Friday, November 2, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Preventing Boredom

People sometimes criticize zoos for having habitats that are small and boring. They feel bad for the animals, worried that they don’t have enough to do. This is a valid concern; zoo animals do sometimes show stereotypic behaviors like pacing, which is why Ken spent time telling us about what the Shedd does to provide variety for the animals in their care.

Training is a wonderful way to provide interesting experiences for an animal. Not only does it give it something to do, it provides social interaction and mental stimulation. Ken believes that this is one of the most important reasons for training zoological animals (and domestic pets, too!).

In addition to training an animal regularly, the sessions can be set up to provide variety for the animal. That is to say, the training sessions should not all be the same. Obviously, you can work on different behaviors, but you can also change up where the session is held, the length of the session, the speed at which you train, who is working with the animal, and who else is around (either other animals or humans), but not participating in the training.

The reinforcement process can provide a lot of variety too; not only can you provide different types, numbers, and sizes of reinforcers, but you can also switch up the reinforcement schedule. Secondary reinforcers can also provide a lot of interest.

Finally, don’t forget about informal sessions- having regular “play” sessions in which a trainer interacts with an animal can be incredibly valuable. These are interactions that are not contingent on the animal’s behavior (beyond the rules needed for safety), and can be the animal’s choice in what to do.

Enrichment is about helping to make an animal’s habitat species-specific. That is, it should allow the animal to engage in more natural behaviors, and make their home interesting. Having multiple habitats can provide variety for the animal, and the Shedd does a nice job of providing their animals with a number of different locations in which to live.

This penguin has a number of objects to stimulate interest.

But even if there is only one habitat, there is a lot that can be done to prevent boredom. Environmental conditions can be changed: the amount of sunshine/lighting can vary, the temperatures can be changed, and different substrates can be provided. For water animals, water currents can be adjusted to provide interest.

The way the habitat is configured should allow the animal to engage in species-appropriate behaviors, whether that is climbing, jumping, running, or swimming. Habitats can also be rearranged, moving items around to provide new stimulation.

Social interactions should be considered. The Shedd will sometimes have all of their animals of a particular species living together, and sometimes they will separate them into smaller groups. They will also switch who is in each group on a regular basis.

Enrichment devices or toys can also provide a great deal of interest. Simply providing a variety of different, rotating toys for the animals to explore can do a lot to prevent boredom. Food-dispensing objects can be used at meal times. Items with different colors, sizes, textures, and smells are encouraged.

A Word of Caution
At this point, Ken cautioned that animals need to be okay with variety. If they have lived a very sterile, regimented life, too much variety can be actually be stressful. Ken encouraged us to introduce variety slowly in order to help the animal get used to it.

That said, variety and consistency are not contradictory concepts. Consistency is often hailed as important, especially for anxious or reactive animals. Ken pointed out that consistency is meant to give the animal security and confidence, while variety gives it a reason to be engaged in its environment. He compared it to a game. The rules remain the same, but there are different leagues, teams, and players.

What About Our Pets?
Preventing boredom is important for our pets, too. Pets that are bored often find ways to entertain themselves, and often in ways that we humans don’t particularly care for. Barking, chewing, and digging are great examples of problem behaviors in dogs. The solution, of course, is to provide them with some kind of enrichment.

Ken’s principles can be applied to our dogs. Whether you participate in dog sports or just teach them silly tricks, regular training can be a great way to help provide interesting activities for our dogs. We can also switch up how, when, and what we feed them. Rotating their toys is helpful, as is bringing home interesting objects and encouraging them to explore. Take them new places, even if it’s just a different route on the daily walk. Be creative!

What do you do to provide new experiences for your dogs?

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