Positive Training – Beyond The Dogs

Killer WhaleLet’s say you have a killer whale in your backyard.  You would need a big tank for sure.  Actually, you would probably need more than one.  After all, how are you going to clean the tank with a killer whale in it?  Ok, so you have your two big tanks and your pet killer whale and it’s time to clean one of his tanks.  How are you going to get a 9 ton sea mammal out of one tank and into another?  If this sounds like a ridiculous problem, it’s not.  Zoos and marine animal parks deal with problems like this every day.

In the case of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, there are several habitats or tanks for marine mammals and they are joined so that animals can swim from one tank into another.  How do you get a whale to go from one tank into another when you want it to?  Simple.  You use positive training to teach the whale to move.  Ken Ramirez, director of training and animal husbandry for the Shedd Aquarium, has helped to develop training protocols for literally dozens of different animals.  Much of that training involves simple behaviours that make the day to day care and management of the animals easier for the humans and much less stressful for the animals.

If you can’t throw a fish, learn to train

The roots of reinforcement training based on behavioural science were in science labs at universities.  But marine mammal trainers quickly saw the value in positve training techniques and began adopting them as early as the 1960’s.  Offering a dolphin or whale a fish for offered behaviours provided an easy, stress free, and fun way to teach large marine mammals to do the things the trainers wanted.  But a simple problem cropped up.  If there is more than one animal in the tank, how to you provide the reinforcement without creating a competition for the fish?

Well, one solution would be to get really good at throwing fish accurately so that you can reinforce just the right dolphin for the behaviour he just gave you.  But there was an easier way.  Why not let the dolphin come to you?  Trainers again took a technique from university behaviour labs and began using a whistle to mark a correct behaviour.  The whistle served two purposes, it both marked the exact behaviour the trainer was looking for and also signalled the animal to come to the side of the pool to receive their reward.

This mark and reward technique was so successful that many professional animal trainers began using it to train not just sea mammals but many other species like horses and bears.  Animal Behaviour Enterprises (ABE), founded by Kellar and Marian Breland, trained more than 15,000 animals and 140 different species using their behavioural training techniques.  Along with animal trainer Bob Bailey, the Brelands and Animal Behaviour Enterprises literally revolutionized animal training with an approach firmly based in science.

Teaching ChickensWhat’s good for the chicken is good for the dog

Among the animals trained by ABE for use in advertising were chickens.  Some of these chickens were taught to play a short melody on a toy piano and others were taught to dance on a small platform.  Chickens can be difficult to train.  They are fast moving and do not possess the natural affinity to humans that dogs have.  This makes them excellent subjects for behavioural training and perfect helping trainers sharpen their skills with positive training techniques.

For nearly 20 years, Terry Ryan of Legacy Canine Behaviour & Training has been offering “Chicken Camps” to help trainers become more skilled at teaching animals.  The same principles that apply to carefully observing, marking, and reinforcing behaviours in chickens also apply to dogs.  If you can train a chicken with behavioural techniques, you can certainly use them to teach a dog.  Or a rhinoceros, as it happens!

Rhinos and Ibis and Bears?  Oh my!

What if you could teach a rhinoceros to “sit” on cue?  How about teaching it to lie down and roll on its side on cue?  This might sound ridiculous but that’s just what trainers at the Denver Zoo did.  And it wasn’t just an exercise to see if  they could do it.  The behaviours are very useful in performing routine maintenance and medical procedures as well.  You can see video of this amazing rhino on Karen Pryor’s column at clickertraining.com”; you will find it about half way down the page.

Bird keeper Elsa Mark of the Philadelphia Zoo had an issue with her Northern Bald Ibis.  It seems that these birds developed a skin condition that was related to stress in that particular species.  As you might guess, the routine maintenance of the Ibis habitat was a very stressful event for these birds.  Training the birds to take food from the hand of a keeper, move to a target mat in response to a pointing cue, and even to voluntarily move in and out of transport crates on cue was accomplished in less than 3 months.  And while this overall reduction in stress provided by the training improved the quality of the lives of the Ibis, something even more interesting happened.  The Ibis began to play!  For the first time since the Ibis had been kept at the Philadelphia Zoo, bird keepers began seeing an recording incidents of individual birds playing with leaves and then incidents where two or more birds would play the “leaf” game.  The overall reduction in stress that positive training had provided didn’t just yield new behaviours in the birds, it seemed to allow them to open up to a more fulfilling lifestyle.

And the good news doesn’t stop here.  Lizards, fish, birds of prey, hyenas, and even bears have been trained using behavioural science and reinforcement techniques.  There seems to be no end to how behavioural science can be applied to training all kinds of species, even humans.  The process of marking and reinforcing desired behaviours in humans is being developed by TAGteach International.  Applications of behavioural training have been developed for improving occupational safety, teaching proper techniques in sports, and working with the autistic and disabled.  It seems like positive training using behavioural science is making a positive contribution in the lives of many animals and many people as well.

Gone to the dogs

In a recent online interview, Canadian dog trainer Brad Pattison was quoted as saying that the idea of a Chicken Camp to teach animal trainers “sounds stupid.”  Pattison goes on to say “Training a Chicken isn’t going to teach you anything about yourself or your abilities with dogs.”  How is it that such a media personality and someone who certifies other dog trainers through his program could be ignorant of the fundamentals of behavioural science and how they apply to training not just to chickens, but to all animals including dogs!

There seems to be a separate world in which many dog trainers and dog owners live.  In that world, the lessons learned from science about training techniques and principles simply do not apply to dogs.  Behavioural and reinforcement training that works on everything from lizards to rhinos to people somehow doesn’t work as well on dogs, according to them.  They have developed their own training methods involving shock collars, choke chains, intimidation, and fear.  And where does their world and the rest of the world come together?  There methods produce the results that people want.  They can train well behaved dogs and do it well, if getting results is what matters.

RhinoBut it does lead me to wonder how a dog trainer like Brad Pattison would solve the problem of moving a whale with his training methodologies.  Could you really use a shock collar to teach a rhino to “sit” or “stay”?  Maybe Cesar Millan would like to step into an enclosure with a bear and try one of his patented “Pssshhttt!” corrections on a black bear.  

Interestingly, Ken Ramirez the marine mammal trainer can also train dogs.  And monkeys.  And birds.  It seems that all of this positive reinforcement behavioural training works on dogs just as it has on dozens of other species.  Remarkably we haven’t seen books from Millan, Pattison, or a host of other force trainers showing how their techniques can be used on other species.  Perhaps that’s an important point.  Perhaps their methods can only work on a species that was bred to work with humans no matter what.  Perhaps they only work because the dog is just the right intelligence level, just the right physical size, and has just the right temperament to respond to their force-based approach.

Personally, my money is on the training science that works on hundreds of species and not just one.  Training is not magic.  Training is education.  It’s teaching.  And if everything from fish to birds to people can be taught using positive reinforcement, why would you waste time with anything else in training your dog?  Frankly, I’m baffled.

Until next time, have fun with your dogs.

Cooperation is better than intimidation.

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Photo credits –

Killer Whale – Antony Pranata 2009  from Flickr
Chicken Training – http://www.bluefencebassets.com/training.html 2008
Rhino – DJRphoto36  2011 from Flickr 


Recent Eric Brad CPDT-KA Articles:

  • The Dog That Changed My Life
  • Keeping Your Dog Informed
  • Teaching Your Dog to Not-Behave
  • The Simple Complexity of Dog Training
  • What The Dog Wants

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