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A ClickerExpo Guide for the Zoo Professional

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There is so much to see and experience at ClickerExpo that finding the right Sessions and Labs for you might be challenging. We try to assist attendees by classifying each Session and Lab as appropriate for various levels of experience (Foundation, Intermediate, and Advanced). We also categorize each course (Science, Sport, Shelter, Behavior Management, etc.), and we provide a detailed description of what the course will cover. However, newcomers to ClickerExpo or those who work in unique fields may still need some guidance.

I always provide guidance and assistance to zoo and aquarium professionals who are attending ClickerExpo and looking for the right courses for them. Usually there are multiple choices in every time slot that could be excellent choices for any trainer!

Here is my personal guide and suggestions for people from the zoo or aquarium world attending ClickerExpo St. Louis, or for anyone whose focus is not dogs and horses.

Friday, March 16 | Day 1

I always encourage first timers to attend the Newcomer Orientation because it really helps orient all attendees to the many facets of ClickerExpo. The Opening Session that follows is one of the few times that all attendees are in the same place. This year I will be talking about Inspiration from A to Zambia, a presentation that specifically highlights some unique work I have been doing with elephants in Zambia.

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St. Louis (March 16 - 18)

I think all trainers would benefit from a course on the basics. Kathy Sdao makes the science clear in A Moment of Science: Clicker Training 101, which is an excellent introduction or refresher for trainers of all species. For those who feel they know the science well, there is my new presentation titled Say What? The Terminology Challenge. It is designed for the experienced trainer who really wants to untangle the confusion around common terms and practices, like punishment, deprivation, time-outs, desensitization, and many others.

Lunch is a great time to decompress, meet new colleagues, or choose to sit at a table with one of the faculty members and engage in training discussions. For after lunch, I have two different recommendations, depending on interest and experience level. Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s Session Building Behavior: Shape the Future is another excellent foundation Session about the process and skill of shaping. Although her examples might focus on dogs, the skills Laura discusses are important and can be very useful to all trainers. If you are not a beginner, or already understand shaping, I might suggest Theresa McKeon’s Lab, Look Away from the Dog, where her focus is not on the animal but on how to improve trainer and handler skills—what’s more valuable than that?

To wrap up day one, there are three excellent options for trainers who work with animals other than dogs. For the beginner, continuing with Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s Lab on shaping can be very useful—even as on observer—to see the shaping skills from her lecture put into action. Participants will be working with dogs, but it’s being able to watch someone shape that is valuable, as those lessons transfer to all species. For the experienced trainer, there are two great choices. Susan Friedman’s Ideas that Should Die: Outdated, Outmoded, and Misunderstood Behavior Science looks at many of the myths and misunderstandings that exist in the world of training. Dr. Friedman is a frequent consultant in the zoological community and her insights are valuable to trainers of all species. Finally, for those zookeepers who feel they don’t have enough training supervision, Emelie Johnson Vegh and Eva Bertilsson have a new Session called Self Help: How to Be Your Own Coach, which I think could be of great value to zookeepers.

After a long day, relaxing and networking at the 15th Anniversary Prize-A-Palooza can be a great way to clear the head, meet new people, and have fun.

Saturday, March 17 | Day 2

If you are an early riser, Debbie Martin’s Veterinary Transformation: Fear Free Initiative is an excellent explanation of the trend in the dog training world to make veterinary visits less stressful. This theme is right in line with what the zoo and aquarium community has been doing with medical behaviors for several decades.

Next, there are several great choices for the zookeeper and trainer. Susan Friedman’s Please Sir, May I Have Some Food, Water, and Control examines the growing evidence that giving animals control over their environment can be one of the most powerful reinforcers available. Understanding this concept has implications that are useful to trainers at all levels. For the beginner, I would suggest Kathy Sdao’s What a Cue Can Do: Developing Cueing Skills because cueing is essential information for all trainers. Or, if you are interested in research training, my Lab about How to Get Started with Concept Training will work with dog trainers on how to teach matching to sample, a skill I developed while doing research training in the zoological environment.

To round out the morning, I suggest one of two Labs. Choose the follow-up to the earlier cueing Session, What a Cue Can Do – In Action, presented by Sarah Owings, to see cueing skills applied. For people who teach training to others, I recommend another of Theresa McKeon’s Labs, Talk Less, Say More: Effective Teaching. Theresa will be assisted in that Lab by Emelie Johnson Vegh and Eva Bertilsson.

After lunch, there are two options that I think zookeepers and trainers would find valuable. Emma Parsons’ Anatomy of an Aggressive-Dog Training Plan, although focused on working with aggressive dogs, provides excellent information for anyone working with any species of aggressive animal. This Session and its title may not seem applicable to zookeepers immediately, but I have found the skills and techniques taught so useful when working in zoological environments. The other option is Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s Train that Chain: Behavior Chains is a great introduction to training chained behaviors, which is an essential skill for all trainers.

For the last formal Session of the day, I would suggest my presentation Conservation and the Creative Trainer, which would have direct relevance to zookeepers. Another option in that time slot is Animals in Control: The Choice is Theirs presented by Emelie Johnson Vegh, Eva Bertilsson, and Peggy Hogan. This Session looks at husbandry behaviors and giving animals choice—an excellent and important topic for working with all animals.

The evening’s dinner and panel discussion is always fun and informative; it is something I like to encourage people to attend.

Sunday, March 18 | Day 3

I bring up quite a bit of zoo training in my presentations.

After two days of solid learning, maybe sleep in and wait for the 9:00 am slots? But if you are an early bird, my talk Dr. No: How Teaching an Animal to Say “No” Can be the Right Prescription may be of interest, as it was a problem-solving project I implemented in a zoological setting.

I hate to keep point people to my own talks, but, because of my involvement in the zoological community, I bring up quite a bit of zoo training in my presentations. Susan Friedman and I are presenting a unique course entitled Ramirez and Friedman: Off the Cuff. It is an unscripted conversation that can go in any direction, but at ClickerExpo in January we talked about zoo-related topics often during that 90-minute conversation. Meanwhile, occurring at the same time is the Lab Animals in Control – In Action, a logical follow-up to the corresponding Session from Saturday.

To wrap up the morning, there are two scientific topics that would be of value to all zoo professionals. The first is Susan Friedman’s The Learning Planet, an excellent look at the intersection among behavior analysis, neuroscience, and ethology—a worthwhile topic for all trainers. The other option is Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’ Poisoned Cues: Diagnosis, Analysis, and Repair. This course is an excellent look at how cues can become poisoned and create problems for trainers. Poisoned cues is another important topic for all trainers, no matter what species you work with.

After lunch, there are three great choices for zoo trainers. One is Lindsay Wood Brown’s The Great Divide: Is it Operant or Classical? This seminar helps in understanding the overlap between operant and classical conditioning, and explains how much those two learning modes are inextricably linked. However, if you are interested in coaching and/or discovering ways to help your teacher/supervisor help you more, Theresa McKeon’s Help Your Teacher Help You might be the perfect choice. Finally, for those interested in developing non-food reinforcers for your animals, I will be leading a Lab called Love it! Effective Non-Food Reinforcement.

Prior to the Closing Session, there is a one-hour slot that presents two options helpful to zoo and aquarium trainers. The first is Kathy Sdao’s Keep Your Candle Burning: Avoiding Professional Burnout; the title is self-explanatory and not dog-specific. Another useful Session is Thinking Fast and Flow presented by Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh. This Session offers a new way of looking at training plans through the use of flow charts.

The final time slot for the weekend is Closing Session: Hidden Treasures. The Closing Session gives me an opportunity to share a training consult I did at a zoological facility where I utilized many techniques learned over the years at previous ClickerExpo conferences.

Content for all trainers

Zoo and aquarium professionals are often surprised by how many choices at ClickerExpo are useful to them.

ClickerExpo has valuable training information for trainers of all species at all experience levels. Zoo and aquarium professionals are often surprised by how many choices at ClickerExpo are useful to them. My choices are just a place to start. I encourage trainers to try something new and explore other speakers and topics; you never know when or where the next inspiration will strike. I also encourage animal trainers from all walks of life to search for hidden connections that might not be obvious at first glance, but that provide even more value from ClickerExpo.

Less than four weeks left until ClickerExpo St. Louis (March 16 - 18); register today.

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