Coco is a Capuchin monkey with a very inquisitive personality. She loves to open cupboards and throw the contents on to the floor. The fridge is especially enticing, as things break and squish once hurled out. Very rewarding indeed for a naughty little monkey, especially as this behaviour gets her “parents” to spend a lot of their time chasing around after her to try and prevent the chaos she causes.
Much-loved by her owners, Coco’s behaviour was getting a bit out of hand. She had free range of the house and garden most of the time, being confined only at night in a very spacious outdoor run. But when Coco opened a bedside drawer and helped herself to the tablets inside, it was agreed that the time had come to adopt a stricter stance. House rules needed to be laid down and adhered to.
So I went to visit Coco at her house near Bela Bela. Capuchins are renowned for their intelligence and easygoing personalities. In the olden days the organ grinders used them to attract the attention of the crowd by teaching them to wear clothes and dance. As a one-year old, Coco was feeling the need for a bit of direction in her life. Too much freedom can be quite stressful if you’re immature and given a free run to do what you like.
We decided firstly to teach Coco that actions have consequences. If she behaves in an appropriate manner, she will get a reward. If she misbehaves, she gets time out. To achieve all the goals set in just a few hours training, we decided to use both management techniques and clicker training. To stop her opening doors ad lib and helping herself to whatever she chose was simple – a gob of scrapbooking glue was placed in the centre of each handle. So when Coco grabbed the handle, she felt this sticky mess on her palm. Monkeys don’t like sticky messes, so she would let go. The fridge door was secured with a hasp and staple. I am writing this a couple of months after implementation, and to date Coco has not opened any cupboard doors with glue gob on them.
I like to teach animals to think, so we agreed on a behaviour that would benefit the family and be fun for the monkey. Golf practise being a favourite pastime of her owner, we decided it would be great if Coco could learn to pick up golf balls and place them in a container. So we conditioned her to the clicker (i.e. made her understand that when she heard the clicker she would get a treat) and then clicked and treated her for picking up golf balls. We didn’t get as far as having her place them in a container, but with diligent practise, I believe that the whole behavioural chain could be achieved within a week. Of course her activity and feeding regime had to be controlled in order to achieve this, and this proved to be our main stumbling block. Coco had been allowed to eat what she liked when she liked, and could run around wherever and whenever she pleased. It takes quite a serious mind change to put feeding and movement constraints on a cosseted and very cute pet.
Training sessions had to take place early in the morning before Coco had access to food. She resented being restrained in her sleeping quarters as she was used to being let out early in the morning. So we had conflict trying to get her to understand that she no longer called the shots, but had to do something in order to be let out to play. Of course she tried everything in her power to try to manipulate the situation. But eventually she started touching, and then occasionally picking up a golf ball. Her concentration span was fairly short, so we had to capture as many good behaviours as possible in a short space of time.
Having to think and problem solve was a new experience for her, so she was quite tired at the end of our session. So a quick nap on the sofa with mom and dad was her special reward. Notice the stuffed monkey that Coco carries around in her tail – a bit like Linus’ blanket.
As with all animals, training needs to be ongoing to be truly effective. Let’s hope that Coco finds a new dimension to life once she discovers how to please her owners. She has already been easier to have around the house because her cupboard-opening behaviours have ceased. Once she learns that she can do things that earn praise and admiration from her human family, she will be a much happier and more biddable monkey to have around.