Positive Reinforcement Training for Sharks, Alligators and More
Positive reinforcement training is a simple and efficient way to teach cats and dogs a variety of behaviors. But did you know that other animals can also be taught using this same approach? It's true: Birds, rabbits and even insects can learn to master tricks and follow commands, just like your cat or dog!
Here's a quick rundown of animals trained using positive reinforcement — and the sometimes surprising things they've learned to do.
Think that bunnies just sit and wriggle their noses? Think again: Rabbits can be trained to perform tricks like jumping through a hoop, spinning and even running agility courses, and they can be litterbox trained, just like a cat. They can also be taught to relax for necessary procedures such as nail trims.
We know that horses can be trained to run around barrels and jump over fences, but that's not all these animals can learn to do. Clicker training can be used to build a horse’s confidence in situations where he might normally panic and spook, such as loading into a trailer, getting tack on, having hooves handled and being dewormed. There’s even a famous clicker-trained guide horse named Panda. Watch this incredible video to see how he navigates city obstacles to protect his person.
Falcons are trained to return to a handler, but they are not the only birds that can learn tricks. Smaller household birds can be trained to come when called, perch on your hand, target a hand to say "hi" and do tricks. Training that focuses on learning to be held and touched can also be helpful for getting a bird out of his cage without a fight and can help your bird tolerate talon trims.
While the very idea may make you shudder, we're here to tell you: Even a cockroach can be trained to do some pretty amazing tricks. Madagascar hissing cockroaches can learn to maneuver obstacle courses complete with teeter-totters, tunnels and jumps. And it's pretty amazing to watch — even if they are cockroaches.
An alligator would sooner eat you than do a trick for you, right? Wrong. Alligators can be trained to follow a target, making it much easier to move and transport them and to touch a target during a blood draw. This type of training focuses on getting the alligator to willingly cooperate with medical care, which keeps handlers safer during routine interactions with the alligators and may limit the need for tranquilizers.
Crows can seem ominous and a little scary, but they can be very helpful. Crows have been trained to pick up spare change left on the street and put it into special vending machines. The machines reward them with peanuts. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship for human and crow, or at least for the human operating the vending machine.
It’s true: Even Jaws can be clicker trained! At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, a specific noise and visual cue are used to call the sharks for dinner. Feeding the sharks this way reduces competition and encourages sharks of different species to live peacefully with one another (even though in their natural habitat they might injure or kill one another).