With each new carer or researcher that comes to Colobus Conservation to help with the rehabilitation and release of our hand reared monkeys, come a wave of new ideas on how situations can be improved or new things we can try. Often the suggestions have been tried before or more frequently they are used at a specific point of the individuals’ rehabilitation and not as a daily event. However, when Johanna Olsson, Betsy’s new release coordinator, arrived in December she made a suggestion that was unique, had not been tried before and after just four weeks of implementation appears to be making an extraordinary change to Betsy’s behaviour.
Clicker training uses a clicker, and a reward. For Betsy the clicker is the lid of a jam jar, and the reward is a peanut. You may have heard of Pavlov’s dogs; every time food was presented a bell was rung. Eventually the bell would ring, and the dogs, having been classically conditioned, would salivate in response to the bell without the presence of food. Clicker training is a similar concept but instead of a bell, it is a click.
Step one of the training with Betsy started by creating an association between the click and the peanut. Give a peanut, and click simultaneously. Step two: click, wait, and then peanut. Step three: when Betsy is out of the enclosure at forest school and she is behaving in a desirable way, click and then reward with a peanut. The idea is that the click causes Betsy to feel positive thereby making it more likely for her to, for example, spend time in trees, foraging and ignoring people.
Why is clicker training required with Betsy?
When Johanna started, Betsy was spending a lot of time on the ground, a lot of time seeking mischief and was rewarded with human attention due to the commotion she had caused. Of course primates being rather smart, Betsy being a fan of these games. Clicker training turns the game upside down, good behaviours are rewarded, while bad ones are ignored or discouraged. Obviously you can reward a behaviour with just a peanut, this wouldn’t necessarily require the clicker. The clicker, acts as a marker for the exact moment the good behaviour is performed, thereby communicating that the current action is good and then the reward can come later.
What do we hope to achieve?
We are hoping that Betsy will begin to actively seek out trees to sleep in and forage more independently. The clicker will also be utilised to reward any form of interaction with wild colobus, maybe helping to integrate her into a troop and one day herself, become wild again. So far, there have been huge improvements. It is a long way off from being perfect but things are definitely going in the right direction. Hopefully over time, and with the addition of target training (see below) we will continue to see progress, building on the positive steps that have been put in place and see great things to come.
What is target training?
In the future we hope to begin target training with Betsy. Target training is teaching an animal to come towards, touch or stay by an object such as, in this case a stick with a golf ball on one end. This acts as a point of focus or ‘target’ which the animal learns to follow. This is taught using the clicker, every time Betsy touches the target; she receives a click and then a reward.
How can target training be used?
Target training can be useful in guiding an animal from one point to another, although usually only utilised in zoo and laboratory animals, in the context of wildlife rehabilitation we will use the target to encourage time spent high up in trees foraging. Another benefit is that it may reduce the need for human contact when manoeuvring Betsy from one spot to another. This may reduce stress by allowing for clearer communication, eventually resulting in the learned behaviour becoming habitual as oppose to dependant on physical cues and rewards.