Amy goes high-tech (video)

I’ve started teaching Amy to use my iPad!

Actually, this is really a project I started on about two years ago. In 2011, I worked some on teaching Ginger, my parent’s dog, to use my iPad. Although she did learn to touch a square button on the iPad, we never really progressed past that point. However, I learned a ton from the experience about programming, what makes a good app for a dog (or other animal), and what I should do differently the next time.

So, I’ve been working some recently on writing a web-based application that would work well for Amy. About a week ago, I started teaching her how to use the program. The first step, which you’ll see in the video below, was to teach her to touch a single circle on the screen of the iPad.

At first, this was a bit challenging. Rats love to investigate new things. However, sniffing does not actually involve touching. I was able to get her to repeatedly approach the iPad and to even approach the dot. However, she would just sniff the screen. She wouldn’t touch it with her nose!

The solution that did the trick was a tiny dab of apple sauce on the screen of the iPad. When she went to eat if off and touched the screen, BEEP, went the program. It didn’t take long before she figured out that the goal of the game was to actually touch the screen, rather than just sniffing it and we were able to get rid of the apple sauce.

A prompt or lure (like the apple sauce) can often be used to help an animal figure out what you want. However, it is so important to stop using it pretty quickly after the animal has done the desired behavior a few times. If you continue using a prompt or food lure for too long, it can become part of the cue for the behavior, and the animal won’t understand how to do the behavior without the prompt present.

Our next step will be to introduce a second circle along the bottom of the screen, but to the left of the current circle. Right now, I can’t be sure if she’s touching the black circle, or if she’s only learned to go to that spot on the iPad. Moving the circle to another location will start teaching her that the circle is the important part and that she should touch the circle no matter where it is on the screen, rather than just touching a particular location on the screen.

This video shows part of one of Amy’s recent training sessions.

Watch on YouTube: Amy the rat goes high tech (rat using an iPad)

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  • Hertha

    Love it, Mary. Great to see the beginning and looking forward to how you develop it!

    • Thanks Hertha!

      I definitely plan to post updates as we continue with the training.



  • Bonnie Lacombe

    That is impressive. I have an iPad so now I’m wondering how hard it would be to get one of the cats to do something like this. Wait, what am I thinking! If I teach them to use it who knows what they would order from Amazon. Bad idea. Never mind, I’ll keep my iPad to myself.

    Bonnie Lacombe

    • LOL. I bet they would order lots of fun cat toys and cat treats!



      • Dianne

        i want to train my boyfriend to bring me flowers once a week or buy me jewellery. Is there an ipad app for that?

        • Hi Dianne,

          I’m not sure that there is an iPad app for that, but boyfriends are trainable!

          Have you read Karen Pryor’s book “Don’t Shoot the Dog?” There is a lot in that book about using positive reinforcement with people. If you haven’t read the book, there is a review of it on my site ( and you would probably really enjoy it.



  • Sara

    Hi Mary,
    Just a quick question about the training. What is the reason you are rewarding away from the ipad (ie Amy has to turn around to get her reward). Why not reward her right at the ipad spot?

    • Hi Sara,

      Interesting question!

      Eventually, one thing I plan to do is to have several circles (or pictures) along the bottom of the screen. Amy will approach the screen, scan the screen for the correct circle and then pick it. For something like this to work, I think it’s probably easier if she is approaching the screen or starting for a bit away from the screen. So, by having her leave the screen to come get her treat, it sets her up nicely for the next response.

      Having her turn and walk to get her treat also “fills the time” between the beep and when she gets her treat. If she just had to wait in one spot while I handed her a treat, this would take a second or two, and she would probably find other ways to fill the time, such as touching the screen again.

      Also, positioning myself behind her was intentional. I don’t want her to be able to see me while she is looking at the screen, as I don’t want to accidentally be giving her visual cues that tell her what to do (like Clever Hans).

      Hope that all makes sense.



  • Mary C

    Lovely work Mary. I love the logic of your technique which you’ve explained to Sara below. Might be a good one to try with horses!
    Mary Concannon