Sunday, July 7, 2013

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Putting It All Together!

On our last day at Shedd, Ken summarized the week with three main points:

1. Get to know your animal.
Ken believes that animal training can be enhanced by having a good relationship with your animal. Certainly, knowing what does and does not motivate the individual in front of you will make your job easier, but Ken also wants to ensure that each animal he cares for has a good life. Relationships promote this.

Of course, relationships are not required for good training. In these cases, you will need to know about the individual’s species. Like most other folks in the zoological world, Ken works at Shedd because he values conservation. Training allows the public to learn more about species they would otherwise not have contact with; good experiences may spur these people to consider animals as a whole when they make decisions, whether that’s about funding research, habitat destruction, or hunting laws.

As an unrelated side note, training can also help wild animals. Ken told us about how behaviorists were able to manipulate the environment to facilitate Condor breeding at a time when there were only 19 left in the world. He shared a fascinating video on remote training the Stellar Sea Lion to help facilitate research on why the population was declining. And my favorite story- how he was part of a group that trained dogs to find sea turtle eggs after the Gulf oil spill. In three days, ten dogs were able to find 29,000 eggs, which were relocated so the babies would have a better chance of survival.

2. Continue to expand your knowledge.
It follows that getting to know your animal, whether individually or as a species, depends on you as the trainer continuing to learn. One way to do this is through research. Whether you conduct it or simply read the final report, we all benefit from it. But there are many ways to learn, and you should find a way that makes sense to you, whether that’s through books, seminars, or videos. Networking is another great way to continue to learn; share ideas or visit their facilities, classes, or simply observe them in a training session.

The knowledge needed to be a good trainer is not limited to learning about animals, though. Learn about people, too. Many people become animal trainers because they don’t like interacting with other humans. This is unfortunate, because in my opinion, the best trainers are the ones who can share their knowledge with others. Ken recommended reading books such as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Bringing out the Best in People, The Power of Nice, or Whale Done!.

3. Practice and gain experience.
Finally, training is a skill that you must practice. Simply knowing a lot does not mean that you are a good trainer. You have to do. Train your pets to do silly tricks, simply to improve your skills. Work with other animals, whether you are helping a friend or volunteering at a shelter.

Sara is an animal.
You can also play training games where one person acts as the animal and the other as the trainer. We spent several hours doing this on our last day at Shedd, and it was eye-opening. We experimented with adding cues, creating behavior chains, and using No Reward Markers. When it was my turn to be the animal, even though I knew that I was being trained, I was so confused. This quickly turned to frustration, and I never did complete the task in the time allotted. I left the exercise absolutely impressed that my dog has learned anything at all from me!

And thus concludes the Shedd Animal Training Seminar Series! I had the most wonderful time at this seminar, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Getting to go behind the scenes, watching training sessions, and interacting with exotic animals was amazing. Best vacation ever.

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