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.

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