Meet Charlie Daniels.
Charlie is a fiddler crab I acquired at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference, an event where I had no expectation of meeting my next pet, much less a take-home crustacean.
Our task was to begin to train our crabs to ring a bell, replicating Karen-Pryor-awesomeness, which had been replicated by our instructor Lily Strassberg. Meaning, it is possible. But I found my inner Pryor a bit lacking that day. Which made the fact that the the actual Karen Pryor was there watching us into a humbling experience.
We started with a setup that is just a hair more structured than any training I've done recently... including a notebook (what on earth is THAT for?) I was in awe of Lily not just because she had gotten the crab to ring the bell, and because she stuck to her guns when she was discouraged from taking on crab training as a project - but because of her lovely but naive faith in all of us that we might actually make proper use of the tools she so painstakingly laid out for us.
So of course I jumped in and figured - shaping! Tiny steps! Let's do this!
Then I realized the tiny steps included:
1) get crab to stop freaking out.
2) figure out how to deliver "treats" (icky) to crab (also kinda icky.)
Addressing #2 first - Crabs are not too keen on you shoving stuff into center-of-mass of all of their odd, writhing, mandible parts. They would prefer, please, for you to hand them their worms into their little tiny left claw. (There are some lessons here about thoughtful reward delivery.) Which means getting the tweezers past the GIANT right claw the crab is waving at you to get you to please GO AWAY. Rah! I am CRAB!
Leading me to address #1 - Apparently the tweezers one needs to use to deliver teeny shrimp and worms to a crab might also be seen by said crab as a big shiny threatening claw. (Note to self - pick female crab next time.) A non-threatening, slow approach with the tweezers from the side had somewhat better results. I even (I kid you not) thought, maybe I can try a little BAT here - and reward the crab staying calm with the retreat of the tweezers for a few moments. Since he wasn't getting the food in the early tries, I needed something, so maybe functional crab rewards? Well, not sure if it was Crab BAT or just habituation, but it did start working. Charlie Daniels stopped waving his fiddle around for a few moments at a time, and developed a taste for the disgusting stuff I was dishing out.
So, in an hour, I managed - and this is written down in my little notebook - to have better and better success with treat delivery to the little claw, and also, occasionally with the crab shoving it into his mouth - which prompted a big "YAY!" from me each time. Fearful, freaky crabs can't learn bell-ringing, and eating is a good sign in any creature indicating that it's safe enough to do some behavior other than fight (wild claw waving) or flight (zooming around sideways.) I actually thought it was pretty neat how much I was able to learn about a completely new species in just an hour, by observing and pausing to consider what I was seeing. (Some pretty good lessons there too.) Thanks Lily!
Crustacean Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning anyone?
More of the saga of Charlie Daniels to follow..........