Monday, October 22, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Introducing New Animals

It's inevitable: whether you work in a zoo or you own pets, there will come a time when a new animal arrives on the scene. And when it does, will you leave the introductions up to chance, or will you do something to help ease the transition for everyone? If you know anything about Ken Ramirez, you probably know that he's very methodical and systematic about how he does things, and new animal introductions is no exception.

The very first thing that happens with every new animal at the Shedd Aquarium is a quarantine period. This is especially important for wild-caught animals (at the Shedd, their wild animals are rescues), who may be harboring disease or parasites. This is a wise thing for pet owners to do, too, especially if the animal being introduced was a stray, but even if they weren't. Fleas and worms are sneaky, and can infiltrate even the most responsible owners' homes.

Next, the Shedd staff have some pre-introduction tasks. Without other animals present, the new animal is allowed to explore the habitats it will be living in. This will increase the animal's comfort with its new surroundings. The staff will take the time to observe the animal's explorations to ensure that they know where to find things like food, water, and hiding places, and if necessary, help them fully investigate their new home. They will also introduce the concept of gating so that the animal can be easily separated in case things go wrong.

These penguins can live together peacefully thanks to careful introductions.
Animals will then “meet” the other animals by being placed in a nearby or adjacent enclosure that gives all of the animals visual, olfactory, and/or audible access to one another. This allows for a measure of safety while the animals get acquainted. The Shedd staff will observe the interactions to make predictions about potential problems. If necessary, they will make the introductions more gradual. The staff will also feed all of the animals near each other (but with barriers between them) to promote general positive feelings about each other, taking special care to reinforce calmness and acceptance.

Animals who have had prior training, such as those who are “on loan” from another zoo, will get some additional introductions. The trainers will have the new animal and an existing animal work together cooperatively. For example, they may both be asked to target the same item. Reinforcement is contingent on both animals being calm and accepting of the other.

The Shedd staff also keep in mind that every introduction is unique. Everything from the the species, the individual animal, the habitat's size or layout, and the trainers themselves can affect how the introductions go. As such, the staff take care to have contingency plans on what to do if things go wrong, and they constantly monitor and assess the situation to see if problems arise.

One problem that sometimes comes up is aggression between two animals, and whether or not you should let the animals “work it out” on their own. If you separate the animals every time there is aggression, they won't learn how to live together. What's worse, once reunified, the animals often show aggression again, as if they'd never met before. On the other hand, if an animal is at risk of serious injury or death, separation is necessary. Because this is such a difficult matter, the Shedd staff pay a lot of attention to creating good introductions. Their goal is always for introductions to go as smoothly as possible, reducing the need to separate animals.

Have you ever introduced a new animal into your household? What did you do? Was it successful? I'd love to hear if you have any tips- or words of caution!


Ci Da said...

I think it's important to stress how slowly introductions sometimes need to go. For instance, when I was introducing the Chihuahua to my Aussie (Chihuahua was new to the environment, Aussie was long time resident) we gated the dogs away from each other for a month (with training sessions in between) before we started allowing them to casually mingle in brief spurts. Even then it probably took a good 6 months for things to normalize. Now I trust the two dogs together completely despite the size difference, and I owe it in large part to how meticulous I was when doing introductions.

Tegan said...

I think that many pet owners assume that their pets will get along and make minimal efforts to prevent issues occurring. I think posts like yours illustrate how much care pet owners SHOULD be taking in introductions.

With my rescues, I normally have at least one of my dogs that the rescue will click with instantly. Because I'm lazy, I normally don't push my luck, and just exercise two separate lots of dogs, and all is well.

However, for some of the long term rescues, I have accidents where somehow I've let the rescue and a non-friend run... And normally things are quite okay. I put this down to habituation to each other's presence, and acceptance to the rescue dog into the territory, prior to any introductions. When these dogs do eventually meet face to face, it's nothing special.

This is a long way of saying: Sometimes dogs get along because they knew each other before they had to get along. :)