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Ah, summer! For weeks I haven't been able to get anyone on the phone, businesses don't answer their e-mail, professors are unreachable, my family is camping on the beach, and trainers I need to talk to are tracking down their ancestors in Iceland or bird watching in Belize or going fishing.

Everyone is playing. Play is a highly important part of life. I think it's also a highly important part of clicker training. No, I don't mean as a reward—following the click with a game of tug, say, rather than a treat. That's okay in its place; but that's not what I mean.

I think clicker training, properly done, IS a form of play; and I said so in print over 20 years ago. "The trainer, in addition to being largely limited to positive reinforcement, is interacting with the animal; he or she can see the animal, the animal can see him or her, and both can introduce changes in the training process, at will. It is a situation both rigorous [i.e., governed by mutually accepted rules] and admitting of spontaneity: a game." (Pryor 1981, Ann. N Y Acad. Sci. 364:137-143. In On Behavior: Essays and Research. New printing now available!)

If clicker training is a game, it's one the animals often win, and like any good game, they love it. And it resembles play in many ways. We engage in clicker training in bouts, with rest periods and other activities in between, as with play. Like play, it calls for ingenuity and initiative from both players. Like play, it's reinforcing. Like play, it requires some learning. Like play, it teaches, painlessly. You can use clicker training to teach play itself, such as tug-o-war for timid or inexperienced dogs. Or, you can use a dog's clicker skills to teach entirely new games. For a case in point, read about a clicker trained dog that learned a new way to play, this summer: body surfing, in Phoebe Chronicles X.

Horse play

Phoebe isn't the only four-legged surfer. When I lived in Hawaii I raised Welsh ponies. Each year, a new group of 2-year-olds came over from the main herd on Maui, and were stabled at a farm a bit inland in Waimanalo Valley, a couple of miles from my rental house on the beach. I had enlisted a group of five children, approximately 10 to 14 years old, to train each year's crop. Two or three days a week the "pony children" were carpooled to the farm after school, where they each took care of and trained a particular pony. Sometimes I was with them, but sometimes not, as, due to the clicker training approach, the ponies were safe and friendly, and the children knew what to do.

One day I came home to my house on the beach and was startled to find the yard full of ponies, each with a child on its back. They had no business being here. To get here from the farm they would have had to ride down the side of a very busy, narrow highway, full of huge and speeding trucks. This was absolutely forbidden. Not only that, the children were riding bareback, and they didn't even have bridles, just halters and lead ropes. Oh my goodness, how dangerous! I started to scold, but the children interrupted. "Mrs. Pryor, Mrs. Pryor, come see the ponies surfing!" And they all went cantering around the side of the house onto the beach.

"If clicker training is a game, it's one the animals often win, and like any good game, they love it."

Well, I had to shut up and go look, didn't I.

There was, as usual, a gentle shore break, four-foot waves rolling in steadily on the long straight Waimanalo beach. Each of these very young ponies waded right out into the water and headed to sea, child aboard; obviously this was not the first time they'd done this! As the wave rolled in, the white water foamed right over child and pony both, so they completely disappeared, reappearing on the far side of the break. Out there, it was too deep for the ponies to touch bottom. The ponies began dogpaddling back and forth parallel to the beach. All heads were turned out to sea. Ponies and children both, they were all watching for a good wave.

When a bigger wave came, the ponies turned toward the shore and began cantering; the wave whooshed them toward the beach and when they felt bottom they cantered up onto the sand. The children jumped off. The ponies dropped onto the sand and had a great roll, then stood up, shook themselves, and waited. The children jumped on the now sand-coated ponies and back they went into the water, out past the break, to catch another wave.

One old mare, Gaylight, would have nothing to do with this sport, and had simply come along in spectator capacity, like me. But the rest of the ponies obviously loved it. Summer fun for horses. And why were the ponies in halters only? The children had left bridles and saddles behind so they wouldn't get them wet.

Yes, I put a stop to it; the highway risk was too great. But it sure was fun and I'm glad I saw it myself.

Bird play

Elsa Mark, a bird keeper at the Philadelphia Zoo, was faced with a major problem The zoo hosts a colony of one of the most endangered birds in the world, the Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita, a native of Morocco and Turkey. By nature, these are nervous birds, easily upset, distrusting of humans. No matter how long they had been in captivity they never seemed to get used to people. They panicked and went flapping into the walls when keepers were working in the area. They had a nasty skin problem of unknown origin, causing them to peck at themselves and each other. Any medical procedure, even simply weighing a bird, was a scene. Writing in Wellspring, the journal of the Animal Behavior Management Alliance, Elsa Mark commented, "Needless to say, a typical day of caring for these birds can be stressful for the birds as well as the staff."

The zoo arranged for a training workshop by Steve Martin and his staff, from Natural Encounters, Inc., a leading resource in operant conditioning, training, and management for birds and other exotic species. The birds learned to eat small amounts often. They learned a marker signal, the word "good." THAT made it clear to them that "arrival of keeper" meant "arrival of food," something they'd apparently failed to figure out in the past (since they were previously fed only once a day, and spent that time flapping about in panic). Once they acquired these basic insights, training proceeded rapidly. The birds learned to stand on a green mat, one bird per mat, for "good" and a treat. They learned to get on the scales. One by one, they learned to go in a carrying crate on cue, and stay there while the door was shut.

Eight new ibises arrived and had to be taught too. A new exhibit was built and the birds were moved. The incidence of startling and panic decreased to zero for most birds; stress indicators were dwindling in all the birds. The new birds took their cues from the old birds, and calmed down right away. And on September 16, 2003, just a month after the eight new birds had been introduced, one of the old birds was observed, for the first time ever at that zoo, playing with a leaf.

The next day, two birds were involved. The two birds would steal the leaf from each other and walk around the exhibit clacking it in their beaks. Within days, lots of birds were playing with leaves, including birds from the new group.

The keepers rightly thought that this was a fine thing, and supplied the birds with spoons, plastic discs, and a variety of wooden and leather toys and puzzles made for parrots. Yes, the birds played with them all, and even in the presence of the keepers.

The change in these rare birds has been profound and permanent. The birds are much healthier and, I can't help but believe, happier. The keepers enjoy them. Visitors to the zoo love to watch the training and the play. Not only are the birds no longer afraid of the keepers, some of them take an interest in the keepers' work and follow them around, actually getting in the way. And play, in and of itself, turned out to be a great indicator of the benefits of operant training, as well as something no one EVER anticipated seeing in the Northern Bald Ibis. The potential for saving this species has improved; thanks to playing with a leaf.

Summer fun for the planet.

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.

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