Clicker Training

The tigers at Carolina Tiger Rescue are very smart! I dare say they are smarter than my dogs at home. The reason I make this claim is because some of the tigers are clicker trained. Emerson, pictured above and featuring his adorable snaggle tooth, is clicker trained with Lenore, one of the keepers. She called me over the other day to show me another form of enrichment provided to these animals. We don't make them perform or ask them to do anything in return for a meal; clicker training provides human-animal interaction and gives the animal something to be good at. The clicker method is positive reinforcement; the clicker is auditory recognition that the animal does something desirable, and a treat follows the activity as motivation to continue. Emerson is very motivated by chicken ( I personally am more motivated by steak), and he is eager to please when Lenore breaks out the clicker. The clicker she uses is one of those really annoying seat belt clickers children get at the State Fair, the same ones they obnoxiously run around with clicking every chance they get. Lenore only clicks when Emerson does something she wants him to, however, whether it is to sit, to lay down, to go to his station, or to jump up.

Lenore explained to me how simple the commands must be in order for the tiger to understand and follow them. Simple variations such as body language, tone, and inflection from the person can confuse the animal. Emerson is so quick and so tolerant. He followed every command with little distraction even though I was standing right next to him (he has not had an audience before). The goal is for Emerson to not only follow his training, but to introduce commands that will allow the keeper more access to the animal through the fence to observe and treat an animal if necessary. For example, Emerson has learned to show his paw to Lenore, which is useful if he were to be limping. He can also bow his head for bug repellent to be sprayed on his ears. Unfortunately, Emerson hates men with beards, so the clicker training is also a way to begin introducing other people to him.

Emerson is following Lenore's commands in these photos, and the commands are one-world requests such as "stand," "paw," or "station." He knows what to do and follows through immediately, never taking his eyes off of Lenore. She immediately clicks when he has done something right, and the treat follows. These training sessions provide alleviation from boredom and strengthen the bonds between man and animal. When Emerson has eaten all the chicken, Lenore lets him lick the bowl clean:

The keepers at Carolina Tiger Rescue do clicker training almost every day with their animals (even some of the small cats), though not all of the animals are clicker trained. Rajaji is one of the tigers that has recently begun his clicker training, and he will definitely benefit from it. He is the first tiger visitors see on the tours, and he is usually very friendly. However, in the mornings during feeding time he gets quite agitated if you look at him too long once he's got his chicken (I'm like that with my steak). Rajaji can go from a sweet chuffle and a hello moan to a menacing roar, as was perfectly captured by my camera:

Had I been one of those annoying kids at the State Fair with a clicker, I would NOT have clicked it at him. And yes, I jumped.