A matter of motivation

Imagine waking up and discovering a magic red button on your refrigerator. "Push me," it says. "Why not?" you reply. And then imagine your delight when, after pushing the button, your favorite treat in the world mysteriously appeared in the refrigerator. Oh, happy day! Pretend next that the button disappeared from the refrigerator and reappeared on the sofa. Wouldn’t you want to keep seeking out that wonderful button no matter where it turned up? You bet you would. And you’d also have experienced firsthand the basic concepts of clicker training.

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Three talented women—Jean Silva and Andrea Bratt Frick from BUNS (Bunnies Urgently Needing Shelter) and horse trainer Peggy Hogan from "The best whisper is a click"—just finished up a two-day clicker training course at Best Friends. They taught staff how to use clicker training with guinea pigs, rabbits, pigs, and horses. (We already do it with dogs.) The basic idea behind clicker training is to teach the animal to associate something positive, a treat, with the sound a clicker makes. Using that basic premise, animals can be taught to sit up, turn around, do all sorts of things. They’ve even taught rabbits how to play basketball!

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Tricks in and of themselves are fun to see and all, but the real value lies in giving the animals a chance to solve problems and work those brain muscles a bit. Some of the shyest rabbits in the sanctuary, for example, latched on to the targeting game. They had to touch a brightly colored ball with their noses to earn a treat. Eventually, the game and click became more fun than the snack. Impressive.

Gee. Wonder if animals can be clicker-trained to take out the trash?

Written by David Dickson. Photos by Molly Wald.