Friday, November 16, 2012

On Hiatus

I hate to do this, but I need to take a short break from blogging for awhile. I'm in the middle of another writing project, and it's taking up a lot of my time. I'm also teaching a lot; I'm starting six hours of back-to-back classes on Saturdays and have been doing some private dog training consults as well. And of course, I have my regular full-time job, too! Something has to give, and unfortunately, it's this blog.

I will be back. I have a lot to share with you all- the rest of my notes from the Shedd seminar, and then the Kathy Sdao seminar I went to last month, and then next month I'm seeing Denise Fenzi again! I also want to write more about how moving went with Maisy (which was, yes, quite a few months ago!). So. Lots of plans, just not enough time.

I hope to be back around the beginning of the new year. Until then, here's a Maisy picture to hold you over!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Taking a Breather

Here's another shot of Maisy at A Dog Spot. Good dog play always features some short breaks, and here you can see that Maisy, the little brown dog to the left side of the photo, and Trout the North American Yodelhound doing just that. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to know that Maisy will be happy and confident whenever she's staying at A Dog Spot.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Half-Time Break!

If you live in Minnesota, Maisy urges you to Vote No!

So we're about half-way through the Shedd seminar series- whew! I feel like I've been writing about it forever. (And once I'm done with them, I have to write about the Kathy Sdao seminar I went to!) Anyway, since the Shedd entries seem to have taken over the blog, I figured it would be nice to take a little half-time break to update you on all things Maisy.

As you may remember, Maisy and I moved about three months ago. She has settled in beautifully, and is back to her baseline level of functioning- maybe even better! She has simply blossomed, and I'm often amazed at how well she's doing. If I didn't know better, I'd think she was a "normal" dog!

Maisy and I have been filling our days with lots of walks around the neighborhood and exploring the hiking areas down by the river. We have both been enjoying this a great deal, and it's really allowed me to see just how well she's doing. On several occasions, we've been rushed by friendly-but-rude off-leash dogs. Where this used to be the stuff of nightmares, lately Maisy has taken to play bowing at them! I just about fell over the first time.

Maisy has also been more social, interested in meeting people we encounter. Surprisingly, she's even been interested in greeting children. She hasn't always liked kids, and has even snapped at a few in the past, so I've been very, very cautious. Still, Maisy has been so clear in her desire to see them that I've allowed a few interactions with some of the more polite children. I've been blown away by Maisy's relaxed and friendly greetings.

Are you a friend?

She's also shown a lot of curiosity about unusual things in the environment. Unexpected items have always unnerved her in the past, but lately, she's been bravely investigating novel objects. Halloween offered many such opportunities, and while she's still not quite sure what to think of oversized inflatable spiders and life-sized scarecrows, she's willing to have an open mind!

So, all in all, Maisy is doing wonderful, and I'm just absolutely thrilled with her recent behavior. I hope you're all doing well, too!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Preventing Boredom

People sometimes criticize zoos for having habitats that are small and boring. They feel bad for the animals, worried that they don’t have enough to do. This is a valid concern; zoo animals do sometimes show stereotypic behaviors like pacing, which is why Ken spent time telling us about what the Shedd does to provide variety for the animals in their care.

Training is a wonderful way to provide interesting experiences for an animal. Not only does it give it something to do, it provides social interaction and mental stimulation. Ken believes that this is one of the most important reasons for training zoological animals (and domestic pets, too!).

In addition to training an animal regularly, the sessions can be set up to provide variety for the animal. That is to say, the training sessions should not all be the same. Obviously, you can work on different behaviors, but you can also change up where the session is held, the length of the session, the speed at which you train, who is working with the animal, and who else is around (either other animals or humans), but not participating in the training.

The reinforcement process can provide a lot of variety too; not only can you provide different types, numbers, and sizes of reinforcers, but you can also switch up the reinforcement schedule. Secondary reinforcers can also provide a lot of interest.

Finally, don’t forget about informal sessions- having regular “play” sessions in which a trainer interacts with an animal can be incredibly valuable. These are interactions that are not contingent on the animal’s behavior (beyond the rules needed for safety), and can be the animal’s choice in what to do.

Enrichment is about helping to make an animal’s habitat species-specific. That is, it should allow the animal to engage in more natural behaviors, and make their home interesting. Having multiple habitats can provide variety for the animal, and the Shedd does a nice job of providing their animals with a number of different locations in which to live.

This penguin has a number of objects to stimulate interest.

But even if there is only one habitat, there is a lot that can be done to prevent boredom. Environmental conditions can be changed: the amount of sunshine/lighting can vary, the temperatures can be changed, and different substrates can be provided. For water animals, water currents can be adjusted to provide interest.

The way the habitat is configured should allow the animal to engage in species-appropriate behaviors, whether that is climbing, jumping, running, or swimming. Habitats can also be rearranged, moving items around to provide new stimulation.

Social interactions should be considered. The Shedd will sometimes have all of their animals of a particular species living together, and sometimes they will separate them into smaller groups. They will also switch who is in each group on a regular basis.

Enrichment devices or toys can also provide a great deal of interest. Simply providing a variety of different, rotating toys for the animals to explore can do a lot to prevent boredom. Food-dispensing objects can be used at meal times. Items with different colors, sizes, textures, and smells are encouraged.

A Word of Caution
At this point, Ken cautioned that animals need to be okay with variety. If they have lived a very sterile, regimented life, too much variety can be actually be stressful. Ken encouraged us to introduce variety slowly in order to help the animal get used to it.

That said, variety and consistency are not contradictory concepts. Consistency is often hailed as important, especially for anxious or reactive animals. Ken pointed out that consistency is meant to give the animal security and confidence, while variety gives it a reason to be engaged in its environment. He compared it to a game. The rules remain the same, but there are different leagues, teams, and players.

What About Our Pets?
Preventing boredom is important for our pets, too. Pets that are bored often find ways to entertain themselves, and often in ways that we humans don’t particularly care for. Barking, chewing, and digging are great examples of problem behaviors in dogs. The solution, of course, is to provide them with some kind of enrichment.

Ken’s principles can be applied to our dogs. Whether you participate in dog sports or just teach them silly tricks, regular training can be a great way to help provide interesting activities for our dogs. We can also switch up how, when, and what we feed them. Rotating their toys is helpful, as is bringing home interesting objects and encouraging them to explore. Take them new places, even if it’s just a different route on the daily walk. Be creative!

What do you do to provide new experiences for your dogs?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kind of Wordless Wednesday: Having Fun is Exhausting!

Whew! All that running around is hard work! But look how happy Maisy looks! Have I mentioned how much I appreciate the staff at A Dog Spot for not only running an excellent boarding facility, but also for giving me so many pictures? I'm having so much fun sharing them with you!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Introducing New Animals

It's inevitable: whether you work in a zoo or you own pets, there will come a time when a new animal arrives on the scene. And when it does, will you leave the introductions up to chance, or will you do something to help ease the transition for everyone? If you know anything about Ken Ramirez, you probably know that he's very methodical and systematic about how he does things, and new animal introductions is no exception.

The very first thing that happens with every new animal at the Shedd Aquarium is a quarantine period. This is especially important for wild-caught animals (at the Shedd, their wild animals are rescues), who may be harboring disease or parasites. This is a wise thing for pet owners to do, too, especially if the animal being introduced was a stray, but even if they weren't. Fleas and worms are sneaky, and can infiltrate even the most responsible owners' homes.

Next, the Shedd staff have some pre-introduction tasks. Without other animals present, the new animal is allowed to explore the habitats it will be living in. This will increase the animal's comfort with its new surroundings. The staff will take the time to observe the animal's explorations to ensure that they know where to find things like food, water, and hiding places, and if necessary, help them fully investigate their new home. They will also introduce the concept of gating so that the animal can be easily separated in case things go wrong.

These penguins can live together peacefully thanks to careful introductions.
Animals will then “meet” the other animals by being placed in a nearby or adjacent enclosure that gives all of the animals visual, olfactory, and/or audible access to one another. This allows for a measure of safety while the animals get acquainted. The Shedd staff will observe the interactions to make predictions about potential problems. If necessary, they will make the introductions more gradual. The staff will also feed all of the animals near each other (but with barriers between them) to promote general positive feelings about each other, taking special care to reinforce calmness and acceptance.

Animals who have had prior training, such as those who are “on loan” from another zoo, will get some additional introductions. The trainers will have the new animal and an existing animal work together cooperatively. For example, they may both be asked to target the same item. Reinforcement is contingent on both animals being calm and accepting of the other.

The Shedd staff also keep in mind that every introduction is unique. Everything from the the species, the individual animal, the habitat's size or layout, and the trainers themselves can affect how the introductions go. As such, the staff take care to have contingency plans on what to do if things go wrong, and they constantly monitor and assess the situation to see if problems arise.

One problem that sometimes comes up is aggression between two animals, and whether or not you should let the animals “work it out” on their own. If you separate the animals every time there is aggression, they won't learn how to live together. What's worse, once reunified, the animals often show aggression again, as if they'd never met before. On the other hand, if an animal is at risk of serious injury or death, separation is necessary. Because this is such a difficult matter, the Shedd staff pay a lot of attention to creating good introductions. Their goal is always for introductions to go as smoothly as possible, reducing the need to separate animals.

Have you ever introduced a new animal into your household? What did you do? Was it successful? I'd love to hear if you have any tips- or words of caution!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Training Multiple Animals

While one-on-one training is ideal, it’s not always possible. Maybe you need multiple animals for a trick, maybe you’re working with a mom whose baby is too young to be separated from her, or maybe you’ve got highly flock/herd oriented animals who just don’t do well when apart from its cohorts. Whatever the case, sometimes training multiple animals at once is a necessity.

As with many training questions, the answer to how to best set up a session with more than one animal depends on many factors. The species, the size of the group, and the trainer’s experience level all matter. And, Ken said, one of the most important considerations has to do with social situations. Although dominance is something of a dirty word in the dog world, it does exist, and it’s important to understand who is currently at the top of the social structure and whether or not that’s in flux. Understanding the current social situation will help you be more successful. For example, a lower-ranking animal will be extremely hesitant to perform a behavior that requires it to be in close proximity to a higher-ranking one. It could even provoke a fight, which would definitely wreck your training session for the day.

When training in a group, Ken encouraged us to find a way to most closely replicate an individual session. Physical separation is the easiest way to do this; animals could be brought out of an adjoining enclosure one by one. If this is not possible, spatial separation may be another viable option. To do this, two trainers are required. One occupies the group (by feeding them, usually), while the other works with an animal a short distance away. If this won’t work either, then the next option is to use stationing.

A selection of name targets used by Shedd staff.
Stationing is when an animal goes to and stays at a designated spot. Stationing can take several different forms. In location specific stationing, the animal will go to a specific place in its habitat, such as under a tree or next to a boulder. Position specific stationing is very natural to animals; it requires them to take up a position relative to others in the group. In other words, they always line up in the same order, regardless of which habitat they are in. Name targets are used to direct the animal to a particular place. Shedd uses colorful shapes, and many of their animals know to look for the shape they’ve been assigned and station there. Choice is a more informal type of stationing in which the animal needs to follow certain guidelines but has more control over the details. For example, the group may be required to assemble in front of the trainer, but can choose where to stand in relation to one another. Finally, shuffle stationing is where each animal chooses a spot on their own, and then moves to a location as specified by the trainer.

The type of stationing you use will depend on the group and your goals. For example, location specific stationing is often used for meal times. Position specific stationing is frequently used during training sessions.

A common question people have about group training is how to avoid bridging confusion. How will each animal know if the bridge was meant for it or not? Ken recommended having multiple bridges for each animal, which means that you will need to teach each animal several bridges separately before you bring them together as a group. Although we often think of bridges as audible (a click or a whistle), Ken suggested having tactile bridges (a tap on a particular body part) and visual bridges (pointing distinctly in the animal’s face or a thumbs up) as well.

Another group bridging problem occurs during unison behaviors. If there are three dolphins leaping into the air, and two get it right but the third doesn’t, the trainer needs to decide whether or not to give the bridge. There are two ways to approach this. You can make the bridge group-contingent. This requires all of the animals to do the behavior correctly in order to get the bridge and subsequent reinforcement. This is particularly useful when competition between two animals is causing one to fail. The other option is to not give the bridge, but reinforce the animals that were correct. Of course, this only works if the behavior is “self-terminated” (ie, ends on its own and not continued or repeated until bridged).

The last thing Ken encouraged us to consider when training a group of animals is the concept of fairness. Animals are very aware of whether or not they are receiving your attention or food… and if someone else is receiving it instead! What’s more, he believes that animals will question why they should bother to pay attention to you if you aren’t paying attention to them. Animals need to be taught how to share your attention (and food!), so Ken encouraged us to recognize that during a group training session, all of the animals are doing something. Whether it’s simply staying at their station or waiting their turn, all animals should be reinforced equally. The ultimate goal is to avoid competition, so you’ll need to set up your sessions well. Know your animals and your goals.

Although this is just a very brief look at a pretty complex topic, I hope it gives you a starting point the next time you find yourself faced with the need to train more than one animal at a time. And if you often train multiple animals, join the conversation! What have you done to make your job easier?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Somewhat Wordless Wednesday

I love this photo. Not only does Maisy look absolutely hilarious mid-zoomie, but you can also see just how huge the play yard at A Dog Spot is. (And this is only half of it!) There's more room there than Maisy has at home. No wonder she's having so much fun!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Husbandry Training

In the most general sense, “husbandry” refers to the careful management of animals using the best scientific knowledge and principles, but usually when zoological professionals use the term, they mean the animal’s participation in medical care. This makes husbandry a type of cooperative behavior on the animal’s part.

There are many types of husbandry behaviors. At the more passive end of the spectrum, the animal simply tolerates or allows the human to touch its body. It gets progressively more difficult as the animal learns to accept tasks that restrict its movement or ability to escape. The animal can also become an active participant in its care by presenting particular body parts to be worked on. 

This dolphin is a willing participant in dental exams thanks to husbandry training.
Husbandry training is important for several reasons. First, whether the animal is tolerating the task or actively participating in it, the human involved will be safer than if the animal was forced to do it. Second, there is far less stress for the animal if it knows what to expect and how it should react. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the animal will be healthier because it will receive more regular medical care.

We saw a lot of videos of husbandry training during the seminar. From a tiger allowing its teeth to be brushed to an elephant putting its foot through a hole so its feet could be trimmed to animals voluntarily getting on a scale, it’s clear that there is a wide variety of tasks that can be accomplished. We also got to see husbandry training in action as Ken worked with Ty the sea lion on a voluntary blood draw behavior.

I was struck by how slowly Ken moved through the steps, but he told us this was important because husbandry behaviors are typically uncomfortable or even painful for the animals. As a result, it’s vital to take your time and use very small approximations towards the final behavior. He also said that the trainers take care to practice the behaviors in a fun way hundreds of times for every one time it’s used in real life.

For behaviors that can’t be practiced “as is” in a fun way (such as a blood draw), the trainers will do many types of touches in the same context. Sometimes the animal will be tickled, or slapped lightly, or touched with a small ball, or tapped. This teaches the animal that the touch will feel different every time. Since they understand the structure of the behavior, they are far more willing to tolerate the occasional needle stick.

I definitely think we don’t do enough to prepare our dogs for husbandry tasks, whether it’s participating in a vet appointment or being groomed. Our dogs are often physically restrained to get shots or have its temperature taken, and while they are generally tolerant of all of these behaviors, force isn’t necessary. A little bit of training can go a long way towards making such things more tolerable for the animal. While we can’t prepare the animal for every possibility, we can make routine tasks like getting the toe nails clipped or tooth brushing more tolerable.

Ken told us that if you’re going to train your animal for a husbandry task, the most important thing to do is to find out exactly what needs to be done. Ask lots of questions of the vet or groomer to find out what they will need the animal to do. Ken told us a great story about preparing an animal for an eye exam, only to be surprised on the big day by learning that the lights would need to be turned off. The trainers hadn’t included that step in training, and it proved to be a challenge.

Other possible errors? Looking for a quick fix or using the medical behavior before it’s completely trained. While you might be able to get the behavior once, you probably won’t get it again. Don’t limit future possibilities by rushing through training. Likewise, don’t push the animal beyond what it has been trained for. “Just once more” or “just a little longer” is likely to backfire, wrecking all your careful work.

It’s also important to remember that medical behaviors are never fully trained. Always continue to reinforce the animal for calm, cooperative behavior. Along those same lines, don’t make assumptions about what the animal likes. Since medical procedures are usually uncomfortable, awkward, or painful, you need to make it worth the animal’s effort to participate.

Possibly the most important message I took away from my week at Shedd was that I don’t do enough to help my dog feel better about routine tasks, and that there’s plenty I could do to make things easier for her- especially when it comes to something like nail clipping (she hates it!) What about you? Is there a husbandry task your dog could be trained to do? Or maybe you’ve already worked on helping your dog feel better about certain things. I’d love to hear about it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Cooperative Behavior

One of the most important things we can teach an animal is to cooperate with us humans. This is especially important for animals in zoological settings because the animals are often large and/or dangerous; being trained to work with the human keepers makes things safer and less stressful for everyone involved.

There are many types of cooperative behavior, and today we will look at what Ken considers the most important. These are the behaviors that allow us to successfully manage the animals in our care, and if there is anything that I took away from my week at the Shedd, it’s that we do not do enough to help our pets understand how to work with us in everyday situations.

Targeting can refer to a number of different behaviors. In its most basic form, it simply means touching a specified item, but it can be much more complex than that. Some examples include touching different types of items, touching the target for an extended period of time, following a target, targeting with various body parts, touching multiple targets simultaneously, or going to a remote target away from the trainer. Targeting is possibly one of the most versatile behaviors taught to an animal because it can serve as the foundation for teaching the other cooperative behaviors.

With stationing, an animal goes to and stays at a designated location. This may be a specific location (as in Leonard Lion sits by the big rock, Lucky Lion sits by the tree stump, etc.), or it may be a position relative to the other animals (Leonard always lines up to the left, then Lucky is next to him, etc.). This behavior is particularly useful during group training sessions or at meal times as it lowers the competition between animals.

A to B Behaviors
A to B behaviors refers to the idea of moving from one location to another. This can be done for reasons of safety. For example, a keeper may want to enter an enclosure without getting rushed by an excited animal. By teaching an animal to move from an area near the doorway to another spot, the keeper can enter in a safer manner. These behaviors differ from stationing in that there isn’t a set location for the animal to go to.

Gating and Separations
When an animal “gates,” it moves through a threshold (such as a doorway or gate) from one area to another. While this is closely related to A to B behaviors, it specifically refers to moving from one enclosure to another. This is important because zoological settings often have multiple areas for animals to live in. For example, at Shedd, we saw Ty the sea lion in four different areas over the course of the week. Having Ty be a willing participant in moving from one place to another allows him a great deal of variety, which prevents boredom.

In addition to gating, Ty also had to separate from the other sea lions. This is an important concept for animals typically kept in groups, such as the dolphins or beluga whales. The animals need to be comfortable leaving their group behind in order to participate in medical procedures or individual training sessions.

Tactile Behaviors
This beluga whale is comfortable with human contact. Also: SQUEE!
 Tactile work involves desensitizing the animal to being touched by humans. Since most zoological animals are wild animals not used to human contact, this work is a vital precursor to medical behaviors, either trained or untrained.

Tactile behaviors can be taught in a number of ways. The animal can habituate to human contact, which means that it happens passively without much thought from the trainer. The animal can receive basic desensitization, in which the trainer systematically increases the amount of exposure below the animals fear threshold. Counter-conditioning can be actively pursued by reinforcing acceptance of the human’s touch. Finally, the trainer can use flooding, which is an intense form of habituation in which the contact happens at full intensity and the animal is expected to “just deal” with it. Flooding is useful when there is no other way to teach the animal to accept human contact, but since it can result in learned helplessness, it shouldn’t be used routinely.

So, how can we use these concepts to help our dogs be more comfortable in the human world? Well, we can teach a dog to target our hands with their noses. Following a hand target can help a dog move through a difficult environment- something that can be especially useful for a reactive dog to focus on! We can teach a dog to go to a mat or a crate, which helps keep him out from under foot while we greet guests at the door or change baby’s diaper. And helping a dog feel comfortable being touched will make grooming and vet visits so much easier.

There are tons and tons of examples of ways we can help our dogs develop more cooperative behaviors. I’d love to hear how you’ve used these techniques with your dog! I hope you will comment with your experiences.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Here's another awesome picture of Maisy during her stay at A Dog Spot, the boarding kennel I used while I was in Chicago for the Shedd Animal Training Seminar. I just loved all the pictures they gave me of Maisy playing with other dogs- look how happy she is! I can't imagine leaving her anywhere else.

Yesterday the local paper did a feature on them. Check it out by clicking here!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Outside the Session

How much do you train your dog? How often? I’ve asked many people this question. Some say that they train for an hour every evening. Others say they train for one minute out of every hour that they are awake. Personally, I train very little. When I’m working on a goal- preparing for a trial, maybe- I will train for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 4 days a week. In the last two months, I’ve done exactly one formal training session, and it lasted about 60 seconds.

And yet, I’m training all the time. Even on our thrice-daily walks I have a pocketful of treats so I can reinforce behaviors I like. It’s just that I usually don’t have a specific goal in mind. This is what Ken described as the difference between formal training and non-formal interactions. Even the most dedicated of trainers will spend more time interacting with their animals in a non-formal situation. After all, even at an hour a day of training, that still leaves 23 hours of unstructured time.

The truth is, every interaction we have an animal has some type of value- hopefully reinforcing- and animals learn outside of formal training sessions just as readily as inside them. I think most of us understand this at some level, but what I loved about the Shedd experience was learning how the staff use this to their advantage. They actually have what Ken calls passive training sessions, where the staff simply spend time with the animals in their care.

We got to see this demonstrated with their Magellanic Penguins. The trainers didn’t show off any behaviors, and they didn’t demonstrate the science behind training. Instead, they brought the penguins into our classroom solely to observe how the penguins acted when around strangers. Did they play with their toys? Look for food? Curiously inspect their surroundings? Not only were we excited to get up close and personal with these amazing animals, but the trainers were able to gain some valuable information.

More importantly, though, non-formal interactions are often when the most bonding occurs. Although training sessions can and do contribute to relationships, the time we spend interacting with our animals with no pressure and no expectations has the biggest impact. At the most basic level, relationships are simply about being together with no strings attached. For me, these informal moments are the most important part of my day. I cherish walking through the woods with my dog at my side, the way she flops down exhausted after a good play session, and the quiet moments late at night where she lies pressed up against my side.

What about you? What non-formal things do you do with your dog that makes you happy?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: What to Do When Your Animal is Wrong

Ken is unabashedly in favor of positive reinforcement when training. I am too, and in fact, I think most people see the value in using positive reinforcement for training. But people often struggle with what they should do when the animal they are training is wrong, or does something they don’t like. Some people will argue that the only way to deal with incorrect responses is through the use of punishment- after all, it decreases behavior, right?

Ken Ramirez
 Well... yeah. Punishment, aversives, negative reinforcement… it all works. Ken acknowledges this freely. However, he adds that using these approaches can be fraught with pitfalls and often have unintended consequences, especially when done by novice trainers.

To a certain degree, Ken agrees with the advice “reward what you like and ignore what you don’t.” He also acknowledges that there are behaviors that simply cannot be ignored- like aggression. Thankfully, there are many ways to deal with problem behavior. That said, if you’ve come across a behavior that can’t be ignored and you can’t figure out several possible solutions, the situation probably requires skills that are more advanced than you have. And that’s fine! Animal training is something that even the experts continue to learn about, and consulting with others is standard practice.

Ken’s go-to method for dealing with incorrect responses is something called the Least Reinforcing Stimulus or Scenario (LRS). An LRS is designed to deal with unwanted behavior without causing frustration for the animal. It is deceptively simple: to implement an LRS, you provide a completely neutral response for a short period of time, followed by an immediate opportunity for the animal to earn reinforcement. Of course, an LRS is a bit more complicated than that, so let’s take a look at it in more depth.

First, like everything in training, timing is important. The LRS must be implemented immediately so that the animal understands which behavior was incorrect. A poorly timed LRS will likely frustrate the animal, and what you’re looking for is a calm acceptance from the animal.

Next, the LRS should be brief. In general, when an LRS is used, it will probably last from 3 to 5 seconds. Of course, this length may vary. It needs to be long enough that the animal notices an interruption in reinforcement, but not so long that you upset the animal. For trainers and animals that have a relatively fast rhythm going in training, the LRS can be quite short. For slower trainers and animals, the LRS will need to be longer. We saw this playing out in the daily sessions we watched; the sea lions were quite quick, and their LRS might only be a second or two. On the other hand, the lizard we saw was much slower, and his LRS needed to be longer as a result. That said, do not be tempted to extend the length of the LRS beyond what is strictly needed. The LRS should be the same length despite how “bad” the mistake was. It is not a time-out procedure.

One of the most important features of the LRS is that it should be a completely neutral response. This means that you should refrain from having an emotional response (no scowling or grumbling, for example). However, you do not need to freeze. An LRS works because it is an interruption in the flow of reinforcement in which you simply don’t respond to the animal. If you’re looking at the animal, continue looking at it. If you’re looking away, continue to look away. The only exception to this is if what you’re doing is reinforcing.

Finally, you need to provide the animal with an immediate opportunity to earn reinforcement after the LRS. Because you don’t want to cause frustration, the best way to do this is by offering the animal a different, easy behavior. Ken tends to use targeting because that’s such a strong behavior for the animals and trainers at Shedd alike, but any behavior that the animal knows well will work. Ken will then do a few other behaviors before asking for the behavior that the animal failed at earlier.

Astute readers will have realized that the LRS is really meant for an animal with prior training (because there needs to be at least one fallback behavior), and with whom you have a relationship (so that you know how long the LRS should be). It will also only work when the animal is participating in the process. You can’t use an LRS with an animal that’s disengaged from the training process because it won’t notice that you’ve interrupted the reinforcement process.

The LRS, while simple on the surface, really does work. It’s been proven both practically and scientifically. It is, technically, the first step to extinction, so it can take a bit of time. Many positive reinforcement trainers do the LRS quite naturally; I know I’ve done them, but not because I knew that’s what I was doing. Having some knowledge about them definitely helps me understand how to implement them better.

What about you? Do you use an LRS, or something similar? This is an admittedly new concept to me, so I’d love to hear about others’ experience with it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Getting Behavior

So far, we’ve learned that Ken prefers to use positive reinforcement when training behaviors, and that he finds the use of a bridging stimulus to be very helpful. But we haven’t talked about how he gets the behavior he wants to bridge and reinforce, so let’s do that today! The first thing you need to know is that while some trainers will use only one or two methods to the exclusion of all others, Ken uses what works. The method that he chooses will depend on the animal and the behavior.

As an interesting side note, while the concepts were familiar to me, Ken uses some different terminology than I’m used to. Indeed, the words that zoological trainers use differ from things we say in the dog world. As a lover of words, I actually found this fascinating. For example, he uses the word “shaping” differently than we do in the dog world; for Ken, “shaping” simply means training. Each of the techniques he discussed can be broken down into small increments, and he will reward each successive approximation regardless of what technique he’s using… which is shaping. Just not the way we dog people typically think of it.

Targeting is probably the most common technique used in the zoological setting, mostly because it is incredibly useful for teaching husbandry tasks. (Ironically, it’s probably the one I use the least with my dog, although I have found it incredibly helpful when I’m trying to learn a physical skill myself.) Targeting involves teaching the animal to touch an object with a body part, either briefly or for an extended duration. For example, a dolphin may be taught to touch its nose to a colored shape, or a sea otter may be taught to grab a plastic buoy with its paws.

Sometimes called capturing in non-zoological settings, scanning is where the trainer watches for the animal to perform a desired behavior. When the animal does- for example when a dolphin jumps in the air or a beluga whale spits water- the trainer reinforces the animal at the exact moment the behavior happens. As you can imagine, the use of a bridging stimulus is incredibly important here. Scanning is also sometimes called free-shaping, as the trainer will capture a first step toward the behavior and then gradually increase the criteria.

Baiting is also known as luring, and it can be a controversial method. Baiting is done by using food to elicit the desired behavior, and if not done well, can create animals and trainers who are dependent on the use of food to complete the behavior. We actually saw some baiting in action when Ken was working to teach Tanner the sea lion to go in the water on cue. He would give the cue (swim!) and then toss a fish in the water. While it is very useful- especially for novice animals and trainers- Ken said it’s typically not his first choice for a lot of behaviors. Still, he rarely says “never” to a training technique.

Environmental Manipulation
I love environmental manipulation; it can make things so easy sometimes. This is simply the process of arranging things in the environment so that the desired behavior is the only or the most likely option for the animal. It obviously won’t work for every behavior you want, but when it does, it’s genius. What could be better than setting the animal up for success and giving the trainer the opportunity to reinforce the behavior?

This technique, sometimes called molding, is more common in the dog world than zoological settings. Modeling is where you physically manipulate the animal’s body into the position you want (like when a trainer pushes a dog into a sit), and as you can imagine, tends to be either physically impossible or incredibly dangerous with zoo animals. Still, Ken refused to discount it entirely, citing Koko the gorilla as an example. Koko’s trainers taught her sign language by manipulating her fingers and hands into each word, something they could have never targeted, captured, or lured into happening.

This is not a common method of training as it requires a fairly sophisticated animal who understands that it should copy what another animal is doing. Although Ken has done some work around mimicry, it is not widely used. A similar concept is social facilitation, in which an animal learns to do something from another animal. This is typically accidental, such as when a dog learns to bark at passers-by from another dog.

Abstract Learning
Abstract learning is a complex method of learning. This is where two ideas are combined to create a new concept. It happens often with humans, such as when we attend lectures, but is not common in the animal world, although it does happen with cognitive researchers. Alex the Parrot is an excellent example.

This list is certainly not all inclusive. There are other ways of training animals, but these were presented as some of the most common methods. I initially learned through the use of baiting/luring, and appreciate it as a technique. I also do a fair amount of scanning (both capturing and free-shaping). What about you guys? Which technique do you use the most? Are there techniques you’ve used that aren’t listed here? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: A Bridge to Better Behavior

Ken Ramirez was clear: using reinforcement is the best way to train an animal, and reinforcement is most effective when it is inherently enjoyable and provided immediately. But providing reinforcement quickly can be challenging, especially when the animal is performing at a distance. How can you get a fish to a dolphin when it’s in the middle of arcing through the air or a piece of meat to a dog who is performing an agility obstacle 20 feet from you?

This Shedd trainer uses a whistle bridge for the Aracari.

Well… you can’t. But you can bridge the gap between the time the animal performs the behavior and the time it gets the reward. This is done through the use of a bridging stimulus, or bridge for short. This terminology, while occasionally used in the dog world (we usually say “marker” or even “click”), is widespread in zoological training programs, and you have to admit, it’s a descriptive word. A bridge is a signal that tells the animal, “I like what you just did, and I’ll give you a reinforcer as soon as I can.”

Using a bridge is not essential to animal training- learning will take place whether or not you use one- but it does have several advantages. It is obviously useful when you just can’t deliver that fish fast enough. It can assist with precision by helping the animal identify exactly what part of the behavior it just performed is being reinforced. Was it the height of the jump? The size of the splash? The way it turned its head while mid-flight? The bridge provides clarity. And bridges work neurologically because they’ve been classically conditioned to signify that a reinforcer is coming.

If you choose to use a bridge (and Ken would argue that you should, at least some of the time), there are three things you need to do. You need to choose an effective bridge, you need to teach it to your animal, and you need to be proficient in using it.

When you select something to use as a bridge, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, and possibly most importantly, you need to use a bridge that your animal can perceive. Obviously, an audible bridge is useless if the animal cannot hear it, but you also need to make sure that it is unique to the environment so that it can be distinguished from other sounds. For example, a bridge that sounds like a telephone, doorbell, or microwave beep may not be a good choice for our pets.

The bridge should be practical: if it’s too hard to use, you will either struggle with it (and impact your timing, observation, or other critical training skills), or you’ll stop using it entirely. Most zoological trainers use a whistle that they can hold in their mouths because it leaves their hands free to do other things. Similarly, the bridge should be easy to replicate so that every time it’s used it sounds the same (this is especially important if there are multiple trainers working with the same animal).

And finally, the animal should have no prior negative association to the bridge. Although you can desensitize an animal to a sound they dislike, your training will be better off in the long run if it you don’t need to go through this process, especially considering animals can sometimes have a spontaneous recovery of the negative association.

Teaching the bridge to an animal is a fairly straightforward process. Pairing the stimulus (a whistle, a click, a flash of light, etc.) with a reinforcer repeatedly will result in a Pavlovian type response: the animal perceives the bridge and automatically expects that the reinforcer will come next. We dog trainers do this when we “load the clicker” by doing the click-treat repetition over and over again. Teaching the bridge is usually a pretty quick process. Dogs tend to figure out the click-treat association within five minutes or so. The Shedd staff tend to be a bit more methodical about this introduction, but even so, the animals in their care readily pick up on the bridge.

If the animal you are working with doesn’t figure out that the bridging stimulus predicts a reinforcer is coming, you should look at why. Is the timing off? If too much time elapses between the bridge and the reinforcer, the animal may not be able to make a clear connection. Likewise, if the reinforcer comes at the same time as the bridge or even before, the connection will be tricky or even impossible for the animal to understand. Or maybe the item you are using isn’t truly a reinforcer. Perhaps your dog doesn’t like beef because it makes him feel sick. Or it’s possible that the bridging stimulus you’re using has a negative association you aren’t aware of.

Finally, you need to be proficient at using the bridge. Can you physically operate it, and do so without excessive fumbling? Personally, I find i-clicks easier to use than box clickers (and I have friends who find the reverse to be true). You also need to make an effort to practice your timing skills. Ken showed us a variety of training games: you can train a human friend to do a simple task. You can bounce a ball and click every time it hits the ground (or bounces off a wall). Or you can enlist a friend to play “hand games”- the friend holds up one or more fingers at a time, and you click when they hold up only one, or only when it’s their index finger. Improving your timing will improve your training.

Once you’ve chosen an effective bridge, taught it to the animal, and are satisfied that you can use it well, you’re all set to bring out better behavior in your animal. In my next post, I’ll tell you about the different ways the Shedd staff do this. But for now, I’d love to hear from you. Do you use a bridge (or maybe more than one)? Why or why not? If you do, what bridge(s) do you use? Please comment with your experiences!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Whee!

I hope you aren't tired of pictures from A Dog Spot, the boarding kennel Maisy stayed at while I was at the Shedd Animal Training seminar. It's just that this picture (and some more to come) make me so darn happy. Seeing Maisy playing like a normal dog is just amazing to me, especially considering how dog reactive she used to be.

She still can be, if I'm honest. I wouldn't feel comfortable with Maisy playing at a day care or another boarding kennel, but I'm confident in A Dog Spot's staff's ability to read dog body language and trust that they will intervene without the use of punishment or fear if one of the dogs is behaving inappropriately or is scared.

And the result is this: absolute joy. I'm so glad that she could enjoy her vacation as much as I enjoyed mine.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Basic Operant Conditioning

In the last hundred years or so, science has learned a lot about animal training. In fact, we have learned so much that Ken stated definitively that training is a technology. That is, the laws of learning are always true, no matter what species we are working with. In that sense, training can be compared to the laws of gravity: no matter what you drop, it will fall downward. Of course training, like gravity, can be influenced by outside factors. If you drop a pen during a tornado, it may fly sideways or appear to hover in the air, but that’s not because gravity has ceased to work. Likewise, the laws behind training are still at work, even when the results are unexpected.

The laws of learning have been broadly grouped into two main categories: operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Ken focused on operant conditioning not only because it is more easily observed and understood by beginners, but also because operant conditioning depends on the animal to think and make choices. Classical conditioning works on a much more instinctive level, and does not result in animals who are actively participating in the training process.

Now, if you’ve ever been to a basic training seminar- or even read a book on the topic- you’ve probably been exposed to the four quadrants. Despite this almost universal approach to explaining the basics of training, Ken didn’t even mention them. This was by design; not only are the quadrants a bit difficult to wrap your brain around at first, but it is also somewhat unnecessary.

What you really need to know about the laws of learning can be summed up in Thorndike’s Law of Effect: behaviors which result in a satisfactory outcome will be repeated, while those that result in discomfort will not. Or, to put it simply, behavior is a function of past consequences.

Consequences come in opposing pairs:
Reinforcing or Punishing
Positive or Negative
Unconditioned (inherent) or Conditioned (learned)
Proximate (immediate) or Distal (in the future)

Beluga whale receiving reinforcement. Photo by Kate Mornement.

Ken believes that the best consequences are the first of every pair; it is far better to have positive reinforcement which is immediate and inherently satisfying. And of all of those consequences, the most important is the use of reinforcement, no matter what form it takes. If you reinforce the behaviors you like, Thorndike’s law tells us that you will see more of those behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of training.

There are three main things to keep in mind when using reinforcement. First, you need to be sure that what you are not mixing up the idea of a reward with reinforcement. Rewards are things we provide that we believe will be an incentive to perform a behavior, but that may or may not actually be something the animal finds desirable. For example, most people consider chocolate to be a great reward, but it gives me headaches, so I would not change my behavior to get some. Second, while inherently reinforcing consequences like food are best, we can certainly teach animals to enjoy and even work for things like petting or praise. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the timing of reinforcement is the key to successful training; reinforcers should be given as soon after the behavior as possible. Reinforcing in a timely manner with a low-value item will yield better results than poorly timed reinforcers, even if they are very highly desired.

In future posts, we will discuss some of the questions that arise when considering these pairs of consequences: How do you ensure that your timing is good? How do you teach an animal to enjoy something so much that it can be reinforcing? How do you elicit the behaviors you want… and what do you do when the animal doesn’t do what you want? And if you have specific questions about the basics of operant conditioning, please ask in the comments!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: The Human Element

Today's post about my experiences at the Shedd Aquarium is brought to you by A huge thanks to them for making this post possible.

If animal training is a relationship, then we must consider what both parties bring to the table. Understandably, our focus is often on the animal, but we also need to take into account what the human element brings to the training equation. Today, we will do just that by discussing Ken’s thoughts on intelligence, compassion, and anthropomorphism.

Oftentimes, we think of ourselves as being smarter than our training companions, but just as we can’t compare apples to oranges, it is impossible to compare humans and animals. Intelligence is often defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge, as well as having a faculty of thought and reason. I doubt that any of my readers would dispute that animals can learn- after all, that is what animal training is about- so certainly they are acquiring and applying knowledge.

But Ken reminded us that behavior is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence. After all, both dolphins (regarded as highly intelligent) and goldfish (considered rather stupid) can be trained. This is because behavior is a result of reinforcement history. Dogs sit when asked because of the past consequences when they’ve done so. In short, intelligence does not equal trainability.

Still, cognition scientists agree that at least some animals do seem capable of reasoning, making inferences, and discrimination. Of course, as Ken pointed out, all of these studies are naturally anthropocentric. If the use of IQ tests- written by humans for humans- is controversial, then how can we possibly expect to be able to adequately test intelligence in other species? After all, what constitutes intelligence for a goldfish?

Another area in which people claim superiority over animals is our emotional capacity, although Ken argues that it is possibly our most volatile element. Beyond the fact that we aren’t unique in experiencing emotions, the way we feel often affects our ability to train our animals.

This is why so many experts exhort us to keep our emotions under control when we are training. Although emotions are a good thing (they show that we care), they can cloud our decision-making ability. Obviously, “bad” emotions like frustration or anger can have a negative effect on our training goals, but “good” emotions can, too. Ken told us a story of a Shedd trainer who received a marriage proposal during an animal show she was conducting. The trainer was so overcome by happiness that she was unable to complete the show or even transfer the dolphin she was working with to her coworker.

And of course, no discussion of what humans bring to the training table would be complete without touching on anthropomorphism, that tendency we have to assign human qualities, characteristics, and motivation to anything that is not human. We do this in a variety of ways, but there are two things we do that most impact our training: we try to speculate on what the animal is thinking, and we make excuses for it.

In both cases, it’s perfectly fine to try to make sense of an animal’s behavior based on our own experience. In fact, this can be a compassionate thing; recognizing that we made an error or that the animal was stressed/in pain/distracted and then changing either the situation or our criteria so the animal can be successful is admirable. But we should not use these speculations or excuses to justify reinforcing subpar behavior. Ken argues that if you reward an animal for trying, you just confuse it… and you set yourself up for needing to retrain the behavior down the road. You can’t reinforce thoughts, only behaviors.

So, what does the human half bring to the training relationship? From our ability to think about how we are affecting our animals’ behavior to our large, shared knowledge base on what works (and what doesn’t) when training animals, it seems clear that we have a lot to offer. Next time, we’ll start to discuss the basic science behind animal training. In the meantime, though, what do you think that you bring to training, and is that uniquely human or is it a shared capability?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Boarding Kennel Edition (Part II)

Here's Maisy hanging out inside at A Dog Spot. Although she's not as interested in playing with these dogs as she was with the dogs in last week's Wordless Wednesday, you can see that she's still relaxed and comfortable. A Dog Spot is a bit of a drive for me (it's outside Rochester, Minnesota, so it's about two hours from the Twin Cities), but it is worth it!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Who Are You Training?

There are many ways to know an animal. From understanding the basics about what kind of animal it is to the intimate bonds that can come only with time... well, there’s a difference between knowing about an animal to really knowing a particular one. Ken Ramirez argues that the best training happens with the latter, when you understand who that animal is as an individual.

To explain why he believes this, I'm putting Ken's words into my own framework (so if this completely and utterly doesn't work, blame me, not him): Ken's Hierarchy of Knowing the Animal. Similar to Maslow's hierarchy, you need to understand things about the animal at the bottom of the pyramid before you can move on to the next level.

Understand the Species
At the base of the pyramid, the very first thing you need to have is a basic understanding of the species of animal you have sitting in front of you. This might seem obvious, but while you can train both a horse and a dog, they are very, very different animals. One is a predator, the other is prey, and this very basic fact greatly changes the way the animal acts and reacts to the environment, and by extension, training.

According to Ken, there are three things to consider when you are learning about a species in general. The first is its natural history. What factors led this species to be evolutionarily successful? How does it live, survive, and thrive in the wild? Next, you need to learn about the species' biology and physiology. Can the animal physically do what you're asking of it? A horse will never be able to climb a vine the way primates do, no matter how clever of a trainer you are. Also think about the animal's diet: that same horse is unlikely to accept the hunk of beef you offer a dog or cat. Finally, you need to understand the uniqueness and specialization of the particular species in front of you. Although dogs and wolves are very similar in many ways, they are also very different. (Consider, for example, the studies on pointing, or the detour task.)

Current Circumstances
The next level of the pyramid is examining where the animal currently is. In a zoo setting, the answers at this level will likely be the same for all of its tigers or dolphins, but in pet homes, there may be only one animal to consider, blurring it with the next level. There are two categories in this level, and can be considered in either order.

One thing to do is to take a look at the current health of this animal. Is it well? If not, what's wrong, and how will that affect training? (Should you be training it all?) Ken pointed out that a huge part of health is diet and nutrition. He is adamant that all animals should receive a “base diet” every day. This is the food that the animal needs to live, and is given regardless of whether or not it performs in training or not. He strongly believes that if an animal does not learn the give task- or even if it refuses to participate at all- it should still be fed adequately.

You should also consider the animal's current environment. There are a lot of things that make up an animal's environment. For example, what space does the animal have available to it? Does it use the entire space? Is it adequate to allow the animal to use its body the way it should? What is the temperature and weather like? What kind of items are in its space- is it all one level, or is there foliage or furniture for the animal to explore? Can the animal run, hide, climb, jump?

Another huge part of the environment is the social structure, both in terms of conspecifics, but also other animals in the area. Dominance has become something of a dirty word in the dog world, but no matter what you call it, it's undeniable that animals have social relationships with one another, with some being more dominant/confident/assertive/bossy/whatever than others. How does this influence your animal’s behavior?

Finally, you need to consider the public. In zoo settings, this is obvious: the public expects to see the animals, and makes up apart of the environment by necessity. For dogs, the public is also a concern (can that child pet your dog?), although perhaps not as pervasive as for an animal that lives on display.

All of these factors will impact the animal's ability to focus on training, so it is important when you’re trying to understanding the animal. Just keep in mind that these things can also change if the animal moves to a new zoo or home.

The Individual Animal's History
This level of the pyramid starts to look at who the particular animal you have in front of you is. Each animal in a group, even if housed together and fed the same things, will have different life experiences which will impact your training.

Ken encouraged us to consider where the animal came from. A wild-caught animal will likely behave differently than one born in captivity, just as a puppy from a good breeder as opposed to a puppy mill will likely have very different socialization experiences. Also consider how the animal was raised: by its mother or a bottle? Interestingly, in zoological settings, a human-raised animal is typically more aggressive in adulthood. Was the animal rescued and rehabilitated in some way? Many of Shedd's animals have been rescued- from sea otters affected by oil spills to birds of prey who had been injured- and their first contact with humans may affect how they react to training. Indeed, the type and amount of previous human interaction will shape who the animal is and how it acts.

Another option to learn about an individual animal is to do systematic observations, something the Shedd does often. I spent the week sitting next to one of the staff, and she had a shift each week where all she did was observe and record what the baby dolphin was doing every sixty seconds. Of course, this would be incredibly tedious with our dogs, but even just making it a point to check in and see what they're doing every so often can tell us a lot about their preferences. Observing an animal with an open mind allows us to get to know them based on who they really are, and not just what we assume to be true.

The animal's previous training history is also important to consider. This is perhaps less of a concern for pets who only have one or two people working with it, but in a zoological setting, dozens of staff may work with each animal, and in any given day, the animal may have four or five different people training it. For this reason, Shedd keeps meticulous training records, both on the training goals and plans in general, as well as the progress made in each individual session. Most dog owners aren't quite this meticulous, but it is helpful to know which cues the animal responds to, the types of behaviors it prefers (and struggles with), and a general idea of what you want to accomplish next.

Relationship with the Trainer
Finally, at the very top of the pyramid, you should consider the relationship between the individual animal and the individual trainer. Training is so much easier when you both trust one another. Animals comfortable with their trainers will take more risks and be more creative, while trainers who truly know their animal will find it easier to know when to raise criteria or when to slow down. Although I feel like I'm pretty good at reading dog body language, I'll admit that it's much easier for me to read my own dog than to read client dogs. For Maisy, shifting her tail even half an inch can tell me so much about her emotional state, something I might not notice with a dog I'm not familiar with.

Undoubtedly, you can train an animal without having a relationship with it. You can stay at the first or second level of the pyramid and still train an animal quite well; Skinner's experiments with operant conditioning chambers proved that long ago. Ken showed us some fascinating videos of sea lions which had been caught for a scientific study and were going to be released back to the wild. Because they didn't want the animals to habituate to humans, they did all the training remotely. All the trainers needed to know was what motivates sea lions in general and how to manipulate the current environment to meet their goals.

But the more you know about an animal, the more tools you have in your training toolbox. You will have a better idea of what reinforcers to use, how distractable the animal is, and how quickly it learns. And when you have a relationship with that animal, you are both free to try new things and to achieve amazing things together as a result.

So, what do you think: does this hierarchy make sense or have I made a mess of whatever brilliance Ken was trying to convey? Would you agree with the order in which I presented this? Do you think that knowing an animal better is advantageous to training? How have you experienced these different rungs on the training hierarchy? I'd really love to hear your opinion!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: What is Animal Training, Anyway?

Animal training has been around as long as animals have. At first, it wasn't conscious; the humans involved probably didn't know they were teaching the animals, but the animals learned anyway; when it's dinner time, where they should go, that kind of stuff. Later on, as humans learned that animals could perform tasks, they began to purposefully train their animals to do things for them.

But what does it mean to train an animal? Simply put, Ken Ramirez, director of training at the Shedd Aquarium, told us that training is teaching. He prefers this term- teaching- because it implies that training is a shared process, something that requires two parties. We teach the animals in our care how to live in our world.
Even lizards, like this taigu, can learn how to get along in a human world.

Of course, an animal will figure out how to live in our world whether we actively set out to teach them or not. But Ken believes that training is so important that he considers it one of four cornerstones of good animal care. The first three are pretty obvious- an animal needs to have good nutrition, good health care, and the correct environment for its species. But they also need to have some sort of training program in place. Training, he says, is not a luxury. It is an essential part of good animal care.

There are three primary reasons for this. First, training can help animals living in non-natural settings (whether that's a zoological setting or a in a home) get physical exercise. There is simply no substitute for the Pacific Ocean or an African Savannah, so the trainer needs to find ways to get the animal to use the entire space available to it. In a zoo, the presentation of food is used to encourage monkeys to climb or tigers to jump or dolphins to swim through the entire enclosure. Second, training provides the mental stimulation needed to prevent boredom, and with it, the stereotypic behaviors like pacing sometimes seen in captive animals, or nuisance behaviors like chewing up furniture or barking excessively. Finally, training promotes what Ken calls cooperative behaviors. By teaching an animal to not only tolerate but also participate in cares such as nail clipping, tooth brushing, or even just walking on a leash, we can reduce the stress for the animal and the human caretakers alike.

This taigu has been trained to touch a target stick.
This makes it easier for trainers to get him to move from one area to another.
Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche

Of course, there are many other reasons we train animals. They can provide entertainment, such as the dolphin shows at the Shedd. They can do work for us. They can compete in sports with us. They can help us do research, provide education, and promote conservation. All of these reasons are valid, but Ken calls them “secondary” reasons for training because the purpose is not for the benefit of the individual animal so much as it is for us humans. That doesn't mean it's wrong to train an animal for one of these reasons, but Ken reminded us that animals work better when we put their needs first, and encouraged us not to lose sight of the fact that the animal is an individual being.

I love Ken for that. Long-time readers will know that I'm a huge advocate of relationship-based training, and Ken makes some pretty good arguments for it, too. Not that you can't train an animal without a relationship (Ken showed us some pretty convincing videos that you can train an animal without it ever laying eyes on you), but your training is enhanced when you and your animal have a relationship.

But that's a post for another day. For now, I'd love to hear from you. Would you agree that training is an essential part of animal care? Why or why not? What animals have you trained, and for what reason? How does training benefit you, and how does it benefit your animal? Let's chat about what it means to train an animal!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Boarding Kennel Edition

Photo courtesy of the lovely ladies at A Dog Spot in Southern Minnesota. As you can see, their outdoor play area is huge. I'm terrible at estimating size, but it's really just amazing. Better yet, the women who run it are dog trainers who've studied canine body language, so they are able to pair up dogs in small groups and make sure that everyone is having fun- and step in if they aren't. Maisy knows the white-and-brown dog, but I have no clue who the little brown one is. It doesn't matter; Maisy is clearly having a great time!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Overview

In August, I spent a week at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Despite spending somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty hours in that building, I really saw very little of what it has to offer, because my time was spent at an animal training seminar. Consequently, I spent about 75% of my time in a classroom with approximately thirty other trainers, ranging from dog trainers to zoo professionals to horse people (some of whom came from as far away as Australia or Germany), listening to Ken Ramirez lecture from his book, Animal Training: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement. The other 25% of the time was spent watching Shedd trainers work with sea lions, penguins, otters, dolphins, beluga whales, birds, and lizards.

Do I know how to vacation or what?

For a training geek like me, it was an amazing experience. We covered a wide variety of topics. Some of it (like the section on basic operant conditioning) was review for me. Some of it (like the section on problem solving) was stuff I'd seen Ken present on before. And some of it (like the information on husbandry training) was new to me. But all of it was fascinating, partly because Ken's just such a dynamic speaker, and partly because it was awesome to see the concepts demonstrated with some pretty exotic animals.

One of my favorite parts of the seminar was watching Ken's daily sessions with two different sea lions. Tyler has been at Shedd for around a decade. Ken and Ty have a long history together, and their relationship is easy and relaxed. Throughout the course of the week, we watched Ken work on Ty's voluntary blood draw behavior, and it was fascinating to watch how and when Ken would increase his criteria (which Ken called approximations). Tanner, on the other hand, is new to Shedd. He had just come out of quarantine the week before, having been rescued from the Bonneville Dam in the Pacific Northwest. We saw Ken's first session with Tanner, and watched as they both got acquainted with one another. Ken had to purposefully slow himself down several times to ensure that Tanner's foundation behaviors (“swim” and “deck”) were strong.

"My" beluga whale, Miki.
Of course, the absolute highlight for me was the beluga whale encounter. On Wednesday night, we were allowed to get in the water with the belugas, touch them, feed them, and even give them cues. This was an entirely unexpected pleasure since there is no mention of direct contact with the animals in the seminar description. In fact, Ken was very, very clear that this opportunity does not happen every year. We just got very lucky. In other words: don't sign up for the seminar hoping you'll get to go in the water!

Anyway, in the coming weeks, I will do my best to share some of what I learned while at the Shedd with you all. If you find the material interesting but can't swing the cost or time to go to the seminar, I'd highly recommend Ken's book; the course followed it quite closely. And of course, if you can make it to the seminar, animal encounter or no, it promises to be an amazing experience!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Catching Up

I haven't been a terribly good blogger this summer, I know that. Posts have dwindled through the summer, until they stopped entirely almost a month ago. I've had some very good reasons for that, though, such as:

On August 10th, Maisy and I moved. This was the first time she's moved during her adult life, and a lot of thought went into transitioning her through this time. There are some definite good points about the new place (no off-leash dogs in our neighborhood!), there are some not-so-good points, too (shared living spaces and no fenced yard). Still, for the most part, she and I have settled in, and I'm thrilled with how well she's handled the change.

I didn't time moving very well, as Maisy and I had only been in our new place for about a week when we both went on vacation. I went to a week-long training seminar at the Shedd Aquarium, and Maisy went to A Dog Spot, a small boarding kennel in southern Minnesota.

Oh my gosh, you guys. We both had a great time. For my part, the Shedd was amazing. We spent 9-12 hours there each day for five days. About two-thirds of our time was spent in lecture (by none other than Ken Ramirez, one of my favorite presenters), during which we covered a 500+ page book on animal training. The remainder of the time was spent observing training sessions with penguins, dolphins, beluga whales, sea otters, California sea lions, birds, and lizards. We got to go behind the scenes and saw areas of the aquarium the public never sees. It was fascinating.

For her part, Maisy did wonderfully. We've used A Dog Spot before, and I love the staff there. They go out of their way to make the dogs comfortable, and since the staff are also dog trainers, they are very good at matching up dogs for play groups and interrupting before things if needed. It also helps that their outdoor play yard is huge. Since Maisy's best bud Trout was also staying there that week, she had tons of fun, and even got to meet some new friends.

Hanging Out
Photo by Lauren. I think.
I have spent a lot of time with my friends, and since most of my friends are dog people, this means that Maisy has been quite the little social butterfly, too. She's gotten to discover the joy of Frisbees and water retrieves (okay, so she's missing the “retrieve” part of all this, but she does love racing the other dogs to whatever has been thrown). She's gone hiking with new friends on new trails. She's hung out in very busy parks with off-leash dogs and children. And she's handled it all incredibly well.

I've quit worrying about her so much lately, and have started to treat her like a “normal” dog (whatever that is). In her case, it means that I don't baby her as much as I used to. I'm still thoughtful about where I take her and what I do with her, but I also don't keep her in a bubble. She needed that once. She doesn't anymore. We're both taking some chances and stepping outside of our comfort zones, and while I won't hesitate to step in if she's struggling, I find that she needs me to do that less and less.

Going Forward
I'm working on a series of posts about my time at the Shedd Animal Training Seminar, and should hopefully have some up next week. I've also been keeping some notes about the process of moving with a reactive dog, so I'll probably do a few posts about that, too. Just so you guys know, I don't have internet access in my new place (and probably won't for awhile), so it will be a bit hard for me to respond to comments. I'll do my best, but because I'm depending on free wifi at the library, I can't get online very often!

Anyway, I'm looking forward to catching up with you all! Hope you're doing well!