Surfing ponies, a damsel fish having a tantrum, dolphins playing soccer...
...these are just a few of the stories animal behaviorist and trainer Karen Pryor includes in her latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals. Karen Pryor has been training animals since the early 1960s. The animals she has worked with include dolphins, horses, hermit crabs, wolves, dogs, humans, and many more and her approach is a no-punishment, reinforcement based approach. I am always in favor of gentler, more peaceful ways of living, so books like this appeal to me. But beyond that, I really love the stories Pryor shares about how she and others have been able to bring out fun and sometimes very complex behaviors in various animals. And Pryor peppers her book with online slide shows and videos of animals learning. One of the funniestvideos is a ferret's "a-ha" moment with clicker training. First the ferret is clicked and rewarded for looking ata ball, then for increasingly interacting with the ball, then the ferret goes off behind a pillow and pauses back there. Suddenly she comes bursting out from behind the pillow and jumps on the ball with all four feet. She's made the connection - she knows she's able to make the clicks and treats happen and in her excitement she falls off the couch, bumps the ball and chases it across the room and through a cardboard tunnel. One of the greatest gifts of clicker training methods is this, "When animals realize that the click gives them control over good things happening, they have made a permanent shift. Their environment begins to make sense. They want to know more."
One of my favorite stories is the story of the surfing ponies. Pryor raised and trained Welsh ponies while living in Hawaii. She gathered a group of 5th and 6th graders and taught them to use the phrase "good pony" as the marker and molasses flavored feed as the reinforcer. After supervising the process of training the ponies to be ridden and to drive a cart and many other complex behaviors, Pryor began to leave the children with a list of what to work on during training sessions. This freedom led to the children bringing the ponies to Pryor's home on the beach to show off their surfing techniques. Riding bareback, with only halters and lead ropes on the horses,the ponies waded into the surf, swimming out past the break, then waited, and turned towards shore when the wave rolled in, riding the wave all the way back.Then theycantered up the sand, where the children hopped off and the ponies rolled in the sand, shook and waited for the children to clamber back on and do it all over again.
If you like animal anecdotes, or information about animal behavior and learning, this book won't disappoint. For more information about Karen Pryor and clicker training you can visit her website. If you're interested in some fabulous and freevideo tutorials for clicker training dogs, check out professional trainer Emily Larlham's you tube channel.