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Clicker Training in Action

Videos Showing Clicker Training at the Denver Zoo

A Gerenuk has its blood drawn


A Giraffe lifts its foot for examination


Rhino responds to cues

Rhino getting blood drawn


African Lions on cue


Targeting with a Seal

Shadowing Karen Pryor at the Denver Zoo

In October Ostrich at Denver Zoo2009, Karen Pryor came to Denver to lecture and share her expertise in animal behavior and training with the keepers at the Denver Zoo. Angela Eaton was invited to shadow Karen as she toured the zoo and consulted with the keepers. Karen also talked about her many experiences that led to her latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind.

Many keepers at the Denver Zoo already use operant conditioning with event markers (clicker training) to teach behaviors for medical exams, to keep the animals and zookeepers safe, and to enrich the lives of captive animals.  Click on the images on the right to view different videos showing animals and their keepers using operant conditioning at the Denver Zoo.  

An ostrich has 4-inch claws on each foot, so its feet are very dangerous. To prevent injury to keepers at the zoo, the birds are taught to sit, which immobilizes their claws. The most effective way to teach them to sit on cue is through operant conditioning. “Using a whistle as an event marker, the ostrich’s movements are shaped” until it is in a sitting position – in other words, each time the bird approaches or approximates sitting, the behavior is marked with the whistle and the ostrich is rewarded, until eventually, the bird sits.

Prior to clicker training, veterinarians used to dart zoo animals to sedate them for exams or other procedures. Using clicker training, zookeepers teach animals to respond to cues that are specifically used for medical exams - like the “blood draw behavior.” The animal is taught to sit or stand in a comfortable position while the keeper inserts a needle to draw blood.

Rhino’s have always been considered dangerous, especially in captivity. They were historically darted with drugs to subdue them for exams or to move them. This caused the animals to associate the keepers with darting, so they would thrash about when they were approached, injuring themselves and damaging their enclosures. Clicker training has changed that dynamic.

A zookeeper cannot use force or coercion to train a large animal like a Rhino to stand still and be calm. In the video on the right, a Denver Zoo Rhinoceros willingly submits to having his blood drawn.  

Gerenuk at the Denver ZooGerenuks belong to the same family as the antelope. They are elegant animals with dramatic markings and long, thin legs. A consequence of being fast and nimble in captivity is that they’ll run into fencing and hurt or kill themselves when frightened, making it difficult to keep them safe in captivity. At the Denver Zoo, the keeper has captured the Gerenuk’s natural behavior of using its front legs to stretch against a tree trunk and eat leaves by using a whistle to mark this behavior. In the video on the right, the zookeeper is able to draw blood and do a full body exam while the animal is relaxed, even when it’s in the public viewing area in front of the crowd!  
 

A seal at the Denver Zoo kisses Angela
Clicker training is also used to add enrichment to the lives of animals in captivity. Using operant conditioning and a marker, clicker trainers provide something the animal wants in exchange for something the trainer wants, making it more likely that the behavior will be repeated.

In addition to learning specific behaviors, the animals enjoy experimenting by creating new behaviors to see what else the trainers will reward. In the video on the right, you can see that both the sea lion and Connie Howard, the Director of Operations at the Boulder Valley Humane Society, have fun playing together.     

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