Visual lessons—at the zoo!
The students in one of my recent Foundation classes were experienced dog trainers and handlers, but I realized that their view of training was limited to dogs. They did not see the bigger picture of how operant conditioning could be used for all animals. As an instructor, I wanted my students to grow not only in their skills, but also in their understanding. I also wanted to establish myself as a trainer who thinks "out of the box" so I could stand out from the crowd of dog trainers in my area. So, I planned a trip to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for my class.
Chelsea is the Volunteer Coordinator at the zoo. We spent several weeks planning the class visit. I wanted my students to see bridging, shaping, stationing, and targeting. It didn’t matter which animals were used as examples, I simply wanted the techniques demonstrated. Chelsea worked with many of the zookeepers to schedule a tailored visit for us and planned a fabulous agenda. It turned out that the zoo staff was very excited about our visit!
The day before our visit, temperatures dropped overnight and it began to snow. By the time we met at the zoo’s front gate the morning of the visit, the temperature was 22 degrees and the conditions were very wet. Chelsea met us at the gate with the news that many of the demonstrations had to be cancelled due to the weather. In some cases it was too cold for the animals to come out on exhibit, and in other cases the exhibits were too icy (even for the mountain goats!). With a big smile Chelsea then said that she had redesigned our entire agenda and a new line-up of zookeepers was waiting for us! We were impressed and grateful to Chelsea—talk about going above and beyond! The cold and snow actually worked in our favor because the zoo was near empty!
Learners are learners
How do you train a dog to heel? By marking and reinforcing successive approximations toward the desired behavior. How do you train a hippo? An orangutan? A giraffe? The same way you train a dog, of course!
If you want a hippo to turn away from you, and then back up toward you so you can get a blood draw from the tail, how do you train that behavior? The answer is successive approximations—marking and reinforcing incremental behaviors toward the goal. Anthony at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is one of the superb trainers at the zoo who work with hippos and penguins. By using targeting and a little opposition reflex training, he can access his hippo’s tail easily in order to get the all-important blood draw.
Using successful approximations to get blood
The morning started with Anthony and his hippo. His demonstration of target training to obtain a blood sample was captivating. My students watched with awe and couldn’t believe that the same dog training techniques were being used for a hippopotamus.
Next up was a visit with the orangutans. Their keepers demonstrated one of the enrichment techniques they use—painting! The zookeepers discussed how long it took to shape the behavior of the orangutan so that the orangutan would not snap the paintbrush in half! Apparently these wonderful apes enjoy breaking sticks with their big hands. Many paintbrushes were lost during training. Using a clicker to reinforce the smallest units of the desired behavior eventually resulted in the orangutans holding the brushes without breaking them.
Shaping rear foot lift
for hoof care
Moose hoof care was amazing. Courtney and Rebecca demonstrated how they shaped the behavior of a large moose so that he would lift his rear foot and place it on a padded block for examination. Cleverly, they used the camera on an iPhone to snap a photo of the bottom of the foot so that they could examine it more closely.
One important thing to note about working with animals in the zoo is that distractions are everywhere! People are walking by, cameras are clicking away, and the silly peacocks are everywhere! Yet Courtney and Rebecca’s moose paid close attention to his trainers and ignored the environmental distractions.
When the students heard that our next stop was bees, a few eyes rolled. You can’t train a bee… or can you? I remembered the story about Ken and butterflies… hmmm. Nichole was the head beekeeper. While there was no training going on, the building was warm and we could sit down for a while. This was a great time to learn about the topic of ethology and the benefits of just sitting back and watching behavior. The students watched the bees intently and saw patterns of behavior and the interactions between the bees. We talked about the benefits of quietly watching the behavior of our dogs and how dogs interact. We also talked about the power of non-verbal communication. It became one of our favorite stops.
Using continuous reinforcement to
keep a young girafees' attention
After lunch, we went to the fabulous Cheyenne Mountain Zoo giraffe enclosure. Stacy gave an interesting talk on how to use targeting to separate one giraffe out of the herd. This is not an easy task with twenty curious giraffes trying to get in on the action. Once a young giraffe was separated, we were invited behind the scenes to watch Diana, a giraffe farrier, trim some hooves. This demo was the highlight of the day! Each student was invited to approach the giraffe and ask questions. It was truly a Kodak moment for many of my students! Keeper Jess demonstrated how she was able to cue the giraffe to place her foot on a padded block for the farrier. We also saw how Jess maintained the young giraffe’s attention, using a continuous reinforcement schedule, while Diana trimmed the hooves.
We ended our zoo day at the snow leopard enclosure. The cold, wet weather was perfect for this high-altitude mountain cat. Catrena and Rachel demonstrated enrichment techniques to keep the cat active and curious. They had this beautiful animal jumping from rock to rock, running across large logs with perfect balance, and scaling difficult obstacles to climb to high perches. Enrichment techniques included putting drops of pine scent oil and pine clippings inside the enclosure, hiding bones inside boxes, offering puzzle toys, and hiding meat inside the rocks in the enclosure.
By the end of the day, my dog training students were transformed. They had an entirely new view of training, and were grateful for the unique opportunity that I offered. Seeing other animal learners trained to present important and/or fun behaviors opened a world of possibilities and understanding! Even though the trip was several months ago, they are still talking about it.
At the next class following the trip, we discussed what we saw and how it reflected what we were doing in our dog class. We had a brainstorming session about how we could apply targeting, stationing, and shaping to a wider variety of training classes. We also discussed applications in Obedience, Agility, Freestyle, Rally, and Rally Freestyle. As a result, several students asked for advanced training in targeting, stationing, and shaping so that they could improve their skills in other performance sports.
Offering students a unique learning opportunity can enhance their understanding of operant training concepts. A unique environment such as a zoo, aquarium, animal sanctuary, or rescue can offer a new perspective on the application of operant training methods. Research what is available in your area, then visit the location to observe their training practices. Select the organization that best represents operant conditioning applications before planning a trip for your class. Be sure to set clear goals of what you would like your students to see. If you market this offering widely, students of all performance sports can see what you are doing. In this way, you will be established as a trainer who thinks outside the box.
First and foremost, a heartfelt thanks to the staff of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. They made our visit educational and memorable. The next trip will be to a wolf sanctuary in Divide, Colorado. We will learn about the ethology of wolves. It will be an additional opportunity for my students to grow, and for me to stand out from the crowd. How will you stand out?