How to Train your Parents

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration for San Diego County high school for juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, or Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

This week we were privileged enough to meet Nicki Boyd, San Diego Zoo’s Behavior Husbandry Manager. Ms. Boyd manages the Zoo’s animal training program and has trained everything from tigers to komodo dragons. Many of the techniques she uses on exotic animals can be easily applied to domestic ones and even people. Training is important to do with every animal because it stimulates their learning capabilities and facilitates cooperation in their care.

Ms. Boyd bases her entire training program on the concept of positive reinforcement. It is a training technique that uses rewards to reinforce an animal when it has performed the appropriate behavior. This system of training is found to be so effective that Ms. Boyd even stated how it can be used on kids, parents, or a boyfriend or girlfriend. Regardless of the animal, most rewards with positive reinforcement are food related. Food is innately desired by all animals and therefore is the most universal motivator. Tactile rewards, meaning praise involving touch, can also be used to positively reinforce an action with animals like rhinos, which love to get scratched with a back scratcher. Dogs are one of the best animals to use tactile reinforcement on because of how much they love attention and physical affection. Toys can also be used as reinforcement, particularly for domesticated animals. Granting an animal access to a favorite toy after they have successfully performed a behavior is not only a great reward, but can also signal to some service animals that it is time to work.

Positive reinforcement can be used not only to teach new behaviors but also to help desensitize the animal to things that are initially startling. A big fear that a lot of people with pets have encountered is the horror of the pet carrier. Many animals associate that dreaded object with negative, stressful experiences at the vet, and do their best to avoid it. Positive reinforcement can help to remove those bad associations for an animal by rewarding time spent in the carrier, or relaxed behavior around the carrier. With enough praise and rewards, the animal eventually equates the carrier with multiple good experiences and rare trips to the vet, which helps desensitize their fear. Besides using rewards, just leaving the upsetting object around the animals living area aids in desensitization. The animal will become habituated with the object and therefore not stress out every time it is revealed. Desensitization is extremely helpful for situations that may not come naturally, such as medical procedures, which can now be less stressful and possibly even enjoyable for the animal.

One thing to be cautious of when training any animal is superstitious behavior. Positive reinforcement can sometimes accidentally applaud an unnecessary action that the animal then believes is part of the desired behavior. An example that Ms. Boyd gave us was when she trained some big cats to open their mouths for dental exams. In order to capture the open mouth, Ms. Boyd and her team waited for the cat to roar because that is one of the only times they will naturally perform that behavior. By rewarding the animal for opening its jaws, Ms. Boyd was also reinforcing the accompanied roar. The next step was removing the superstitious roar behavior to isolate the desired action. In Ms. Boyd’s opinion, opening the mouth and keeping it in that position is one of the hardest behaviors to train, but with enough patience and consistency this behavior can be learned. Consistency is huge in husbandry because every single interaction with an animal is shaping them. People are constantly either training or un-training a certain behavior just by being present. It is for that reason that reinforcement must be exact and routine. Despite how consistent the training is, often times the learning process must take place one baby step at a time, a strategy referred to as successive approximations. Rewarding every time the animal improves on the behavior, even slightly, is a gradual, yet effective way to reach perfect execution.

As Ms. Boyd would agree, training is teaching. Training is essential in the welfare of animals in managed care; to not only make their lives easier and less stressful but also as a way to stimulate their intelligence. Through the practice of positive reinforcement, learning is promoted in a way that is rewarding and enjoyable to the animal. Above all else, proper training establishes a strong bond and makes the lives of the animals and the people who care for them happier and healthier.

Lucas, Real World Team
Week Two, Winter Session, 2015

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