Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kind of Wordless Wednesday: Having Fun is Exhausting!

Whew! All that running around is hard work! But look how happy Maisy looks! Have I mentioned how much I appreciate the staff at A Dog Spot for not only running an excellent boarding facility, but also for giving me so many pictures? I'm having so much fun sharing them with you!

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!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Training Multiple Animals

While one-on-one training is ideal, it’s not always possible. Maybe you need multiple animals for a trick, maybe you’re working with a mom whose baby is too young to be separated from her, or maybe you’ve got highly flock/herd oriented animals who just don’t do well when apart from its cohorts. Whatever the case, sometimes training multiple animals at once is a necessity.

As with many training questions, the answer to how to best set up a session with more than one animal depends on many factors. The species, the size of the group, and the trainer’s experience level all matter. And, Ken said, one of the most important considerations has to do with social situations. Although dominance is something of a dirty word in the dog world, it does exist, and it’s important to understand who is currently at the top of the social structure and whether or not that’s in flux. Understanding the current social situation will help you be more successful. For example, a lower-ranking animal will be extremely hesitant to perform a behavior that requires it to be in close proximity to a higher-ranking one. It could even provoke a fight, which would definitely wreck your training session for the day.

When training in a group, Ken encouraged us to find a way to most closely replicate an individual session. Physical separation is the easiest way to do this; animals could be brought out of an adjoining enclosure one by one. If this is not possible, spatial separation may be another viable option. To do this, two trainers are required. One occupies the group (by feeding them, usually), while the other works with an animal a short distance away. If this won’t work either, then the next option is to use stationing.

A selection of name targets used by Shedd staff.
Stationing is when an animal goes to and stays at a designated spot. Stationing can take several different forms. In location specific stationing, the animal will go to a specific place in its habitat, such as under a tree or next to a boulder. Position specific stationing is very natural to animals; it requires them to take up a position relative to others in the group. In other words, they always line up in the same order, regardless of which habitat they are in. Name targets are used to direct the animal to a particular place. Shedd uses colorful shapes, and many of their animals know to look for the shape they’ve been assigned and station there. Choice is a more informal type of stationing in which the animal needs to follow certain guidelines but has more control over the details. For example, the group may be required to assemble in front of the trainer, but can choose where to stand in relation to one another. Finally, shuffle stationing is where each animal chooses a spot on their own, and then moves to a location as specified by the trainer.

The type of stationing you use will depend on the group and your goals. For example, location specific stationing is often used for meal times. Position specific stationing is frequently used during training sessions.

A common question people have about group training is how to avoid bridging confusion. How will each animal know if the bridge was meant for it or not? Ken recommended having multiple bridges for each animal, which means that you will need to teach each animal several bridges separately before you bring them together as a group. Although we often think of bridges as audible (a click or a whistle), Ken suggested having tactile bridges (a tap on a particular body part) and visual bridges (pointing distinctly in the animal’s face or a thumbs up) as well.

Another group bridging problem occurs during unison behaviors. If there are three dolphins leaping into the air, and two get it right but the third doesn’t, the trainer needs to decide whether or not to give the bridge. There are two ways to approach this. You can make the bridge group-contingent. This requires all of the animals to do the behavior correctly in order to get the bridge and subsequent reinforcement. This is particularly useful when competition between two animals is causing one to fail. The other option is to not give the bridge, but reinforce the animals that were correct. Of course, this only works if the behavior is “self-terminated” (ie, ends on its own and not continued or repeated until bridged).

The last thing Ken encouraged us to consider when training a group of animals is the concept of fairness. Animals are very aware of whether or not they are receiving your attention or food… and if someone else is receiving it instead! What’s more, he believes that animals will question why they should bother to pay attention to you if you aren’t paying attention to them. Animals need to be taught how to share your attention (and food!), so Ken encouraged us to recognize that during a group training session, all of the animals are doing something. Whether it’s simply staying at their station or waiting their turn, all animals should be reinforced equally. The ultimate goal is to avoid competition, so you’ll need to set up your sessions well. Know your animals and your goals.

Although this is just a very brief look at a pretty complex topic, I hope it gives you a starting point the next time you find yourself faced with the need to train more than one animal at a time. And if you often train multiple animals, join the conversation! What have you done to make your job easier?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Somewhat Wordless Wednesday

I love this photo. Not only does Maisy look absolutely hilarious mid-zoomie, but you can also see just how huge the play yard at A Dog Spot is. (And this is only half of it!) There's more room there than Maisy has at home. No wonder she's having so much fun!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Husbandry Training

In the most general sense, “husbandry” refers to the careful management of animals using the best scientific knowledge and principles, but usually when zoological professionals use the term, they mean the animal’s participation in medical care. This makes husbandry a type of cooperative behavior on the animal’s part.

There are many types of husbandry behaviors. At the more passive end of the spectrum, the animal simply tolerates or allows the human to touch its body. It gets progressively more difficult as the animal learns to accept tasks that restrict its movement or ability to escape. The animal can also become an active participant in its care by presenting particular body parts to be worked on. 

This dolphin is a willing participant in dental exams thanks to husbandry training.
Husbandry training is important for several reasons. First, whether the animal is tolerating the task or actively participating in it, the human involved will be safer than if the animal was forced to do it. Second, there is far less stress for the animal if it knows what to expect and how it should react. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the animal will be healthier because it will receive more regular medical care.

We saw a lot of videos of husbandry training during the seminar. From a tiger allowing its teeth to be brushed to an elephant putting its foot through a hole so its feet could be trimmed to animals voluntarily getting on a scale, it’s clear that there is a wide variety of tasks that can be accomplished. We also got to see husbandry training in action as Ken worked with Ty the sea lion on a voluntary blood draw behavior.

I was struck by how slowly Ken moved through the steps, but he told us this was important because husbandry behaviors are typically uncomfortable or even painful for the animals. As a result, it’s vital to take your time and use very small approximations towards the final behavior. He also said that the trainers take care to practice the behaviors in a fun way hundreds of times for every one time it’s used in real life.

For behaviors that can’t be practiced “as is” in a fun way (such as a blood draw), the trainers will do many types of touches in the same context. Sometimes the animal will be tickled, or slapped lightly, or touched with a small ball, or tapped. This teaches the animal that the touch will feel different every time. Since they understand the structure of the behavior, they are far more willing to tolerate the occasional needle stick.

I definitely think we don’t do enough to prepare our dogs for husbandry tasks, whether it’s participating in a vet appointment or being groomed. Our dogs are often physically restrained to get shots or have its temperature taken, and while they are generally tolerant of all of these behaviors, force isn’t necessary. A little bit of training can go a long way towards making such things more tolerable for the animal. While we can’t prepare the animal for every possibility, we can make routine tasks like getting the toe nails clipped or tooth brushing more tolerable.

Ken told us that if you’re going to train your animal for a husbandry task, the most important thing to do is to find out exactly what needs to be done. Ask lots of questions of the vet or groomer to find out what they will need the animal to do. Ken told us a great story about preparing an animal for an eye exam, only to be surprised on the big day by learning that the lights would need to be turned off. The trainers hadn’t included that step in training, and it proved to be a challenge.

Other possible errors? Looking for a quick fix or using the medical behavior before it’s completely trained. While you might be able to get the behavior once, you probably won’t get it again. Don’t limit future possibilities by rushing through training. Likewise, don’t push the animal beyond what it has been trained for. “Just once more” or “just a little longer” is likely to backfire, wrecking all your careful work.

It’s also important to remember that medical behaviors are never fully trained. Always continue to reinforce the animal for calm, cooperative behavior. Along those same lines, don’t make assumptions about what the animal likes. Since medical procedures are usually uncomfortable, awkward, or painful, you need to make it worth the animal’s effort to participate.

Possibly the most important message I took away from my week at Shedd was that I don’t do enough to help my dog feel better about routine tasks, and that there’s plenty I could do to make things easier for her- especially when it comes to something like nail clipping (she hates it!) What about you? Is there a husbandry task your dog could be trained to do? Or maybe you’ve already worked on helping your dog feel better about certain things. I’d love to hear about it.

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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Here's another awesome picture of Maisy during her stay at A Dog Spot, the boarding kennel I used while I was in Chicago for the Shedd Animal Training Seminar. I just loved all the pictures they gave me of Maisy playing with other dogs- look how happy she is! I can't imagine leaving her anywhere else.

Yesterday the local paper did a feature on them. Check it out by clicking here!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Outside the Session

How much do you train your dog? How often? I’ve asked many people this question. Some say that they train for an hour every evening. Others say they train for one minute out of every hour that they are awake. Personally, I train very little. When I’m working on a goal- preparing for a trial, maybe- I will train for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 4 days a week. In the last two months, I’ve done exactly one formal training session, and it lasted about 60 seconds.

And yet, I’m training all the time. Even on our thrice-daily walks I have a pocketful of treats so I can reinforce behaviors I like. It’s just that I usually don’t have a specific goal in mind. This is what Ken described as the difference between formal training and non-formal interactions. Even the most dedicated of trainers will spend more time interacting with their animals in a non-formal situation. After all, even at an hour a day of training, that still leaves 23 hours of unstructured time.

The truth is, every interaction we have an animal has some type of value- hopefully reinforcing- and animals learn outside of formal training sessions just as readily as inside them. I think most of us understand this at some level, but what I loved about the Shedd experience was learning how the staff use this to their advantage. They actually have what Ken calls passive training sessions, where the staff simply spend time with the animals in their care.

We got to see this demonstrated with their Magellanic Penguins. The trainers didn’t show off any behaviors, and they didn’t demonstrate the science behind training. Instead, they brought the penguins into our classroom solely to observe how the penguins acted when around strangers. Did they play with their toys? Look for food? Curiously inspect their surroundings? Not only were we excited to get up close and personal with these amazing animals, but the trainers were able to gain some valuable information.

More importantly, though, non-formal interactions are often when the most bonding occurs. Although training sessions can and do contribute to relationships, the time we spend interacting with our animals with no pressure and no expectations has the biggest impact. At the most basic level, relationships are simply about being together with no strings attached. For me, these informal moments are the most important part of my day. I cherish walking through the woods with my dog at my side, the way she flops down exhausted after a good play session, and the quiet moments late at night where she lies pressed up against my side.

What about you? What non-formal things do you do with your dog that makes you happy?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: What to Do When Your Animal is Wrong

Ken is unabashedly in favor of positive reinforcement when training. I am too, and in fact, I think most people see the value in using positive reinforcement for training. But people often struggle with what they should do when the animal they are training is wrong, or does something they don’t like. Some people will argue that the only way to deal with incorrect responses is through the use of punishment- after all, it decreases behavior, right?

Ken Ramirez
 Well... yeah. Punishment, aversives, negative reinforcement… it all works. Ken acknowledges this freely. However, he adds that using these approaches can be fraught with pitfalls and often have unintended consequences, especially when done by novice trainers.

To a certain degree, Ken agrees with the advice “reward what you like and ignore what you don’t.” He also acknowledges that there are behaviors that simply cannot be ignored- like aggression. Thankfully, there are many ways to deal with problem behavior. That said, if you’ve come across a behavior that can’t be ignored and you can’t figure out several possible solutions, the situation probably requires skills that are more advanced than you have. And that’s fine! Animal training is something that even the experts continue to learn about, and consulting with others is standard practice.

Ken’s go-to method for dealing with incorrect responses is something called the Least Reinforcing Stimulus or Scenario (LRS). An LRS is designed to deal with unwanted behavior without causing frustration for the animal. It is deceptively simple: to implement an LRS, you provide a completely neutral response for a short period of time, followed by an immediate opportunity for the animal to earn reinforcement. Of course, an LRS is a bit more complicated than that, so let’s take a look at it in more depth.

First, like everything in training, timing is important. The LRS must be implemented immediately so that the animal understands which behavior was incorrect. A poorly timed LRS will likely frustrate the animal, and what you’re looking for is a calm acceptance from the animal.

Next, the LRS should be brief. In general, when an LRS is used, it will probably last from 3 to 5 seconds. Of course, this length may vary. It needs to be long enough that the animal notices an interruption in reinforcement, but not so long that you upset the animal. For trainers and animals that have a relatively fast rhythm going in training, the LRS can be quite short. For slower trainers and animals, the LRS will need to be longer. We saw this playing out in the daily sessions we watched; the sea lions were quite quick, and their LRS might only be a second or two. On the other hand, the lizard we saw was much slower, and his LRS needed to be longer as a result. That said, do not be tempted to extend the length of the LRS beyond what is strictly needed. The LRS should be the same length despite how “bad” the mistake was. It is not a time-out procedure.

One of the most important features of the LRS is that it should be a completely neutral response. This means that you should refrain from having an emotional response (no scowling or grumbling, for example). However, you do not need to freeze. An LRS works because it is an interruption in the flow of reinforcement in which you simply don’t respond to the animal. If you’re looking at the animal, continue looking at it. If you’re looking away, continue to look away. The only exception to this is if what you’re doing is reinforcing.

Finally, you need to provide the animal with an immediate opportunity to earn reinforcement after the LRS. Because you don’t want to cause frustration, the best way to do this is by offering the animal a different, easy behavior. Ken tends to use targeting because that’s such a strong behavior for the animals and trainers at Shedd alike, but any behavior that the animal knows well will work. Ken will then do a few other behaviors before asking for the behavior that the animal failed at earlier.

Astute readers will have realized that the LRS is really meant for an animal with prior training (because there needs to be at least one fallback behavior), and with whom you have a relationship (so that you know how long the LRS should be). It will also only work when the animal is participating in the process. You can’t use an LRS with an animal that’s disengaged from the training process because it won’t notice that you’ve interrupted the reinforcement process.

The LRS, while simple on the surface, really does work. It’s been proven both practically and scientifically. It is, technically, the first step to extinction, so it can take a bit of time. Many positive reinforcement trainers do the LRS quite naturally; I know I’ve done them, but not because I knew that’s what I was doing. Having some knowledge about them definitely helps me understand how to implement them better.

What about you? Do you use an LRS, or something similar? This is an admittedly new concept to me, so I’d love to hear about others’ experience with it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Getting Behavior

So far, we’ve learned that Ken prefers to use positive reinforcement when training behaviors, and that he finds the use of a bridging stimulus to be very helpful. But we haven’t talked about how he gets the behavior he wants to bridge and reinforce, so let’s do that today! The first thing you need to know is that while some trainers will use only one or two methods to the exclusion of all others, Ken uses what works. The method that he chooses will depend on the animal and the behavior.

As an interesting side note, while the concepts were familiar to me, Ken uses some different terminology than I’m used to. Indeed, the words that zoological trainers use differ from things we say in the dog world. As a lover of words, I actually found this fascinating. For example, he uses the word “shaping” differently than we do in the dog world; for Ken, “shaping” simply means training. Each of the techniques he discussed can be broken down into small increments, and he will reward each successive approximation regardless of what technique he’s using… which is shaping. Just not the way we dog people typically think of it.

Targeting is probably the most common technique used in the zoological setting, mostly because it is incredibly useful for teaching husbandry tasks. (Ironically, it’s probably the one I use the least with my dog, although I have found it incredibly helpful when I’m trying to learn a physical skill myself.) Targeting involves teaching the animal to touch an object with a body part, either briefly or for an extended duration. For example, a dolphin may be taught to touch its nose to a colored shape, or a sea otter may be taught to grab a plastic buoy with its paws.

Sometimes called capturing in non-zoological settings, scanning is where the trainer watches for the animal to perform a desired behavior. When the animal does- for example when a dolphin jumps in the air or a beluga whale spits water- the trainer reinforces the animal at the exact moment the behavior happens. As you can imagine, the use of a bridging stimulus is incredibly important here. Scanning is also sometimes called free-shaping, as the trainer will capture a first step toward the behavior and then gradually increase the criteria.

Baiting is also known as luring, and it can be a controversial method. Baiting is done by using food to elicit the desired behavior, and if not done well, can create animals and trainers who are dependent on the use of food to complete the behavior. We actually saw some baiting in action when Ken was working to teach Tanner the sea lion to go in the water on cue. He would give the cue (swim!) and then toss a fish in the water. While it is very useful- especially for novice animals and trainers- Ken said it’s typically not his first choice for a lot of behaviors. Still, he rarely says “never” to a training technique.

Environmental Manipulation
I love environmental manipulation; it can make things so easy sometimes. This is simply the process of arranging things in the environment so that the desired behavior is the only or the most likely option for the animal. It obviously won’t work for every behavior you want, but when it does, it’s genius. What could be better than setting the animal up for success and giving the trainer the opportunity to reinforce the behavior?

This technique, sometimes called molding, is more common in the dog world than zoological settings. Modeling is where you physically manipulate the animal’s body into the position you want (like when a trainer pushes a dog into a sit), and as you can imagine, tends to be either physically impossible or incredibly dangerous with zoo animals. Still, Ken refused to discount it entirely, citing Koko the gorilla as an example. Koko’s trainers taught her sign language by manipulating her fingers and hands into each word, something they could have never targeted, captured, or lured into happening.

This is not a common method of training as it requires a fairly sophisticated animal who understands that it should copy what another animal is doing. Although Ken has done some work around mimicry, it is not widely used. A similar concept is social facilitation, in which an animal learns to do something from another animal. This is typically accidental, such as when a dog learns to bark at passers-by from another dog.

Abstract Learning
Abstract learning is a complex method of learning. This is where two ideas are combined to create a new concept. It happens often with humans, such as when we attend lectures, but is not common in the animal world, although it does happen with cognitive researchers. Alex the Parrot is an excellent example.

This list is certainly not all inclusive. There are other ways of training animals, but these were presented as some of the most common methods. I initially learned through the use of baiting/luring, and appreciate it as a technique. I also do a fair amount of scanning (both capturing and free-shaping). What about you guys? Which technique do you use the most? Are there techniques you’ve used that aren’t listed here? I’d love to hear about your experiences.