I was reminded of Karen Pryor’s new book Reaching the Animal Mind, while talking with the veterinarian today about a cat that has an on-again off-again relationship with the litter box.
This veterinarian’s daughter had been given a hand-me-down, self-cleaning litter box, which she was skeptical about, until her male cat, used to a standard box all of his life, took to the new arrangement immediately. Several months later, when the mechanical box stopped working, the woman reverted to the standard arrangement.
That’s when she began to find cat urine on the carpet and wondered if there could be a relationship between the cat’s behavior and the litter box. Sure enough, as soon as she set up a new self-cleaning box and click-started it, the cat raced into the room, jumped into the box, and relieved itself.
Click. Conditioned behavior.
We’ve all used it to some degree, but Karen Pryor, an internationally recognized behavioral biologist and psychologist, has made it her life’s work and backed it with neuroscience. In Reaching the Animal Mind, she explains the science behind “clicker training,” a system based on positive conditioning, which applies to people, as well as animals, including the dolphins that Pryor first began working with at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park in 1963.
Clicker training modifies and shapes behavior through positive reinforcement, rewarding wanted behaviors with a click and a bite of food. Unwanted behaviors are negated by new, shaped behaviors. The learning curve is short and retention is indelible.
Pryor gives concise details, as well as illuminating examples of the techniques she has used with dogs, cats, horses, human athletes, birds, marine mammals, and many other wild and domestic creatures.
Those who watched the gate crew try and fail to load Quality Road in the starting gate for the 2009 Breeders Cup Classic might be interested in a section from Reaching the Animal Mind called “The Bad Loaders: A Targeting Experiment.” Throughout the book, Pryor also refers readers to videos, in this case, “Touch the Goblin Horse,” at www.reachingtheanimalmind.com (go to in Chapter 7, then scroll down to “Videos.”)
At the end of the book, Pryor includes a glossary of terms and a bibliography of articles, videos and photos that are available for free on her website, as well as a “Do It Yourself” section with detailed instructions on how to teach your dog to hand target, your cat to high-five, and your coach (trainer) to tag you.
This book is a terrific “read,” as well as an invaluable reference and guide for all animal owners, trainers, and teachers. If I had to choose just one from all of my books on animal training and behavior, this would be the one.