One of the pleasures of Karen’s new book, Reaching the Animal Mind: What Clicker Training Teaches Us About Animals, is the way science is made accessible through compelling stories of real training events. Advance readers comment on Amazon.com:
"Should be required reading for anyone who interacts with animals on a regular basis..."
"After picking up this book I literally have not been able to put it down (except to get a little sleep). I laughed through the entire experience. ...that ‘dirty word’ science is embedded in a richly filled treasure trove of plain good fun."
Two excerpts from Chapter 4, "Fear," that demonstrate how Karen weaves in science so expertly:
A common fear situation
I recognize fear in the dolphins. When I start working with dog trainers, however, I noticed that dogs, too, often experience fear in our thoughtless hands, and people don’t even know it.
I’m passing through the lobby of a friend’s apartment building in New York. A couple in 12D wanted a new dog, so they did the right ‘thing’: they went to an animal shelter and adopted a puppy. People are crowding around to see the new arrival. "Oh, isn’t it cute!" "How adorable!" I go to take a look.
The puppy, male, a short-haired, long-legged, whip-tailed mutt, is lying on its back, skinny legs sprawled, mouth agape, eyes rolled up into its head so far that all I can see is the whites. It’s urinating straight upward in, I guess, an adorable little fountain. It is absolutely terrified.
The puppy is swamped with new sounds and scents. It’s overwhelmed by the people bending over it like predators. Once it gets upstairs into apartment 12D I daresay it will urinate frequently from fear, defecate everywhere (again from fear), throw up whatever they feed it, and spend most of its time hiding under the furniture. I bet this puppy won’t last a week. Indeed, my friends report, the dog goes back to the shelter the next day.
Reducing fear safely, while improving relations with a dangerous animal
Erasing fears with targeting
Zoo keepers use targets a lot. Suppose you need to move a lion from one cage to another. Instead of baiting him with food (which the lion might ignore), or threatening him (which he might resist), or actually using force (driving big animals with the fire hose is not unheard of), you teach the lion, through the bars, to put his nose on a target, perhaps the padded end of a stick. Then you take the target into the adjoining cage, offer it again, and presto, the lion goes calmly into the next cage to touch his target and make you deliver a treat.
Targets can also be used to teach animals to stand still. I’m at the Dallas Zoo, visiting the zoo’s excellent rhinoceros collection. Rhinos are particularly hard to immobilize, being both strong and timid, apt to charge anyone or anything they perceive as a threat. Yet, like any animal, they need routine medical care, and, like elephants, they especially need foot care. The keeper introduces me to her special favorite rhino, a half-grown male who was born at the zoo. He has learned to stand sideways to the fence around his paddock, pressing his nose against the end of a padded pole, while the keepers draw blood, give shots, or trim his horny feet through the railings.
The keeper shows me some of the rhino’s husbandry behaviors, and lets me personally move him about with the target pole and clicker. The reinforcer is bits of banana, which he takes from my hand with gentleness and skill. For this young rhino, however, the big reward at the end of a session is not food, but a game with the keeper. The keeper leaves the target, runs the length of her side of the paddock fence, and stops. Now she is the target. The rhino takes off at a run down his side, screeching to a halt just as he gets abreast of the keeper. Then she turns and runs up the fence. He chases her back, tail in the air and little eyes sparkling. Of course this is what young rhinos do! They play ‘Charge!’Outstretched hands and, by extension, the people behind them become a good thing.
Targeting is very handy with dogs. Suppose you have a dog that is afraid of strangers, and shrinks away or even growls or barks if people try to pet him. It’s not uncommon, especially if, like that puppy on its back in the apartment lobby, the dog is very inexperienced. You can gradually desensitize the dog to people, which takes a long time and involves a lot of cooperation from others; or, you can turn your own hand into a target and teach the dog that he gets clicked for nosing your fist. Then get a friend to hold out a fist to the dog. The outstretched hand is now a cue, a green light for a click and a treat. The dog’s internal state switches from ‘Uh-oh,’ to ‘Oh boy!’ He controls the situation, he chooses to bump hands, and he wins, every time. Outstretched hands, and by extension, the people behind them, become a good thing; and within a few more experiences the fear disappears.
Editor’s note: (Karen Pryor, Reaching The Animal Mind: The Clicker Training Method and What it Teaches Us About Animals [New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2009], Chapter 4, "Fear").
To be published June 16, 2009.