How you & your furry pal can really click
YOUR ferret, rabbit, pot-bellied pig, as well as guinea pigs, rats, mice, gerbils and more, can all learn to amaze your friends and family by performing tricks and other behaviors on cue, says behavioral biologist and learning authority Karen Pryor, of Watertown, Mass.
Using a clicker, you can teach "pocket pets" to raise a paw, go through hoops, stand up on their hind legs and put their paws on a box, put a pingpong ball in a miniature basket and play basketball, and pull on a string to turn a light on and off, Pryor says.
Clicker training involves marking a desired behavior with a sound - made by pressing down on the clicker - and then rewarding the animal with a favorite treat, toy or praise. Pets learn quickly that the sound of the clicker means that they've done something you like and that a reward is forthcoming.
Teaching the animal to touch or follow a target, such as a wooden spoon or a chopstick, is usually the first step. Hold it out, and when the animal moves forward to sniff it, click and give a favorite treat, something the animal loves that he doesn't get on an everyday basis.
"Click the instant they touch or sniff or even look at the target," Pryor says. "Then give them a treat. Don't make them come to you - just drop it in a little dish so they can get it without having to come near you. It's just temporary because as soon as they figure out what they're doing is making you click, they're going to stop being afraid of you.
"As soon as they'll come to the target or follow the target, you can do anything you want with them," says Pryor. "You can teach them to jump over your foot, go through a tunnel - you can have an agility course on the kitchen floor. Many people have taught guinea pigs and rabbits to weave through poles."
Teach tricks that are appropriate for your pet. For instance, ferrets are good with their paws and can learn to pick up things, while guinea pigs and rabbits are better suited to pushing items with their noses or hopping in and out of weave poles.
Laura Bourhenne, a dog and exotic animal trainer with Animal Attraction Unlimited in Woodland Hills, Calif., says teaching a nose touch is good for all animals, especially if you can train them to do it for an extended time.
"The behavior can be used to keep the animal still during a vet exam," she says. "And if I know how an animal looks when it turns in a circle and then that behavior changes or the animal won't do it when asked for it, then that can give me a big clue when something is off in the animal's body."
Teaching tricks has other practical benefits. Your pet can learn to come when called - very useful when a pocket pet has escaped from his cage - to move to a specific place, making it easier to clean his cage, and to be willing to sit still for handling, which comes in handy if you need to trim his nails or take him to the veterinarian.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter @DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter @kkcthornton.