I was in Denver, CO recently with the faculty of Karen Pryor Academy. We're all animal trainers and most of us work primarily with dogs. ALL of us are training junkies – we refer to ourselves as behavior geeks.
Imagine our delight when we got to go behind-the-scenes at the Denver Zoo. The handsome fella you see on the left is a gerenuk, a type of antelope. He's cooler than cool – check out his hips – they're jointed just like a human. Another cool fact: he never needs to drink water. Ever.
He's also untrainable.
Can't you tell? Doesn't he look untrained? At least, that's what the zookeepers all around the world thought.
This is the ONLY trained Gerenuk in the world. Gerenuks are very flighty. See those itty bitty skinny legs? They break very easily. Because the Gerenuk is so prone to panic and run into anything in their way, zookeepers have left these animals alone.
Well, that is until this zookeeper came along. Thank goodness she either didn't know Gerenuks were untrainable or didn't believe it — this guy is VERY well trained and not the least bit flighty!
Check out some of the video here (double click the video if you can't see the right-hand part of the video here on the blog.
The trainer was patient and had a detailed training plan before she started with the Gerenuk. In the beginning, he really was quite frightened and couldn't handle having full view of his keeper or what was going on in his area. The ingenious trainer built a wooden door to fit over the stall door and initially interacted with the Gerenuk this way – so he couldn't see her.
Eventually she cut a small hole in the wooden door so he had a view, but it was strictly limited. She worked with him with that small hole until he was comfortable and relaxed with her presence and his very limited view. Over time, she was able to make the hole larger and larger until he was able to finally handle having a full view.
She worked incrementally with the Gerenuk, gaining his confidence and working only within his comfort level — allowing him to dictate the speed of the training process. What she has today is an unflappable Gerenuk! We were able to feed him grapes, take pictures and videos, and he never once looked startled or frightened.
So the next time you think your dog is untrainable, remember the Gerenuk! Nothing is untrainable if you have patience and time…and the right reinforcer. This Gerenuk's favorite food is green (not red!) seedless grapes! [Don't feed your dog grapes – they're toxic!]