Tonawanda News

September 24, 2012

Game time for pets (and humans)

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Summer is winding down. Children are going back to school, young adults are off to college and adults are winding down vacations and getting back to the grind. 

I relocated 1,300 miles last week and I think everyone needs to relax and take a break. It’s always nice to reconnect with old friends and bond with new ones — and I have just the game.

When it comes to animal training, there is always room for more practice. The following game polishes your skill set and is a great ice breaker for meeting new people. The added bonus is if you mess up during the game you confuse your friends and not the pets in your life. You can learn from your mistakes and be an even better animal trainer with your pets. This game allows you to get the unique perspective of both the trainer and the animal.

The Training Game by Karen Pryor has been played by many people from psychology students to animal trainers. A Cornell graduate, Pryor started off as a marine mammal trainer. Around 1974 she ended her dolphin career and transferred to the world of cats and dogs. She took what she learned in the marine mammal world and applied it to pets.

The Training Game can be played with two people, but the more people you have the more fun. You will need at least one “trainer” and one person playing the part of the “animal.” The goal of the game is to get the trainer to teach a behavior to the “animal” without using English or large body signals. The trainer should use a bridge and reinforcers.

To start the game, everyone should know that when the bridge is presented the animal did a correct thing. The bridge can be the word good or the noise of a clicker. 

Every time the “animal” hears the bridge they must go back to the trainer and get the reinforcer. The reinforcers could be human cookies shaped like tiny dog bones, M&Ms, pennies, shots of a drink or trail mix. Keeping the reinforcers small allows the “animals” to do multiple behaviors without getting full. This is like a complex game of hot and cold. If the trainer is giving away pennies or shots, you can bet that the animal will really want to learn the behavior quickly.

The behaviors that are to be trained need to be large physical behaviors that everyone can see. Turning in a circle, pouring or drinking water, turning on a light switch, picking up something, sitting in a chair, opening or closing a door or window, or marking on a blackboard or sketch pad are all great ideas. Try to avoid complex, multiple step behaviors.

There shouldn’t be any talking during the training game by the trainer or the “animal.” The point of the game is to learn how to communicate with your pets through a non-verbal process, using only a bridge and treats. The people watching the process are encouraged to make a lot of noise, like cheering, groans, laughter and applause. The trainer and the spectators will most likely burst into applause once the behavior is finished.

To start the game, one “animal” is chosen and they step outside of the room or out of hearing range as the group decides on what behavior the trainer will attempt to train. Once everyone has played the parts of both the trainer and “animal,” the game is completed. You could also have races with two trainers trying to train their own “animals” the same behavior with whatever “animal” completing its skill first named the winner.

Let’s say the behavior you want to train your human animal is to sit in a chair. The “animal” enters the room to start the game. You can bridge and give a treat — maybe one or two M&Ms — every time they step closer to the chair. Once they are real close to the chair or touching the chair you might want to give them multiple M&Ms. 

To get them to sit you may want to give them an M&M for every time they back up or when they get low to the ground. You can see the benefits of small reinforcers. If you were to give them a slice of cake for every step this game could take hours.

Karen Pryor has authored several books including “Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training,” which is often referred to as the bible of dog training. It offers great insight on positive training methods in addition to tips with using a bridge. 

Happy training and train/play responsibly.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to birdbehaviorconsultant@yahoo.com, or search for "Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan" on Facebook.