. Within a short time, she had him sitting and politely going around the room to meet the staff. The shelter hired her to come in three days a week to work with the animals.
But the training required more than that—the dogs would lapse back to their old habits in between sessions. So Ms. Ganley and the shelter set up a comprehensive program throughout the shelter.
Today, the kennel staff has been trained for clicker skills. The dogs in the shelter are taught basic manners—waiting at the door, sitting on command, staying during distractions. So not only do the animals leave the shelter with a degree of training, making them better pets, they're much easier for staff to handle and work on.
One dog came into the shelter with a destructive streak—she would rip apart blankets and toys, or mount them. Trainers would click-and-treat her when she lay down on the blanket instead of behaving inappropriately. They were successful in modifying the behavior.
The shelter also gets a number of potbellied pigs, Ms. Ganley said. It once took five or six people to squeeze a squealing pig against a wall while the veterinarians vaccinated it. Now the pigs are clicker-trained to trot up and put their noses in a cone, at which point they're given gas anesthesia for the procedure.
The training is done in degrees. Say you want to put medicine in a dog's ears—a sometimes-painful procedure for an animal with an infection. The first step is to stand in front of the dog and wait for it to stop moving, then click to mark the stillness, and give it a treat. Next, put a hand on the dog's back. If it tolerates that, click and give it a treat. Then move the hand up the back, clicking and treating with each successful advance, until you're touching the head. Touch the ear, then click and treat. Then fondle the ear, click and treat. "You move by quarter-inches," Ms. Pryor said.
If the dog resists, fall back a few steps and try again. "You ask the dog a question," Ms. Pryor said. " â€˜Can I do this? Yes?' Click, treat. â€˜Can I put my finger in your ear? Yes?' Click, treat. â€˜Can I put this metal instrument in your ear? Yes?' Click, treat."
Applying medicine to a recalcitrant dog can be done in around 15 clicks and a few minutes, she said. "It's not like traditional training where it takes years to get."
But the training may not be easy to incorporate into the busy atmosphere. Karen Nyquist, a clinic supervisor at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, Boston, Mass., has been encouraging the veterinary staff to introduce clicker training to their clients. The idea hasn't caught on because of lack of interest and lack of time, she said.
But not everyone in the clinic or shelter needs to learn the training, Ms. Pryor said. One person can be appointed to deal with patients who need the clicker. That person, by demonstrating what can be done, may eventually help the others overcome their opposition.
While clicker training isn't a behavioral cure-all—for the altered behavior to stick, it needs consistent work, just like any other training—it can make life temporarily easier for shelter employees and veterinarians, trainers said. And owners accompanying their pets to the exam, or getting a pet from a shelter, get introduced to a technique that could enhance their relationship with their animals.
Ms. Pryor recalled one woman whose veterinarian used clicker training. Her dogs loved going to the veterinarian, she said. They knew they would be rewarded—it was like doing a job and getting paid. "It changes the dynamic and makes it easier on everyone," she said.