Why Train an Iguana?

Why train an iguana at all? Well, here are some practical uses I envison:

  • Picking up the iguana without a struggle. Some iguanas are tame, but many are not. My Carmen, for instance, was largely ignored until we adopted her at age 2-1/2. She shies away from human hands. Being able to pick her up with her consent and even her participation will increase our enjoyment of her and her relaxation around us.
  • Pooping on cue or in a certain location. I used positive reinforcement training to teach Carmen to poop in the tub within 30 seconds or so of being put into it. This means that I can poop her quickly in the morning, and she almost never goes again throughout the day. Very convenient!


  • Targeting to various locations. Using your hand or a “target stick” (stick with a ball stuck on top) you can move your iguana around without touching him. If he will follow a target stick, you can get your male iguana, who is in the throes of his “heat” period, safely into a carrier to go to the vet, into his enclosure, etc. I know someone who taught all this using a target stick! I’m not sure how far I’ll go with this myself, since I have a female, but I think I’d go for it if I had a male!
  • You name it! You can train any behavior you can get. So if your iguana does something you want to see more of, or if you can lure him into doing something you want to see more of, if you positively reinforce that behavior, you WILL see more of it!
  • Well, because we can! Really, any animal (or person) can learn using the principles of operant conditioning, and focusing on the use of positive reinforcement. I train dogs using this method, and have also applied it to training my iguana, Carmen. So I’d like to share my experiences with you.The type of training I do — with dogs, cats, and now iguanas! — is called “clicker training,” and it involves the use of positive reinforcement. To learn about it, first read the Introduction to Clicker Training on my dog training page. The principles described there apply to any organism — human beings, clams, iguanas, dogs, dolphins.

    Next Steps in Training

    To proceed, you will need a conditioned reinforcer, which means a noise that the iguana will learn to associate with the primary reinforcer (food). You can use a “clicker” — what dog trainers use with this method. It’s a little plastic box that makes a distinct, sharp clicking sound. I muffle it a little bit when using one with an iguana, but they don’t seem to mind once they’re used to the sound and know that it means food! If you can’t find a clicker, try to find some other unique and distinct sound — like a tongue click, a mouth pop, etc. A little bell might work, too, but just one “ding.” This only works if you can accurately “mark” the behavior as it occurs.Now you need a primary reinforcer. Usually, this will be food. Instead of putting Carmen’s greens in with her MK Salad, I give her salad with no greens and save the greens for training. That way I’m giving her something healthy that she also likes a great deal. I cut the greens up into pieces only as large as my fingertip. Mixing up your reinforcers is a good idea, so have something else — a treat food — ready as well. Tiny pieces of fruit or pasta would work.

    To “condition” the iguana to the clicker, get a supply of favorite foods ready and have your clicker or your unique sound ready. Click, then offer a treat. Click/treat. Click/treat. The ideas is for you to do this until, when you click, the iguana starts to look for the treat — she associates the two. This takes only a few seconds for a dog, but may taken longer for an iguana, and it may also be hard to be sure when you see a reaction.

    With Carmen, I conditioned for a few minutes, and then used the greens to lure her into a behavior. I just held the greens still about 3 inches from her and waited. She moved towards my hand. Just before she reached the greens — C/T! I was shaping behavior by starting with a tiny approximation of what I eventually hope to achieve — Carmen approaching my hand and touching it with her nose when I hold it out a certain way (her cue).

    This worked very well — too well, in fact! Since I was clicking just as Carmen opened her mouth, what I was really reinforcing was biting! So for a few days Carmen nipped at my hand instead of touching it. But hey — she was learning! 🙂

    To fix the biting, I lay my hand flat down (harder to bite) and reinforced steps onto my hand, not biting. This is better anyway, because it turned out to be a good stepping-stone to the next cue — climbing onto my hand. And, just for laughs, I’m working on using the biting to teach Carmen to retrieve an itty-bitty dumbbell, just like a dog. I’ll let you know how that goes!

    Shaping Steps for the Behavior “Step onto Hand”

    • Use food lure to get iguana to move towards food lure held in hand.
    • Hold hand in position of eventual cue (palm up, flat on floor or shelf in front of iguana) with food lure still visible between thumb and hand on side AWAY from iguana (i.e., she has to step on hand, even just a bit, in order to reach the greens piece). Click as her foot hits hand.
    • Add additional food lures on arm. Now iguana steps on hand and is click/treated for that. Another step, another C/T. I had Carmen walking all the way up my arm on her own within just a few minutes.
    • Keep iguana on your arm. Once she’s come to the end of the greens trail, I keep C/Ting as long as she stays there. I click, then hand her a greens piece, over and over. When she leaves of her own accord, I don’t make her stay, but I also don’t reinforce her. I just hold out my hand with more greens lures and we try again. I’m up to about a minute of Carmen voluntarily staying on my arm.
    • Fade lure by making pieces of greens smaller and smaller until they disappears. C/T progress as before — 1 step onto hand = C/T, etc. But now the treat comes from another place, rather than serving as a lure.
    • Go to variable reinforcement [VR] (i.e., no longer reinforcing every step — 2fers, 3fers, etc.). Increase the amount of time she stays on your arm for each reinforcement.

    Getting the Behavior

    Half the battle with clicker training is getting the animal to perform a behavior that you can reinforce. If you reach for the iguana and she backs away, you can’t reinforce that. Worse yet, she’s already been reinforced environmentally, because by getting away from you, she alleviates stress.