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!