How to Clicker Train a Bat

A few weeks ago, I had another run-in with a bat. I had just been reassuring myself that since I’d put a new roof on my house last fall, my days of being surprised by another whooshing black critter with those delightfully spiny wings were over.  Not so, I’m afraid. There I was, relaxing on the living room sofa one March evening, when my most recent little visitor (the third or fourth in as many years) made his appearance. As usual, I first tried to convince myself it was a bird that just swooped across the ceiling. But, unfortunately I knew better.  Cue the stereotypical panic, dog locked in a bedroom, and wildly swinging broom…

OK, full disclosure….this post won’t really teach you how to clicker train a bat. (Something I’m sure you weren’t really aspiring to anyway, right?) However, Heather Hatt and I recently watched an excellent webinar on nonprofit blog writing where we learned the art of composing attention-getting headlines, so I confess I was practicing my newfound skills on this one. I hope it worked – did it??

In fairness, my reference to clicker training does have a connection to this tale of late night woe with a bat friend.  A better title for the post might have been “How to Communicate with a Bat” (or in my case, how NOT to communicate with a bat), but I suspect that wouldn’t have had the same impact or would have driven readers away, rather than hopefully enticing them in!

Clicker training, as many of you are no doubt aware, is one form of communicating with animals (most notably dolphins and dogs), and it can be an exceptionally powerful and effective one. I’ve been spending some time improving my own clicker training skills, so the advantages of this training/communication tool have been forefront in my mind.  As noted on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website, the concept of clicker training is pretty simple:

i-Click™ Clickers sold by the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.

i-Click™ Clickers sold by the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.

Desirable behavior is marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing. [bold added]

Howcast has a great little video that also talks about the communication aspects of clicker training. I was first introduced to this technique at a seminar many years ago that I attended with some other DVGRR volunteers/staff, and I’ve been hooked on the idea ever since.

Clicker training does take practice (and some extra coordination at times!), but it’s a fun and definitely force-free way of teaching everything from basic manners to complicated tricks and skills. For me, one of the most interesting aspects is having the clicker essentially replace speaking to, touching, or giving hand signals to an animal as the primary means of interspecies communication – at least during the initial training steps. Removing those other communication tools helps the animal focus better and more clearly understand the behavior that is desired by the trainer.  When you’re used to conducting a running conversation with your dog during the day, staying quiet while teaching is often a challenge!

So…back to the “bat battle,” where staying quiet definitely wasn’t part of my strategy. Even though I have some experience with pursuing and/or capturing wayward bats (sad, isn’t it?), the sight of one brings out the agitated, flustered side of me in about two seconds. With the front door propped open (even at the risk of letting in more critters!), I tried my darndest to maneuver the little guy towards the open air night freedom. I succeeded only in chasing him further into the house, towards the kitchen, where I then propped open the back door as well.

During the whole encounter, I kept up a constant stream of dialogue directed at the bat. In case you’ve never had the joy of one in your home, they tend to fly around frantically in short bursts, then land in some hard-to-find spot, fold their wings, and act blithely catatonic. During these interim rest periods, I’d gingerly walk around the room searching every corner, curtain, and chair rung, my entreaties escalating: “I know you’re in here. What spot did you pick this time? C’mon, show your face! Gosh darn it, where the *&$#@ are you??????”

A bat resting on a curtain before his next flying sprint. Sometimes the wings are more folded, making it harder to spot them.

A bat resting on a curtain before his next flying sprint. Sometimes the wings are more folded, making it harder to spot them.

Once flying commenced again, my dialogue ran towards the following (expressed in a high-pitched LOUD voice, close to a screech, accompanied by much broom swinging to illustrate my points): “The DOOR! It’s over there! This way! C’mon, c’mon – you know you want to go out! MOVE! Not that way, OVER HERE!”

All fruitless, of course (though I eventually succeeded in steering my bat friend out the back door, thank goodness!). Even though bats do have excellent hearing, obviously my visitor was clueless to what I was trying to communicate. And therein lies the association with clicker training.

In reflecting on the experience later, I thought of how we so often expect our dogs (much less non-domesticated animals) to understand what we want via the use of language – OUR language. Sure, dogs can learn to recognize a variety of human sounds, but our perception of them “hanging on our every word” is no doubt colored by our love of dogs’ “family member” status that we’ve cultivated in our society. I have no problem with that status (and fully subscribe to it myself), but when it comes to conveying important information from human to canine, the clicker’s advantages seem very clear. It uses sounds and associations that do not depend on species-specific language, unlike the spoken (or, in some cases, screeched) word.

If you are interested in learning more about clicker training, the Karen Pryor site is an excellent one with tons of resources. I also like “Clicker Training Lessons” by Mary Woodward, a trainer in Delaware. Mary and her associate Susan Greenholt are the owners of Greenwood Dog Training School, where I took two classes in clicker training with my adopted Golden Tyler (01-047) many years ago. I learned so much from them!

Oh, by the way, according to this article by certified dog trainer Stacy Braslau-Schneck, owner of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train in San Diego, bats really CAN be clicker trained. Stacy notes that:

…clicker training has worked on every animal attempted, from killer whales to rats. With the help of clicker training, large monkeys are taught to willingly give blood samples, bats to spread their wings for inspection, llamas to go in their trailers, and pigeons to follow laser targets and take spy photos.

As for HOW the bat training is done, no details are given. I’ll stick with dogs myself, thank you very much!

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5 comments on “How to Clicker Train a Bat

  1. Maureen McCulloch says:

    OMG Donna, you do have a gift for writing!!!

  2. Nicola says:

    I loved this article Donna – you made me laugh so much:)

  3. Kent says:

    Great blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m hopin to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.

    Would you advise stqrting with a ffee platform like WordPress
    or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m
    totally overwhelmed .. Any tips? Cheers!

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