The COSI Science Center in Ohio give displays showing rats who have
been trained to play basketball.
This is an explanation of the training methods used, courtesy of Angi Cook who acquired the
details for the members of the Yahoo! ratlist.
In order to train the rats to play basketball, we use a process called conditioning. Conditioning is simply defined as behavior modification in which the subject learns to act or respond in a certain way that shows an association with a previously unrelated stimulus. There are two main types of conditioning: classical and operant.
Classical conditioning is most commonly associated with "Pavlov's dogs." Ivan Pavlov discovered this type in the early 1900s. Classical conditioning happens when one stimulus that causes no reaction comes to evoke a specific response by being paired with another stimulus that causes that specific response. Pavlov, for instance, caused dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by repeatedly ringing a bell when presenting food to the dogs. Eventually, the sound of the bell alone was enough to cause the saliva to start flowing because the dogs' brains connected the bell with the food. This however, is not the type of conditioning COSI uses to train rats. We use:
The development of operant conditioning is usually attributed to Burrhus Friederich Skinner, which he did work on in the late 1930s. In operant conditioning, instead of a stimulus causing a reaction, a certain behavior from the subject elicits a response (and this could be reward or punishment) from the trainer, or the one doing the conditioning. Skinner discovered that he could train rats and pigeons to push a lever in order to obtain a food reward. Operant conditioning often uses a trial and error way of learning, as we do with the rats. Through much experimentation on their part (and some help from the trainers), the rats slowly but surely learn that lifting the ball up and putting in through the basketball hoop will earn them a reward.
In order for any kind of conditioning to work, there must be some kind of stimulus to reinforce or punish behavior. There are two types of stimulus: punishment (an effort to weaken a bad behavior) and reinforcement (an effort to strengthen a good behavior). Both types can be either positive (adding a stimulus) or negative (removing a stimulus).
Positive reinforcement is presenting a stimulus that the subject likes in order to try to strengthen a wanted behavior.
Example: Giving a rat a treat as a reward for making a basket.
Negative reinforcement is removing a stimulus that the subject doesn't like in order to try to strengthen a wanted behavior.
Example: If your child is grounded, and cleans his or her room very well, and you lift the grounding.
Positive punishment is presenting a stimulus that the subject doesn't like in order to try to weaken an unwanted behavior.
Example: 'Time outs' for a child that is behaving badly.
Negative punishment is removing a stimulus that the subject likes in order to try to weaken an unwanted behavior.
Example: A child doesn't eat all their dinner, so they don't get dessert.
Obviously, mad basketball skills are not something the rats are born with. How, then, do we take them and mold them into the furry little stars they are? Conditioning! COSI's Rat Basketball Training process consists of five "Activity Levels" - each with several sub-steps. For each training session, repeat the step the rat is on for at least 20 times. It is important to refer to the Training Log for consistency in the number of times they repeat a step. Repetition is the key to our girls' learning. The Rat Habitat Supervisor, or an appointed Team Member, will determine when the rat is ready to move onto the next step. The following is an explanation of each "Activity Level" and the sub-steps within the level.
Level 1 RECOGNIZING THE BALL
The goal of the first step is to get the trainee to recognize the buzzer as a signal for the treat. With the rat in the court, sound the buzzer and place one treat in the rat's treat cup. Continue this step until they come to the hole every time the buzzer sounds. The rat should catch on to this step rather quickly.
The goal of the next two steps is to get the rat to connect the ball to the reward. First, place the ball in the center of the court. When the rat gets close to the ball, brushes the ball, or shows any interest in the ball whatsoever, press the buzzer. Sometimes it is helpful to drum your fingers near the ball to call her attention to it. The rat will then come to the treat cup.
Similar, but for this step, the rat must touch the ball with her nose or teeth to hear the buzzer and get the treat.
Level 2 INTERACTING WITH THE BALL
The goal of this step is to get the rat to realize that the ball is the main object of the game. First, she must grasp the ball while it is in the trainer's hand with her teeth. If she is not showing much interest try rolling the ball in Cheerios so the smell will get her attention. Once you get her interest she must grasp at the ball and pull it away from you. Try holding the ball above her head so that she needs to reach for it. Do not always give the ball to her on the first pull; make her tug a couple of times, but do not tease her.
Finally, she must take the ball out of your hand and carry it across the court to the treat hole. You may find that she won't even need to take it out of your hand at this point. If you place the ball at the other end of the court, she may find it and carry it to the hole without your help.
Level 3 BEGINNING BASKETBALL
The goal of this step is to introduce the rat to the rim and the platform. The training platform should start at the highest possible level. Place the training platform next to the trainee's rim (each rat is assigned to a certain side of the court). Place the rat on the platform and hold the ball near the rim. Get the rat's attention and help her place the ball through the rim. After a while, you should be able to put the ball down and get her to push the ball through the hole with her feet or nose. Be adaptive, and use whatever method the rat seems to understand. Help her out as much as you need to until she seems to grasp the concept, then stop helping completely. Sometimes, the rat will follow the ball through the hoop. This is a behavior that will need to be stopped eventually, but trying to curb it this early may confuse the rat.
Next, the rat needs to understand that the ball will have to be lifted UP and IN. Once she understands the ball needs to go through the rim, lower the platform about one inch. Now, she will have to actually pick the ball up in order to get it through. This is often the hardest step to master. You may have to nudge her towards the rim, or play tug of war and drop the ball through for her the first few times.
After she masters this, the platform can be lowered another inch so that it is two inches from the top. Remember that each time the platform is lowered, it presents a new challenge for her, and remain patient. Also, each time, you may need to start the tug of war over again to lead her towards the basket.
In this step the platform is lowered halfway down. It is a good time to stop the habit of following the ball through the hoop. This step can be very difficult for a rat and again requires a lot of patience from the trainer.
The platform is now lowered two inches from the ground. This step may be difficult at first for the rat. Some rats may quickly be successful at this height at which time this step is simply practice as they move on to the next one.
Finally the platform is lowered one inch from the ground. For many rats this new height will be easy to achieve. Again this will give the rat time to practice before removing the platform.
Level 4 INTERMEDIATE BASKETBALL
Remove the platform. Make sure the trainee can bring the ball from anywhere on the court and bring it to the correct hoop and make a basket. Start off with the ball fairly close, but move it further and further away over time. Also, make sure you only reward the rat for putting the ball through her assigned hoop.
Up to this point, each step has used the buzzer as a signal for the treat. Now, the buzzer can be removed. The rat should have a handle on the "make a basket and get a treat" concept.
By this time, the rat should be able to play without any help from you. At this point, she is also ready to be trained in front of COSI guests. You can take her out on the floor so the training can be observed. Make sure you explain to the guests that the rat is in training. This step is to get her used to playing under the lights and in front of people. Make extra sure to keep the guests at a distance so she doesn't get nervous or scared.
Level 5 COOPERATION (Expert Basketball)
Now for the challenging part. It's relatively easy to teach a rat to play basketball. It's harder to get them to cooperate. Place the divider in the court. Put one rat on each side of the court (taking care to place each one on the side her assigned basket is on), and give each her own ball. They'll be able to smell each other, but not to get to the other rat. This gets them used to playing with the presence of a friend. They may be easily distracted, wanting to know what's on the other side, so it may take a little coaxing again in the form of tapping the ball and such. When they first start this step, they should once again be taken to train in private, away from the guests. When they get comfortable with each other, you can take them out again.
Remove the divider and put each rat in the court with her own ball. They will be very curious of one another, but try your best to distract them and get them to make baskets. You will probably spend a lot of time redirecting them to the task at hand. Watch carefully for signs of aggression. Once again, this step should be done in private, as rat fights are somewhat common. Playtime for the two rats together is often helpful in getting the rats to know each other, letting them climb on tables or whatever else with your supervision. It is also helpful sometimes to give them a bath and dab them with the same extract (vanilla, anise, garlic, whatever…) so that they both smell the same. If the rats start fighting in the court make sure to clean out the court with Windex before you put them back in. This step can be frustrating for the trainer, and take much patience. Rats should be more focused on the game then each other to complete this step.
The final step of the training is two rats and one ball. Watch carefully again for signs of aggression. Sometimes, one rat will pick up on this step more quickly, so it may be necessary to delay the rat that picks up on this more quickly so that they do not "hog" the ball. Try holding the treat of the faster rat so that they have to gnaw it away from your fingers, giving the rat of the opposing team a chance to get the ball. The rats should practice until they get to the point where they almost take turns making baskets, they both retrieve the ball from the opposing rats court, and they play consistently without the trainer's hands in the court. Successfully trained rats should cooperate and even take turns shooting the ball (but don't be surprised if you see some steals and guarding of the ball, too).
Activity Levels For Rat Basketball Training
Activity Level #1
Introduce Rat to the Buzzer and Food Reward
Introduce Rat to the Basketball
Rat Touches Basketball
Activity Level #2
Rat Grasps at Ball In Hand
Rat Pulls Ball From Hand
Rat Carries Ball from anywhere in the court to the Treat Hole
Activity Level #3
Introduce Rat to Platform, Rat Pushes Ball Through Hoop
Platform is Lowered 1 inch, Rat Grasps Ball and Lifts Through Hoop
Platform is Lowered 2 inches, Rat Grasps Ball and Lifts Through Hoop
Platform is Lowered Halfway Down, Rat Grasps Ball and Lifts Through Hoop
Platform is Lowered 2 inches From the Floor, Rat Grasps Ball and Lifts Through Hoop
Platform is Lowered 1 inch From the Floor, Rat Grasps Ball and Lifts Through Hoop
Activity Level #4
Platform is Removed
Buzzer is Removed
Rat Can Play Without Help
Activity Level #5
Rat Is Introduced to Rat of Opposing Team with Plastic Divider
Divider is Removed, Rats Play With Two Balls in the Court
One Ball is removed and Rat Cooperates with Opposing Rat