I'm always looking for new activities for the children while they're here at camp. Many of the kids are repeat campers and so I don't want them to get bored. Additionally the number one request from both parents and kids is more time with the animals.
Last week I was reading my November/December 2009 copy of Animal Sheltering Magazine when I came across a very interesting article entitled "Clicking with Shelter Cats" written by clicker training pioneer Karen Pryor who started her career with animals by training dolphins in Hawaii at Sea Life Park in the 1960's (for a fascinating look at her experiences with dolphins read her book "Lads Before the Wind").
The article talked about ways that shelters could use clicker training to make cats more adoptable by teaching them to be more outgoing when potential adopters are in the cat adoption room. A very shy cat who formerly would hide in the back of the cage can be trained to come forward seeking attention through the use of a clicker and some favorite food.
I thought this might be a good activity for our campers, and so I tried it out. The kids were put into teams of two. One held the clicker and a popsicle stick, the other a bowl of tuna with a spoon. When the popsicle stick was put into the cage the cat was clicked for touching it with his nose, and then given a small morsel of food.
This was an extremely successful activity. The cats loved it -- they all came running to the front of their cages once they figured out there was tuna on the line. The kids told me that on a scale of one to ten training cats was a ten, and they all wanted to do it again.
As a dog trainer I am very familiar with the concept of clicker training and use it with dogs all the time. This was my first experience with training cats. We didn't ask them to do anything complicated, but if it made everyone happy it was worth it.