Merryn is one of the new trainers we have welcomed to the Bird Show. Whenever somebody new starts we like to give them a project to ease them into the animal training world. For Merryn her first is an agouti rat called Oberon that she has decided, against my better judgement, to rename Cupcakes.
She is training Cupcakes to ‘station’, ‘target’ and eventually turn on cue. We start with simple behaviours and as our skills increase so too do the complexities of the things we get to teach.
Station training involves asking an animal on cue to go to a specific place and stay there. Cupcakes' station is an upside-down terracotta bowl. Whenever Cupcakes looks at the bowl Merryn lets him know he is on the right track by making a noise, a click, he will recognise as saying “good job”. We call this a ‘bridge’ in the animal training world.
Then he gets a treat after the bridge, his favourite sunflower seeds. As he learns he must get closer to the station for his click and treat until eventually he will go to the terracotta bowl and stay there.
Using a similar approach Merryn will teach Cupcakes to ‘target’ where he’ll run to and touch and object when it is presented. Merryn is using a wand with a cork at the end. Soon Merryn will be able to get Cupcakes to run wherever the cork is.
She will then use this cork to train Cupcakes to turn on cue, again in a similar way you train a dog. Eventually Merryn will gradually stop using the target and have Cupcakes turn just by making a gesture with her hands.
We always keep the training sessions short, a maximum of 10 minutes, and Merryn trains Cupcakes twice a day. They’re both doing well! He is learning quickly which isn’t surprising as rats are very intelligent animals.