One of my goals for 2012 is to do some clicker training everyday (or at least almost everyday) with my critters. Finding time for training was hard last semester because I had three evening classes. Since the rats and mice are semi-nocturnal, the evening is one of the best times to work on training. I’m happy because I have only one evening class this semester and it should be easier to find time to clicker train the critters.
Recently, Georgie the rat and I have started working on fetch. Dogs and horses can learn to fetch, so why not a rat too? I’ve seen several very cute YouTube videos recently of rats and mice that fetch small objects. Georgie is just as smart as they are, so I know she can learn to fetch.
However, I’ve quickly discovered that this is a much harder trick to teach than I originally though! I want Georgie to go to a small object, pick it up, walk a few feet while carrying the object, and then drop it either in my palm or in a small cup.
One issue that I’ve run into is that there are two natural rat behaviors that compete with picking up an object and bringing it back to me. First, while Georgie is willing to pick up an object, she would often rather just sit there and chew on it. I ran into problems here because I clicked several times in the beginning for her picking up an object and nibbling it because I wanted to increase the duration that she would hold an object. However, she thought she was getting clicked for chewing!
The other difficulty I’ve had is that Georgie will sometimes pick up the object, then run off to find a good spot to hide the object, not caring at all about the click or the treat.
We often run into difficult spots when training animals (and when training people, too!). Often there is one behavior we want the animal to do and that we are willing to reward the animal for doing. However, the animal would rather engage in another behavior that she already knows how to do and likes to do. Sometimes trainers have to be very creative in these situations to figure out ways to make the behavior the trainer wants the most interesting and rewarding choice for the animal.
One thing I’ve been doing with Georgie is that we have been experimenting with different types of objects. Her behavior changes depending on the type of object, its size, and the material. For instance, I’ve tried using several small pieces of plastic that I’ve found lying around the house. Small pieces of plastic are definitely for chewing! I’ve had more luck so far with small wooden toys and pieces of wood. She is more likely to pick these up and move with them. However, we are still far from having anything that resembles fetch.
I’ve also been playing with changing the environment, including where the object begins in relation to her and where in the training area I deliver the treat. Sometimes small changes such as these can have a big impact on the success of training.
I will keep you updated as we continue to work on fetching. I thought that fetch wouldn’t be a hard trick to teach, but it’s turned into quite the challenge. However, so far, this has been a really fun puzzle for me. If anyone has any suggestions or ideas, I’d love to hear them!