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Positively healthy!

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Trust—the foundation for communication and care

One thing clicker training gives us is a new level of trust and communication. You may have noticed this with your pets. It's particularly startling and, to me, touching, with captive animals that could never be pets; it makes their entire care much more humane.

Not that way

oh my monkey

Imagine you are with me on a backstage visit to a big US zoo. One of the keepers offers to show me the husbandry training (training for medical care) that they're giving the baboons. Carrying a small kit of equipment, she sits down at the bars of an enclosure containing perhaps twenty baboons. She calls over a young female by name, puts a stethoscope through the bars, and listens to her heart and lungs. She signs "Open" with one hand (fingers to thumb and then spread apart) and inspects the baboon's open mouth and teeth. Then she picks up a needle-less syringe to practice giving a shot. The baboon, seeing the syringe, presses herself sideways against the bars. The keeper starts to touch the syringe to the animal's hip. The baboon immediately backs up along the bars. The keeper tries for the hip once more. The baboon, looking cross, backs up again, bringing her shoulder level with the syringe. The keeper laughs, and says to me, "Oh, wait, I see. I've never actually worked with her before, and she's explaining to me that she gets her shots in her shoulder, not her hip!" Click.

Shape for health

Oh, but don't shots hurt? Surely that's not positive reinforcement! Doesn't the baboon object to being poked with needles? She would indeed if you just walked up and poked her, but you shape the behavior instead. May I touch you with a pencil point? Yes? Click/treat. How about a needle-less syringe? Yes. Click/treat. How about a prick with a tiny needle? May I slip the needle in? Pretty soon immunizations and antibiotics and even blood draws are a snap. In fact, it is easier to accustom animals to the prick of a needle than to the weird smell of the alcohol used to disinfect the shot site. That takes some tact.

Today, positive reinforcement training keeps zoo animals healthy and happy in a whole new way.

Did you know?

In case you're wondering, you draw blood from a baboon from the arm, inside the elbow, just as with a person. Tigers and lions have a big vein running down the top of the tail; they learn to stick the tail out through the bars for blood draws. Rhinos present the front leg; elephants give you an ear. With most hoofed stock-okapis, wildebeest, etc.—you use the jugular vein, in the throat. Routine blood draws can identify everything from pregnancy to pinworms, but drawing blood from every animal in the zoo even just once a year was incredibly traumatic and logistically impossible using physical or chemical restraint. Today, positive reinforcement training keeps zoo animals healthy and happy in a whole new way; and the familiar keepers, not the scary veterinarians, can do it themselves.

About the author
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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.