Obstacle Courses for Critters

By Joan Orr

Pets that have learned some basic clicker tricks such going under and jumping over and following a target can learn to run an obstacle course. This can get to be so much fun for the pet that it will run the course on its own over and over every chance it gets. The obstacles can be almost anything. You can make your own from things around the house or from the hardware store. The obstacles must be safe for the pet and the right size for the pet. Anything that the pet can over around or through safely is suitable. If you don’t mind your pet doing ninety miles an hour through your house, you can show it how to go over, under and through furniture without adding any outside elements. This is most feasible for larger active pets such as rabbits, ferrets and chinchillas. A box, a tube and a small log can make a great obstacle course on a large door mat or in the middle of a room for a hedgehog, a small rabbit, a chinchilla, a guinea pig or a rat. For very small pets the obstacle course can be made in a box or a cage. If you want to travel with your obstacle course or use it outside, a collapsible dog exercise pen is a must to keep the pet safe and contained. This larger set-up can include a platform, a house made from a box, several different jumps, a ramp and a tunnel. Use your imagination, consider the physical abilities of your pet and have fun making up your obstacle course.

The best way to teach a pet to execute a series of moves is to teach the last part of the sequence first. This is called back-chaining since the last part of the chain is taught first and then the second last part and so on until the beginning of the chain is taught at the end. This method is effective because when the pet executes the chain, it is always progressing towards the part that it knows the best. Here is a simple example that explains how we taught our dwarf bunny Little Angel to go over a bridge, through a tunnel and into her house. First we put her on her special mat with house and her litter box. Eventually she wandered into the house and got a C/T. She started going into the house more and more often and more and more enthusiastically, racing back each time for her treat. We added the cue “go home” once we knew that she was going home anyway. Then we gave the “go home” cue before she started going home and soon rewarded her only when she heard the cue “go home” and not every time she just went anyway. Now we have a bunny that goes home on cue. Next we put a tunnel in front of the entrance to the house so that Little Angel would have to go through the tunnel to go home. We gave the “go home” cue and she ran straight through the tunnel and home. We started clicking when she was in the tunnel and giving the cue “go under” at the same time. Soon we could say “go under” and she would go through the tunnel and into the house. We started moving the tunnel further and further from the house. Then we put the tunnel back at the entrance to the house and put a bridge before the entrance to the tunnel. We repeated the same steps with the bridge and eventually moved the components apart so that Little Angel ran over the bridge, through the tunnel and into her house. This could be taken to a more advanced level, since the bunny could learn the cues for each obstacle and could go through each on cue, rather than in a predetermined sequence. This is a challenge for you advanced trainers!

It may be that your obstacle course cannot be moved around easily enough to use the method described above. Andrea Bratt-Frick of B.U.N.S. rabbit shelter has taught many rabbits to run obstacle courses and she uses a slightly different method of back chaining. Andrea sets up a few low hurdles and C/T s for any jumping over the hurdles. If the rabbit doesn’t jump on its own at first, Andrea uses a target to get them jumping. Next she raises the hurdles a little and mover them around so that the rabbit gets the idea of jumping under any circumstance. Next she sets up the last obstacle on the course and starts with the rabbit going in the reverse direction and then back again. Andrea adds another obstacle and again starts the rabbit at the end of the course going in reverse sequence and then back again. This way if the rabbit gets worried it will go back the way it came quickly and can receive a C/T for completing part of the course. The rabbit always finishes and receives a C/T at the end of the course. C/Ts can also come part way through to keep things interesting for the rabbit. Andrea gradually adds hurdles, tunnels, a water barrier and ramps to compete the course. Each time a new obstacle is added, the bunny learns about the new obstacle by itself, before it is put into the chain.