When one is enthusiastic and has just learnt a new skill, one is always keen to put the new-found knowledge to the test. I am no exception to this phenomenon. I had been experimenting with clicker training for just a few years, when a wonderful opportunity presented itself.
My husband and I went on holiday to a nearby game farm. It was a great to sit back in the tranquillity and serenity of the African bush. Relaxing was the name of the game, and that’s just what we did – high speed relaxing for two days, three days, four days…… things were beginning to get a bit dull.
Quite a few of the animals in the reserve had become less fearful of humans, and would on occasion move in quite close to the chalets to see if they could scavenge some left overs. Others were just naturally curious and wandered up to see what was what. (sort of like who’s who in the zoo in reverse). We had a battalion of blue headed lizards which would sunbathe on the rocks just outside the kitchen door, as well as a posse of meerkats that would dance up and down from their burrows about 300 metres away. By far the most adventurous of the animals, though, were the warthogs. It was a family group of seven animals, led by a handsome male with very fine sharp tushes.
During our days of high speed relaxing, we lay back in our deck chairs and watched these entertaining beasts kneeling down and eating the sparse grass around the chalet. If they got a fright, their tails would go straight up in the air and they would run off at top speed. But then the non-stop relaxing got a bit tedious for me, so I decided to liven it up. And what better way to do that than to try out some of my new found training techniques?
Armed with a clicker and a half loaf of brown bread, I crept down the steps from the verandah and carefully approached the warthogs, being sure to keep upwind of them so that they’d be aware of my approach and not startle and run away. Well, in fact, most of them were horrified to see a human bearing down on them, and they stuck their tails in the air and ran off. But their intrepid leader remained. “Good oh”, thought I, “we’ll start with the leader, and then all the others will copy him”. I began by simply conditioning this large male (whom I named “Tusker”) to the click and treat. In other words, I threw small bits of bread in his direction and clicked when he ate them. We were getting along famously when Tusker suddenly decided it was time for his afternoon nap, and wandered off for a snooze in the shade of a tree. End of training session.
The next day Tusker and his family were back around our chalet, rooting in the dirt and generally doing warthog type things. As soon as I spotted them, I rushed inside and grabbed the clicker and some fruit. My approach was not so cautious this time, as the animals seemed to be much more relaxed with my appearance (probably all the banging and crashing preceding my arrival warned them that The Strange Clicking Human was on her way). This time Tusker was much more interactive, and definitely seemed to understand that the click meant that a treat would follow shortly. The rest of the group moved around nearby, but didn’t run away out of sight. Maybe this also contributed to Tusker being more relaxed.
Now that I had established a relationship with him, I felt that it was time to start training a behaviour. Having given it some thought the night before, I decided that it would be a good idea to teach him to back up. i.e. walk backwards away from me. This mainly because he was a good sized warthog with very well developed tusks. If he decided that I was endangering his family and decided to charge, he could easily break my legs or inflict a very nasty wound with his not-very-clean teeth. So getting him to move backwards away from me seemed a desirable behaviour.
In clicker training we train incrementally. So as soon as Tusker shifted his weight on to his back legs, I clicked and tossed him a treat. Then I only clicked and treated when he moved one of his feet back, focussing mainly on his back feet. Within about 5 minutes I had him moving backwards for about four paces. I decided to call it a day, and went inside, leaving him to think things over.
Our third training session took place that very same afternoon. Tusker was out there looking keen, so I shot outside and started conditioning him. He was quick to catch on – move backwards and you’ll get fed. True, his direction was a bit erratic and several times his well-rounded bottom hit a rock or tree, but by the end of another short session he could weave his way backwards for about nine paces.
Now I was really on a roll! A completely wild animal was choosing to come out of its comfort zone to interact with a stranger. Wow! The next day I decided to up the ante and put on a bit of pressure. In clicker training, we use a process called a variable schedule of reinforcement in order to solidify and strengthen a behaviour. What this meant is that now I wanted Tusker to take two or maybe five steps back before giving him a click and treat, whereas previously he’d been clicked for every single movement. With this sort of behaviour it is important that the handler stays in one spot, and doesn’t start walking towards the trainee. Otherwise the distance between the two never varies – the animal must be increasing the distance by moving away all the time. Good idea, hey? Stick to the rules of training and you can’t go wrong.
So I waited until Tusker had taken five steps back before clicking him and throwing him a chunk of apple. Then I asked for another three steps; then eight, then just one. This was going just great. Tusker was having a ball, I was being hugely reinforced by my success. So much so that I nipped inside and woke up my husband (who was still in high speed relaxing mode) and asked him to record this moment for prosperity. So he came out on to the verandah and took a photo of me backing Tusker into a particularly pointy rock. Duty done, husband drifted back inside to resume relaxing. (he never did see any reason for my excitement with animals).
Having successfully negotiated the pointy rock, I decided to extend trusty Tusker even further. As the rock was now partially obscuring him, I moved forward to check that his little trotters were still moving in the right direction. In doing so, I forgot to count his steps, and so made him walk backwards for quite some distance for no reward. Mistake!! Tusker got fed up and decided to come and demand his justly deserved treat.
I have never claimed to be particularly brave, but the sight of a fully grown male warthog trotting determinately towards my knees was enough to make me a downright coward. I dropped the remaining food and ran for it. Fortunately the food slowed him down a bit, and I managed to leap on to the verandah with my knees still intact.
And that was the end of my Training with Tusker.
I thought long and hard about it in the bath that night. Would Tusker now presume that everyone living in that chalet would feed him if he moved backwards? And would he charge them if they didn’t? We still had a few days of our holiday left, and I decided they would be put to good use if I de-programmed Tusker. So I kept a close eye on him. Every time he saw me, he’d move up close and then start going in to reverse. I ignored him (staying carefully out of reach). I then invited various folk over and asked them to move about to see what he would do with them. Nothing. It seemed that he really did understand that I was the trainer.
Any behaviour that isn’t reinforced will naturally extinguish itself, and I’m quite sure that within the next few days Tusker stopped trying to elicit treats by reversing. His bottom was probably a bit tender by then anyway. Maybe he saw it as a blessing in disguise – no more treats, but a bottom he could sit on without discomfort.