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.)
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!