Gillis, T. E., Janes, A. C., Kaufman, M. J. 2012. Positive reinforcement training in squirrel monkeys using clicker training. American Journal of Primatology 74(8), 712-720.
Nonhuman primates in research environments experience regular stressors that have the potential to alter physiology and brain function, which in turn can confound some types of research studies. Operant conditioning techniques such as positive reinforcement training (PRT), which teaches animals to voluntarily perform desired behaviors, can be applied to improve behavior and reactivity. PRT has been used to train rhesus macaques, marmosets, and several other nonhuman primate species. To our knowledge, the method has yet to be used to train squirrel monkeys to perform complex tasks. Accordingly, we sought to establish whether PRT, utilizing a hand-box clicker (which emits a click sound that acts as the conditioned reinforcer), could be used to train adult male squirrel monkeys (Saimiri boliviensis, N = 14). We developed and implemented a training regimen to elicit voluntary participation in routine husbandry, animal transport, and injection procedures. Our secondary goal was to quantify the training time needed to achieve positive results. Squirrel monkeys readily learned the connection between the conditioned reinforcer (the clicker) and the positive reinforcer (food). They rapidly developed proficiency on four tasks of increasing difficulty: target touching, hand sitting, restraint training, and injection training. All subjects mastered target touching behavior within 2 weeks. Ten of 14 subjects (71%) mastered all tasks in 59.2 ± 2.6 days (range: 50-70 days). In trained subjects, it now takes about 1.25 min per monkey to weigh and administer an intramuscular injection, one-third of the time it took before training. From these data, we conclude that clicker box PRT can be successfully learned by a majority of squirrel monkeys within 2 months and that trained subjects can be managed more efficiently. These findings warrant future studies to determine whether PRT may be useful in reducing stress-induced experimental confounds in studies involving squirrel monkeys.