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!

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