Fennec Fox Operant Conditioning
Training clicker (available at larger pet stores)
Stick, such as dowel rod or drumstick, with the tip painted or colored
Small durable plastic box
Treats your fennec fox really loves (crickets work well!)
The first task is to get the fox used to the clicker noise – because at first, she may get startled by it. Click the clicker, and immediately giver her a treat. Do that 4 or 5 times per session, and do several sessions per day. Soon, she’ll get used to the clicker sound as meaning she’s going to get a treat. The clicker is a “bridge” – it links the correct task with the reward. Important: Don’t click the clicker idly and not intend to giver her a treat, and don’t let others click it idly. Fennec foxes have great hearing and if you click it and she comes running and finds no treat, it can be a step backwards!
The second task is introducing the “target.” The target should be a small stick with a colored tip. A drumstick with the little end tip knob painted works well, or a ½ inch dowel rod with the final half inch length and the tip colored in with a permanent marker works fine too. Present the target to the fox – she will naturally sniff it as an investigation. When her nose touches the tip, immediately click and give her a treat. Offer her the target again and as soon as her nose touches the tip, click and give her a treat. Repeat this up to 10 times a session, several sessions per day. The important part here is limiting the volume of treats she’s getting!
Next, introduce the command “target.” When you present the target, say “target” (or, if you have another command you want to use, that’s fine too… like “stick” or “point.”). Continue using the command. Soon, she will learn to “target” on command. Try not to repeat the command – be patient each time and give her ample response time (up to a minute) to complete the task. Very quick correct responses can be rewarded with a “jackpot” reward (more treats than usual).
When she has “target” down as a command, then you begin NOT giving her treats unless you give the command. Only give her treats if you have asked her to target. If she does it on her own, just ignore it. Some animals can get so attached to the target as a means to the end of a reward, they’ll sit next to it and target it all day. Fennec foxes don’t have that much patience, but it still can be a distraction to her if she doesn’t understand she needs the command to get the treat.
Once an animal can “target,” you can also train it to follow the target by introducing the command “follow” in the same way. Using that, you can teach her to walk in a circle, jump up on her back legs, go into a box or through a tunnel, or even jump through a hoop. Not that you’ll want to do these things, but it is possible through patience and a great deal of training. Incidentally, these tactics work on any animal that is food-motivated – dogs, cats, chickens, two-year-olds…
The plastic box is the “station.” “Station” is a command used to get the animal to go to a certain place and stay there. It is extremely useful in zoo-keeping because you can ask an animal to go to a certain place in its exhibit and stay there while a keeper is in the exhibit, to keep the animals out of the keeper’s way so they can work. Introduce the station to the fox and when she touches it with her nose, click the clicker and give a treat. Continue with the same method used in “target” but use the command “station” instead. These words sound very different so they’re easy for most animals to distinguish – so, if you use a different word for target, make sure it doesn’t sound like “station” in any way (like if you said “stick” the “st” sound is also in “station” and might confuse the animal a bit). Shape the behavior by rewarding her only when she STAYS at the station and remains there. Using “station,” you can train her to go into her room, or cage, or bed.
It is important to repeat all exercises regularly. She will forget things that aren’t practiced. Remember to give her ample time to fullfil a command, never repeat commands, and give her a break if she gets overly distracted. Use treats that she likes but are part of her normal diet – we always used live crickets for ours (they’re easiest to handle in a big glass test tube they can’t climb or jump out of).
Have fun, be creative… be patient and understanding… and you can even use some of the commands as a stress relief sometimes during difficult times, like a visit to the vet’s office. You shouldn’t put on a show in public, but rather use the target command (bring the target stick!) as a familiar setting to her. She might not do it, but at least it will be something consistent for her.
You can also “capture” natural behaviors. Barking, digging, stretching, yawning, and shaking are all behaviors that you can click and give treats for when you see them done. They take longer to connect to commands at first, because she’ll only do them when she wants or needs to…but eventually she can learn to do all of those behaviors on command too.