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!

1 comment:

Karen said...

tenWhat an incredible experience! If I had not found my passion so late in life, I would be doing what you are doing now.