By Rebecca Stout
I’ve always believed animals need purpose. A job. Don’t we all? In the wild, animals are always busy and working. So it just makes sense that our pets would also benefit from “work.”
Many believe that giving your pet a “job” is stimulating and enriching, and it gives them exercise, which inevitably leads to a happier and healthier pet. I try to include my pets in on my household chores. My cockatoo methodically empties my husband’s sock drawer while I fill others with freshly folded laundry. My cockatiel gingerly runs down my arm to help with the dishes.
In addition, I try to give my pets tasks to accomplish each day based on the nature of their species. Ferrets are driven to explore and hide things. So I based their jobs on that fact. I search out their hidey-holes, remove their treasures and spread them all over. They immediately get busy searching, collecting and stashing. We also play explorer. They must think of themselves like the Greek explorer Pytheas as they rummage through things in new rooms and situations that I introduce them to. When I bring my ferrets outside, they go on the hunt for adventure and new creatures, not unlike Steve Irwin. Jobs are scarce for humans, but they are there to be had for pets. Just look to your pets’ natural behaviors and interests to get inspiration and use your imagination.
Marisa, a resident of Ontario, Canada, “gets it.” In fact, she took this idea to a whole other level with her family of pets by teaching them advanced tricks and practicing agility moves. They are truly “employed.” Videos of her amazing work with her four rats, along with her cat and dog, have been getting quite a bit of attention on the Internet. And rightfully so!
Marisa’s first inspiration came from her young, gray tabby cat named Oliver. She was a child when she first began teaching him tricks. Marisa recalled the experience, “Oliver’s intelligence, stamina, creativity, and loyalty soon shattered the long-held myth that cats couldn’t learn tricks. It was Oliver who sparked my insatiable passion for animal training.” Later, Marisa set her sights on expanding her efforts toward other types of animal species.
Today her protégés’ are her Bengal cat, Kaiser, and her border collie dog, Nana. However it’s been her mischief of four rats that have really sparked added attention recently. They are: Famous, Suki, Shadow and Raven. She shares how rats came into her life, “I have always been fascinated by small rodents, particularly mice and rats. At the time, I had been considering mice for new additions — that is, until I set my eyes upon a mischief of fancy rats. Their inquisitiveness and sheer adoration in me, a complete stranger, immediately captured my interest in them. After spending my time in deep research and speaking with people who lived with them, I knew rats were the perfect companions for me.”
Marisa has taught each of her ratties to perform dozens of tricks, and they are still learning more. Among her rats’ many core talents are jumping, retrieving, problem-solving, manipulating objects and agility. Marisa uses these abilities to direct her rats to execute specific tricks. Among the dozens and dozens of tricks are the following: Spinning, walking on hind legs, shaking hands, rolling over, walking on a tightrope, skateboarding, retrieving objects, jumping, and recall.
Her well-known YouTube videos showcase the fact that you can take those taught behaviors and develop them into even more creative and specific tasks. For example her rats can dunk a tiny basketball into a basketball hoop, raise a tiny American flag, pull tissues out of a Kleenex box and bring them to you, place a ring on your finger, jump through hoops, play fetch, paint a picture on a tiny easel and more. She has even taught them to run an agility course no less complicated than that used in dog competitions. And they do so with great enthusiasm and joy.
Marisa trains her animals with great respect and love. The No. 1 goal is to make sure they are having fun and benefit from the experience. How does she do this? She explained, “With each animal I work with, I closely observe their behaviors and antics to discover their natural talents. Some animals may be skilled retrievers and not wholly enthused by jumping tricks, while others may be exceptional balancers and struggle with pawing tricks. I focus on each animal’s strengths and what they enjoy doing most. People say that I ‘train’ animals. I disagree. I merely ‘guide’ them, allowing them to think for themselves, throw in their own ideas and style, and help them build on their talents. My animals amaze me daily with their creativity and aptitudes, and I cannot take full credit for the incredible tricks they do. They are my greatest inspiration for animal training.”
Marisa’s methods center on clicker training and positive reinforcement. A clicker emits a sharp sound that marks a wanted behavior. A reward or treat quickly follows that communicates to the animal that the behavior was correct. Marisa said, “This reinforces the behavior and increases the likelihood of it being repeated. When the animal understands which behavior you have marked and begins to consistently offer it, it is put on cue. Once the animal masters the trick, the clicker is no longer necessary to capture or ‘mark’ the behavior.”
Although Marisa uses commercial box clickers with many animals, she does not use them with her rats because they emit a sound that is too loud and sharp for their sensitive ears. She suggests using a jar lid that emits a softer sound when pressed in the center or to use something along the lines of a clucking sound from the tongue. She says rats seem to respond more to visual cues than to verbal, but she does use both. Interestingly, she usually uses neither hand gestures nor verbal cues with her rats once they have mastered their tricks. That is because props are used with their tricks so much of the time. The props have essentially become the cue. For example, simply the sight of a piggy bank alerts the rat to put a coin into it.
YouTube has served as a great showcase for Marisa’s professional animal training skills. From the time she aired her first trick compilation video of Nana in 2010, her animals have gained popularity online. Due to the incredible response she received, she decided to create a website to spotlight her pets and to educate others about various animal training techniques, including the use of clicker training. Since then Marisa’s pets have received media attention that led to them appearing in live show performances, magazines, newspapers, commercials, TV shows and a documentary.
The future is looking bright for this animal trainer and her animal family. When asked about her goals, she said, “I will continue to focus on establishing a career training various animal species for the film industry, and I plan to specialize in small to medium-sized exotic mammals.” She refers to her beloved pets as “the gang.” But I can definitely see this is a tight-knit family all benefiting from their inter-species relationships and time with their loving owner. And I believe the key to their training success has been love.