By Mikkel Becker
Do you click with your pet?
No, I'm not talking about getting along well, although I sure hope that you do. When I say "click," I mean a training technique that's easy and fun for all.
Clicker training is a no-force technique that works on animals of all sizes, ages and abilities. And that's also true of the people who would administer clicker training, since it doesn't require strength or much coordination on the part of the trainer.
A clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand. You press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it -- click-click!
The clicker itself doesn't have any magic powers. What it provides is timing -- it allows a trainer working with a pet who understands the game to let the animal know the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward because in the early stages of training, the sound is linked to the delivery of something a pet wants, usually a tiny but yummy treat.
Does this sound familiar? Like from a psychology class, perhaps? It should ring a bell, because the underlying principal of clicker training is scientific and is called "operant conditioning" (Pavlov's drooling dogs, and all). But you can be excused if you don't want to know the ins and outs of the science and just want to cut to the chase.
After all, your pet is just as eager as you are to get to the good part, too.
You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (though, not just after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal). Choose a relatively small, quiet place you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or chicken). For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again and again and again. Eventually your pet will show you he understands that the sound means food. For example, he may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.
When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions -- less than 10 minutes -- every day.
When you're all set up again, sit quietly with your clicker and treats -- and wait. Your pet should start volunteering behaviors, everything from sitting to pawing to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your pet will initially be confused but should eventually offer the behavior again. Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait, again.
Say you clicked your pet a couple of times because he finally got bored and sat. Soon your pet will sit to test his theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it (this is the principal that keeps you pulling a slot machine handle).
In future sessions you'll move on from the "sit" that your pet knows, waiting for more behaviors to click, treat and name, as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" -- training in pieces and putting them together.
One more thing: Never punish your pet for not getting it right. Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your pet to do.
(Pet Connection team member Mikkel Becker, Dr. Marty Becker's daughter, is a dog-trainer in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. She is a graduate of the San Francisco SPCA's prestigious dog-training academy.)
make great pets
Q: My daughter is getting a rabbit, and she wants to keep it in a cage in her bedroom. She says it can use a litter box. My husband wants to build a hutch outside. What do you advise? -- via e-mail
A: I don't know how old your daughter is, but she has clearly done her homework. Rabbits bloom with proper care and gentle attention, providing endless amounts of quiet companionship punctuated by short periods of delightful silliness.
As for litter boxes, score another one for your daughter. Rabbits usually aren't perfect about their use -- a pellet here and there will testify to that, but it's easily cleaned up -- but they can and do use a box for most of their messes.
Shelters and rescue groups always have a great selection and should be the place to shop for a bunny. Better yet, get two: Rabbits love the company and can often be adopted in pairs, already bonded.
Visit the site of the House Rabbit Society (Rabbit.org) for the best information on caring for these pets. Here's a cheat sheet to get you started:
-- Housing. Your rabbit will need a home base of a small pen or large cage with food, water, toys and a litter box. Use a plain cat box filled with a shallow layer of recycled paper or wood pellets for the box, covered with a layer of fresh grass hay. You don't scoop a rabbit box -- you change it completely, every day. Provide broken woven baskets, cardboard boxes and other items for play and chewing.
-- Nutrition. Fresh water needs to be available at all times. While commercial pellets are fine, it's just as easy and often less expensive to feed your rabbit yourself. Grass hay (cheaper by the bale if you have a dry space to store it) should always be available, complemented by an array of green vegetables, from broccoli to kale to mustard greens to carrots with their tops on.
-- Health care. Get your rabbit spayed or neutered. In addition to keeping your rabbit from reproducing, you'll have a better pet. Unaltered rabbits can have behavior problems such as aggression and urine spraying. Your rabbit also will need a wellness check, just as a cat or dog would, and a good rabbit vet will help you catch little health problems before they become big ones. -- Gina Spadafori
Cornell vet makes
students dummy up
-- To teach veterinary students to handle emergency situations without harming a pet in critical condition, the first-ever sophisticated critical care dog dummy with a software program has been developed by a veterinarian at Cornell University. Speakers and actuators within the dummy send out heart and lung signals, and a pulse can actually be felt. A balloon-like structure with air mimics breathing. The system monitors blood oxygen monitoring, blood pressure and EKG as well. Dr. Dan Fletcher, a professor at the Cornell veterinary school who teaches emergency medicine, noticed that students would freeze when first handling a critically ill pet. The dog dummy responds like a living, breathing critical pet, providing an environment in which students can learn, as well as make and learn from mistakes.
-- The average cost for a veterinary visit in 2009 was $203, according to the American Pet Products Association.
-- Of the more than 150 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, 13 commonly get ear crops, 48 have docked tails, and 11 have both cropping and docking. Ear crops seem more likely to disappear as a common practice sooner, as fewer pet owners choose to have their puppies' ears sliced into an upright posture, and fewer veterinarians will perform the procedure. The American Veterinary Medical Association opposes ear cropping and tail docking when done solely for cosmetic purposes and has encouraged the elimination of these procedures from breed standards.-- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.