CLICKER TRAINING: RATS VERSUS RAPTORS

main-image@2x

You may recognise this iconic image from the trailer for latest instalment of the Jurassic Park series, this summer’s blockbuster movie, Jurassic World. We promise not to give away any spoilers about the film here but we do want to explore one of the main themes of the film: Clicker Training.

It is no secret that Jurassic World features leading man Owen Grady, played by Chris Pratt, as the world’s first Velociraptor trainer. Using a similarclicker training technique that APOPO employs to train HeroRATs to detect landmines and tuberculosis, Grady trains his raptors to perform simple tasks, albeit from a safe distance!

“A clicker is a small handheld device that emits a short concise sound (a click) that can be used repeatedly”, explains Erin Watkins, one of APOPO’s behavioural researcher. “We use clickers to indicate to the rat that a reward (usually a bite of banana) is available. During early training the sound of the click is immediately followed by food. Once the rat reliably walks to the trainer for a bite of banana after the trainer has clicked, the trainer will only click and provide food while the rat is behaving a certain way. We call this behavior the target behavior, for example lightly scratching on the surface of the ground as they would if they detected a landmine.”

With clicker training, for the “click” to be effective, it can only be used in one situation, when the animal has performed the target behaviour. The click has come to function as a reward and will signal the availability of another reward (like food).“I’d say our training differs from the clicker training in the Jurassic World movie as Grady uses the clicker as some kind of multi-tool. The click is also being used to get the raptors’ attention for example”, continues Watkins.

In the movie, Grady also talks about imprinting as part of the Velicoraptors’ training, something our rats don’t do according to Watkins. “Imprinting is a process whereby baby animals bond to the type of animals or objects they meet at birth and begin to pattern behavior or movement after them. I say objects because researchers have shown that young birds will imprint on the first moving object they see, including a box pulled by a string (see Hess, 1958). Our rats do not imprint on handlers in this way. Babies and mothers stay together in the breeding colony in a quiet, low stress environment until they are around six weeks of age and pass habituation tests”.

This first step of the training is a very important one. When the rats are about six weeks of age, the trainers start handle them and expose them to a large number of different sights, sounds, and smells. “It is important that the rats become accustom to humans and everything that comes with humans (smell of foods, sound of motors) when working with us. Training and learning cannot be achieved if the rats are freighted”, says Watkins.

Trainers and rats are paired up from the very beginning and all trainers greatly value their trainees. This can be seen in their methods of handling and care, and in the way they talk about the rats. HeroRATs will return gentle pets with finger licks! APOPO staff have a saying, “a happy rat makes a good performer,” and when you are dealing with landmine detection and tuberculosis detection good performance is crucial!