equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference 2014

On March 22, 2014 I attended the ORCA conference at the University of North Texas. ORCA (Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies for Animals) is a student organization at the University of North Texas and the conference is organized and hosted by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and the students.  It is a one day conference that brings in speakers from all over the world to talk on the subject of teaching and training. I also attended one day of private presentations and have included (with permission) some of my notes from that day.

To learn more about the conference, visit the conference website.

The speakers and presentations were:


Dr. Jaak Panksepp: The Scientific Case for emotional feelings in other animals:  SEEKING new laws of affect that control animal learning and training

Dr. Panksepp is a neuroscientist who studies emotional feelings in animals.  In his talk he shared some reasons why this is controversial, as well as why he thinks it is important, and then he shared some of the things he has learned from his research.  He started with a list of reasons why studying emotions in animals is important.  He believes that animals can teach us about basic emotions because they are more “honest” about their feelings and it’s possible to accurately see if a feeling is rewarding or punishing.  This can lead to a greater understanding of how feelings affect an animal’s behavior and vice versa, and learn a bit more about why feelings evolved. 

Many people believe that animals do have feelings (something the scientific community has denied in the past) so this research is of benefit to those of us who are promoting training methods that take into account how the animal feels about the learning process, as well as those of us who want to learn more about how emotions are generated and controlled in humans.  He pointed out that the scientific argument for emotions in animals must be based on evidence, so studying and documenting brain functions and how they relate to behavior has been an important way to collect evidence to support the argument for animal emotions. 

Dr. Panksepp has been studying animal emotions for a long time. He first started mapping the “systems” in the 1960s when he became interested in “primary process” emotions.  Primary processes are those that occur in the older part of the brain (ancient subcortical regions), as compared to secondary processes (learning and memory) and tertiary processes (conscious analysis of how you feel), both of which occur in the cortical regions of the brain.  He believes that our “feelings” are generated in the older parts of the brain, which is in contrast to another theory that says you must be able to consciously think about your feelings in order to have them. 

One way to describe this is to look at “circular causation” which shows how the BrainMind has nested hierarchies.   He had a diagram that shows how the primary, secondary, and tertiary processes are related and how it does not function in a linear pattern (top down or bottom up)but is instead a more complicated feedback loop. I wanted to try and find a picture of the diagram and it is included in this talk, on page 7.  The link is:  http://oppnet.nih.gov/pdf/201207_Panksepp_NIH_Animal_ModelsWorkshop.pdf.

This question (where in the brain are feelings generated?) is part of the reason that emotions in animals have been denied for so many years.  The prevailing argument has been that animals do not experience emotions because they lack the ability (due to brain structure) to analyze that information (a top down view).  The argument was that animals react involuntarily (by reflex or learned behavior) to unpleasant and pleasant stimuli, but because they can’t think about what they are feeling, they must not be feeling anything.  Dr. Panksepp disagrees and he has mapped out 7 systems that are primary processes of the brain and not dependent upon higher order reasoning.

The systems and their associated emotions are: 

  • SEEKING:  needed for survival. The SEEKING system is active most of the time, even when other systems are also active. The emotion associated with the SEEKING system is enthusiasm.
  • RAGE: protect your resources.  The RAGE system is activated when you feel “pissed-off.”  
  • FEAR: protecting yourself.  When the FEAR system is activated, you feel anxious.
  • LUST: reproduction.  When the LUST system is activated, you feel horny.
  • CARE: this system is activated when you are in a situation where you need to provide lots of maternal care.  You feel tender and loving.
  • PANIC/GRIEF:  separation anxiety.  The PANIC system is activated when babies are separated from their mothers.  They feel lonely and sad. 
  • PLAY:  important to proper development.  When the PLAY system is activated, you feel joyous.

These systems all affect whether behavior is rewarding or punishing. If a behavior activates the PLAY system, an animal is going to want to do more of it.  If a behavior activates the FEAR system, the animal will avoid doing it.  This relationship between the animal’s behavior and the emotional system that has been activated is one of the pieces of information that he uses to understand emotions in animals.  This is actually easier than doing the same thing in humans because humans can suppress emotions.  We have tertiary systems (in the neocortex) that allow us to have awareness of and analyze how we feel. This, combined with standards of social behavior, can mean that we do not always honestly express our emotions through our behavior.

His research has shown that the same parts of the brain are activated in both animals and humans when they are put in circumstances that generate the same emotions.  This has made it possible to use animal models to study things like addiction and depression. A lot of his work has been looking at how different chemicals in the brain affect primary processes and it has led to new ideas about how to treat things like depression.

One of his comments was that in depression, the SEEKING system is not activated so depressed people have no interest in their surroundings or planning for the future.  If a person’s SEEKING system could be activated (with medication), then the emotion that went with it (enthusiasm) would pull them out of their depression.  He said his work has led to the first new type of treatment for depression in 40 years.

In addition to the work on depression and addiction, he has studied PLAY.  PLAY is important for the normal development of most animals.  He spoke specifically about the effect of less PLAY on children.  Without experiencing PLAY, their brains do not develop in the correct way.  He said there is a minimum requirement of 30 minutes of PLAY morning and night for normal development. One thing to remember about PLAY is that it is spontaneous and creative.  PLAY is not the same as physical exercise or structured activities.  In PLAY, it’s important to experience joy or pleasure in the activity. 

Here are a few other comments from his presentations over the weekend:

  • Emotions evolved because they are useful. 
  • The brain is designed to anticipate the future.
  • 3 Values of Scientists:  skepticism, weight of knowledge, there is no absolute certainty
  • All the systems have relationships with each other
  • Pleasure and expectation are different.
  • New behaviors are reinforced through affective processes
  • Affective feelings exist and are shaped by learning and experience.
  • He thinks Thorndike’s Law of Effect should have been called the Law of Affect.
  • Touch is the most important sensory system for PLAY (in rats, not sure if this was a general comment or not)

If you are interested in Dr. Panksepp’s work, he has two books, The Archaeology of Mind and Affective Neuroscience.  He also has numerous articles on the internet that you can find using a search engine. One I recommend is in the Washington State University magazine. The link is http://wsm.wsu.edu/stories/2013/Summer/#.U0SXqXlOVdg.   I also recommend that you listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65e2qScV_K8 which is a 17 minute TEDx talk that covers some of the same material he shared at the ORCA conference.

And, if you want to see a little video clip about rat laughter, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-admRGFVNM


Bob Bailey: Teaching trainers applied behavior analysis:  A personal journey from the rat lab to the chicken workshop

Bob Bailey’s talk was an interesting combination of history (his own plus a little bit about operant conditioning) and training tips. He shared the story of his own life to illustrate how a person could become a successful professional in the field and enjoy doing it.

I loved how he started off his talk by saying that he thought one of the secrets to being a good trainer was enthusiasm.  One of his first slides asked “Do you want to be a better trainer?  You know you have the ability, but do you want it? Are you willing to work for it?”  And then he showed how he answered these questions (with “yes”) during his career by constantly pursuing new challenges.

Bob Bailey has had (and it still having) a fascinating life. He shared some stories about his early childhood in California, college days, and early jobs. He talked about the work with the Brelands and Animal Behavior Enterprises.  While he said he was talking about his personal history, his story is also the story of how operant conditioning moved from the lab out into the field.  In 1943 the Brelands did the first training outside of the lab, training field dogs and birds. 

The early clickers were handmade devices as all the available clickers were in use by the military (for communication).  .  The Brelands (and Bob) -made their own clickers and hired local people to train the animals.  He showed a picture of an early clicker that was a combination of a clicker and a shaped wooden spoonlike object that was used for food delivery.  At ABE they trained large numbers of animals and a good trainer could train multiple animals at once. 

Modern animal training and the use of positive reinforcement or applied operant conditioning continued to evolve through the 1960’s and 1970’s. He talked a little bit about the controversy that the article “The Misbehavior of Organisms” (by the Brelands) caused in the 1960’s.  If you haven’t read this paper, I suggest you read it (you can find it at:  http://www.niu.edu/user/tj0dgw1/pdf/learning/breland.pdf.)    Sea World opened and brought the idea of training marine mammals into the public eye.  Since then, the use of positive reinforcement has spread into many other areas and he talked a bit about some of the projects he has done in the past. 

At the end of his talk, he asked “Are you having fun? Do you want to have more fun?  Are you having more fun today than yesterday?” He said he always wanted to have fun and was willing to pay the price (which included a few mishaps that landed him in the hospital).  While he was “having fun,” he was learning to observe animals and to see that they had complex behaviors.  He spent many hours in the field just watching what an animal did and then experimenting to see if he could change it.  So even though behavior might be complex, it was still possible to change it.  I think there’s a real lesson here. He said that before you try to train an animal, you should know about the biological history of the animal you are training.  The more you know about the species, and the individual you are training, the more successful you will be.

I had to think about this (the idea of having fun) because while I like training and there are times that I am having “fun” when I am training, there are other times when I would not describe it that way.  I guess I tend to think of “fun” as involving laughter and if I am concentrating on something, I’m usually not laughing.  Luckily I sat next to him at breakfast the next morning and asked him for his definition of “fun.”   He said that if I was choosing to go out and train every day, then I must be having fun (phew!).

I can’t write about Bob Bailey without sharing a few of his words of wisdom, so here area few quotes:

  • “You can’t change behavior. You can only make it worthwhile for the animal to change.” 
  • “Reinforce what you want, don’t reinforce what you don’t want, and you get what you reinforce, not what you want.”
  • “Ask the right question.  Your first question is usually wrong.”
  • “Follow the data.”

Phung Luu: Understanding behavioral momentum and its applications to establish effective behavioral change.

Phung works mostly with birds and does a lot of work with zoos on husbandry work and also on free-flight bird shows.  He talked about two types of behavioral momentum, and noted that while he had been training and using these techniques for years, it wasn’t until recently that he realized why they worked (behavioral momentum).

The first type of behavioral momentum is training a behavior so well that the animal can do it in new situations.  One could call this building a reinforcement history or training to fluency, but the phrase behavioral momentum is a good reminder that what the trainer is doing is increasing the likelihood of a behavior happening by making it SO fluent that the animal almost can’t not do it.  

The second type of behavioral momentum is when you have two different behaviors, a low-probability behavior and a high-probability behavior and you use the high-probability behavior to set the animal up (mentally) so that when you ask for the lower probability behavior, the animal does it.  When he described it, my thought was that it’s a bit like asking for a series of behaviors that are easy and then when the animal is in a rhythm of hearing and responding to the cue, you ask for something that might be a little harder. 

Because the animal is already in a state of responding easily,  it might just do the harder behavior even if there had been difficulties with it before.  This is not about “tricking” the animal. It’s more about setting the animal up to believe it can do what you ask.  He had a really interesting human example that showed that compliance to simple commands could be increased by as much as 30-40% just by using the second kind of behavioral momentum. 

Some of you reading this will wonder how this fits into the Premack Principle because that also uses one behavior to increase the likelihood of another behavior, but it uses a high probability behavior to reinforce a low probability behavior.

I wish I had asked him, but my guess is that both things come into play. If you are working in a session with some high probability behaviors and some low probability behaviors, the high probability behaviors are going to reinforce the low probability behaviors (Premack) while the high probability behaviors are also going to set up the likelihood of getting low probability behaviors (behavioral momentum) that follow them.  

So if I am training a sequence of behaviors that could be written as hiP hiP hiP loP hiP hiP hiP, the hiP (high probability) behaviors that precede the loP (low probability behavior) make the loP more likely, and then the hiP after the loP add extra reinforcement. One thing to remember here is that behavior occurs in a stream so even though we separate out individual behaviors, what we do before and after each one can have an effect, even if we think of those as being separate events.


Steve White: Your dog ain’t so special.  Why discipline specific training methods might be slowing you down.

Steve White was the first speaker after lunch.  He is very energetic and entertaining so his talk was a good way to get back into the groove after the lunch break.  His topic this year was “Your Dog Ain’t so Special” and was about how to get better communication and cooperation between dog trainers, as well as how to facilitate changes toward positive reinforcement training. 

He started by explaining a bit about how any group can become too focused on and committed to their own training practices, and how this interferes with innovation and improvement that would benefit everyone.  The image he showed was of a group of silos that are all doing the same thing (holding grain) but totally isolated from each other. 

Why do we end up isolating ourselves and become resistant to change? He listed 6 factors that were significant and had to be addressed when Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Seattle K9 Unit switched from traditional training to positive reinforcement training.  They were:

  • Objections:  assuming something won’t work without trying it or considering it properly
  • Tradition:  if you let tradition take hold of you, then you close yourself off to possibility
  • Philosophy:  don’t take the moral high ground
  • Culture:  On a macro and an organizational level
  • Resources:  it takes time and energy to change
  • Available dogs:  did they have enough dogs to try it out without compromising the program?

Both organizations did eventually switch over and he showed the differences in their progress.  Guide Dogs for the blind made slow and steady progress.  The Seattle K9 Unit’s transition was less consistent as they had periods of progress mixed in with periods when there was a return to traditional methods.

Then he shared 5 Steps to Greatness.  The list is written for organizations but you could tweak it to apply it to an individual.  The steps are:

  1. Curious, open-mindedness
  2. Have discipline (be committed to the path)
  3. First who, then what… start with the right people.
  4. The flywheel effect (slow to get started but then runs on its own)
  5. Apply the hedgehog effect (I didn’t know what this was so I had to look it up. It’s about team building and how to create high performance teams.  You can google it if you want more information.)

He had two final thoughts: 

Kaizen:  the continual pursuit of improvement through little pushes (you might want to google this one too)
Duality:  embrace duality, there’s no good or bad, it’s all in the context

For more information on Steve, you can visit his website http://www.proactivek9.com/


Kay Laurence: Examining 1% of the learning cycle that can add 100% success to the result

Kay Laurence’s talk was titled “Examining 1% of the learning cycle that can add 100% success to the result.” Kay shared a diagram showing the learning cycle of A (antecedent) -> B (behavior) – > C (consequence) – > A, but in addition to A, B, and C, she names the sections between them and they are X (between A and B), Y (between B and C), and Z (between C and A).  Giving these sections names makes it easier to talk about them and also shows that they are just as important as A, B, and C. 

She started by looking at section Y, which is what happens between the behavior and the consequence (reinforcement in this case).   In her training she teaches the dog that the click is a cue to orient to the handler and that reinforcement can be delivered in different ways.   As the teacher, you can choose which method is going to be most suited to the behavior you are training and the individual needs of the dog (learner). 

She had some nice charts which showed different ways of delivering the reinforcement (feeding in position, running to get the food (self-collect), deliberate placement, opening the hand (used in luring), and going to another location to get reinforcement.   Which method she is using is clearly indicated by her when the dog orients to her after the click.  One thing to remember is that the reinforcement process has to start within 3 seconds after the click, so you do should be planning ahead of time how you are going to deliver the reinforcer and be ready to indicate that to the dog as soon as he orients toward you. 

She made a comment about not being “mean” with your reinforcement.  If you click, then you need to deliver the reinforcement. The reinforcement should not be contingent on some other behavior. If your dog tries to take the treat and you feel like it is taking your hand along with the treat, you still need to just deliver the treat as best you can in that moment.  Then you make a mental note to work on treat taking in another session.  Taking your hand away if the dog is taking it “inappropriately” is not fair.

Section Z (zede) is the section between C and A.  In this section, the teacher is observing the dog to see how quickly it orients to the teacher for the next cue.  The signs that a dog is getting tired (mentally or physically) will often show up in this section.  The teacher’s job is to be observant about what the animal does in section Z and use that information to decide if the dog needs a break or something needs to be changed before continuing with the session.   Distractions from the environment or competing reinforcers often affect the dog’s behavior in this section and so the teacher needs to take note of how the dog is responding to the environment.     She recommends waiting until the dog voluntarily reconnects with the teacher before asking for  another behavior.  In her experience, dogs rarely say “no.” They are more likely to say “just a moment.” 

Section X is the section between A and B.  She only touched on it briefly, but the same considerations that apply to section Z are true for section X.   Once the teacher has given the cue, it’s her job to observe the dog and see how promptly the dog responds with the appropriate behavior, not just so she can click at the appropriate moment, but also to see if the dog’s behavior indicates that it is getting tired or distracted.

Kay presented a lot of good information about the importance of sections X, Y, and Z, but I want to emphasize that the title of the talk was about how looking at 1% can make 100% of a difference.  She shared some details about what she looks for in those sections, and how she optimizes treat delivery, but the more important message was that every detail matters. Looking at sections X, Y, and Z was an example of how looking more closely at an element of the learning cycle can bring more awareness to details that might previously have been overlooked.  If we want to become better trainers, we have to learn to examine every aspect of the learning cycle.

Two final quotes:

  • “The learning cycle belongs to the dog.”
  •  “Your learner has the right to learn at his own speed.”

If you are interested in reading more about how Kay trains and teaches, you might want to buy her most recent book “Clicker Revolution.”   You can get it from her on her website which is www.learningaboutdogs.com.


Alexandra Kurland: Listening with your hands and other observational skills.

Alexandra Kurland’s talk was about observing with your hands.  She started off by sharing a video clip from Mia Segal on Feldenkrais work.   In the clip, Mia explains that Feldenkrais is a method that is about asking questions.  The Feldenkrais practitioner is not telling the person what to do, but asking them a series of questions about how they can move and what kind of body awareness they have.  If you want to watch the video clip, the link is:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prGxrhXDEgQ.

In her work with horses, Alex uses the same philosophy. When she puts her hands on a horse and uses touch to communicate with a horse, she is not telling the horse what to do, but instead she is asking the horse questions.  Examples of questions she might ask are “can you do this?” or “how do you do this?” Her job is to listen to the horse’s answers and figure out how to help the horse learn to use its body better and learn to connect with her in a soft way. 

She has video clip of a horse that was very ear shy. It had already had some initial clicker work to teach him to allow his ears to be handled and while he showed some improvement, he still found a touch on the ear aversive. Rather than approach the ear problem directly, she asked the horse a series of questions about what he was comfortable letting her do.  She did this by teaching it about body part targeting.  Can the horse touch her hand with his chin? With his nostril? Can she touch the horse’s head with her head?  By being allowed to initiate the contact and keeping it playful, the horse learned that contact with his head was ok.

She continued down the spine, working toward the tail. This horse was also protective about his hind end so she used head lowering as a way for the horse to tell her if he was ready to continue. If the horse dropped his head and kept it down, then she could continue down to the tail. If he kept his head up, she would wait.   Using this kind of predictable pattern makes it easier. The horse can give input about how fast he is comfortable going and its a great way to work through tension from physical contact.  In addition, by having her hands on the horse, she could feel more clearly when he relaxed for a moment and that information told her when to wait, when to click and when to move on.

To show this more clearly she had two helpers come up on the stage. She had Eva Bertilsson stand on the stage and lift the heel of one foot off the ground so she was up on her toes on one side.  Jen Digate, her other volunteer, observed how Eva’s body moved as she did this. Then she had Jen put her hands on Eva and feel what changed in Eva’s body as she repeated the same exercise.   Jen reported that when she could feel what Eva was doing and combine that with seeing what Eva was doing, it was much easier for her to come up with a complete picture.

The take-away message was that that direct physical contact through our hands is very useful. It provides information for us and it provides information to the horse.  Like anything else, learning to listen with your hands is something that improves with practice.  So if you are exploring the use of touch and are feeling a little uncertain about what you should feel, just relax and allow yourself to notice what you feel under your hands.

For more information on Alexandra Kurland’s work or available resources, visit her website http://www.theclickercenter.com.


Ken Ramirez: Working with groups of animals

Ken Ramirez was the last speaker at the Saturday Conference. He talked about working with groups of animals and new animal introductions.  The subject of working animals in groups is one that often comes up if a trainer has a number of animals that are housed together and not easily separated, or if they want the animal to get used to working in the presence of distractions from other animals. 

At the Shedd Aquarium, they work with animals in one-on-one sessions, but they also do a lot of work with animals in groups.  Many (most?) of the animals there are housed in groups so this is more convenient and it also avoids problems that might arise when you separate an animal from its group.  Animals that live in groups can get anxious and tense when separated from their friends and relatives, so one-on-one training does not work for everyone.

Both training set-ups (one-on-one vs. group) have their advantage and disadvantages so the trainers have to decide what works best for each individual situation.  In one-on-one training an individual can get more focused attention from the trainer and there are few distractions.  In group training, the animals can be trained as a group or individually so there are some ways to get one-on-one training even within a group training session. It will just be a more “active” training environment.  

He had some general guidelines for things to consider before doing group training.  It’s important to know the social structure or hierarchy of the species/group you are training. Social interactions are very powerful and can have a big impact on the success of your training.  It’s also important to know how animals respond to physical separation.  One example he used was the effect of gating.  Some animals work very well when separated by gates, even though they might not work well in close proximity without some kind of barrier.  This is useful for new animal introductions.  With animals that already live together, gating might be too much of a separation, and you are better off using spatial separation.

When I think of one-on-one training, I tend to think of physically separating the animal from the group and that is one set-up that they use.  But he said that he can also do one-on-one training by using spatial separation, which means having one trainer work with one animal in one area and another trainer work with the other animal(s) some distance away, but within the same space.  This is sort of a compromise between working one-on-one and working in a group.

If you do decide to work with animals in groups, it’s a good idea to pick a particular structure for the sessions and stick with it.  Some of the ones he uses are:

  • Using location specific stations:  pick a place in the environment where each animal should be.  This is the same for every session. 
  • Position specific stationing:  The animals learn to line up in a certain order.   So they can be asked to line up at different locations within the environment, but they will always be in the same order (left to right).
  • Name targeting stationing:  The animals have a name target that is specifically theirs. They line up at their name target, regardless of its location.
  • Choice stationing: the animal can choose from one of several available stations, but then uses that location for the session.
  • Shuffle:   He allows the animals to choose their location (choice stationing), but then he can shuffle them as needed.

In group training, the trainer can work with the group or work with individuals.  If the animals are being worked as individuals, each animal needs to have an indicator that tells each animal when a cue is directed at them.  It can also be helpful for each animal to have its own marker signal.  Food needs to be delivered to the animal that was bridged so this requires either good food delivery skills (throwing fish!) or a food delivery system that reinforces the appropriate animal.   If the animals are being worked as a group(everyone does the same thing), then there is less need for individual indicators or marker signals, but it’s still important to make sure that everyone gets reinforcement.

When working with animals in groups, the main goal is to avoid competition.  Animals are very sensitive to “fairness” and an animal that is waiting on its station is doing as much work as the animal that is “doing a behavior.” In some cases, the animal that is waiting actually has a harder job (waiting is hard!) so everyone should get paid. 

He showed some videos of new animal introductions which are similar to working animals in pairs, but these are animals that do not know each other. The challenge with new animal introductions is dealing with natural aggression.  The trainers take the time to make sure the animals are comfortable working in close proximity (but with some physical separation) and learn that their own reinforcement is contingent on the presence of the other animal.  Once the animals are comfortable working side by side with a barrier in between, they can remove the barrier and just use spatial separation.  After that, they can close the distance until the animals are interacting together as they respond to cues from the trainers. 

Ken Ramirez is the executive vice-president of animal care and training at the Shedd Aquarium. He has written a book on animal training and has a few DVDs available as well. For more information on Ken, you can visit his website:  http://www.kenramireztraining.com.

Other Presentations from the rest of the weekend (private talks).


Barbara Heidenrich: Working with an aggressive Kakapo

Barbara Heidenrich talked about her work with an endangered parrot called the Kakapo. Barbara works with many different species, in both zoos and more private settings.  She has extensive experience working with birds and got involved with the Kakapo because there was one particular bird who was causing trouble (to put it mildly) with the conservation workers on the island where he lived.  If you want to learn more about Barbara, her website is:  http://www.goodbirdinc.com.

Kakapo are an endangered species of parrot that live on Maud Island in New Zealand.  If you want to look them up, they are pretty interesting as they are nocturnal and don’t fly.   There is a research station on the island so the birds can be monitored and studied. This bird, Sirroco, had been hatched and raised by people and then released to live a natural life.  But a few times a year he is captured and put on display in another location (a zoo, I think), so that people can see the Kakapo, which helps support the conservation effort.

Because Sirocco was used to being handled by people and had been raised at the ranger station, he tended to spend a lot of time in that area and had developed the habit of attacking people on their way to the outhouse.  Not only that, but during mating season, he would attack them, climb up their leg, and try to mate with their head.   The rangers had tried various forms of punishment and management (building a wall), but he was VERY persistent.   I have to say that when I was a kid, the biggest deterrent I had to going to the outhouse was slugs in the path.  If I had thought I would be attacked by a parrot, I think I would have looked for other options or stopped drinking!

The rangers were just dealing with the behavior, but Barbara thought that they should be able to use positive reinforcement training to redirect him to a different behavior, or a more suitable object.   I’m not going to go into all the details of her training, but they taught him some simple behaviors using positive reinforcement and then encouraged him to interact with another object (a stuffed parrot) and were able to transfer the mating behavior to a new object.  

Because he is nocturnal they had to do a lot of this work at night and they spent the early training stages working with him when it was not mating season.  It was important to build a strong set of behaviors before it was the time of year when he was going to be more easily distracted and harder to redirect.  I think she said it took about 18 months from when she started to when they were able to redirect him to a more appropriate object.

A side benefit of this work is that it opened the door for training a lot of other husbandry behaviors with him.  Now when he is handled before and during his public appearances, it can be done in a low stress way.  The reason I wanted to share about this work is that I think it says something about the power of positive reinforcement training that you can redirect something as powerful as the urge to mate and come up with a solution that works for everyone. 

Oh… and if you go to Maud Island, you might want to leave your crocs (shoes) at home. That’s the other object they ended up using to redirect him away from people. If you want to see a video that shows Siroccos behavior before training, there’s a youtube video that was taken by the BBC when they went there for a photo shoot.  The link is:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T1vfsHYiKY.


Steve Aibel: Learning to Bond

Steve Aibel of Sea Word San Antonio gave a presentation on re-introducing a beluga whale to her calf.  I asked for permission to share it here because it’s a heartwarming story (and we all need more of those), and also because it is a great example of how training time pays off if you have trained some  strong behaviors and developed a good relationship with your animals.

Steve started by talking a little bit about what animals need to thrive.  He had a nice diagram (shaped like a triangle) with physical needs as the foundation, social needs in the middle, and mental needs at the top.   He said that animals that are not physically or socially comfortable are not ready to train.  This was important for the breeding program for the belugas because a successful breeding program depended upon having the right environmental and social conditions.  …And as it turned out, good training.

At Sea World they have been successfully breeding belugas for long enough that they have had opportunities to observe both normal and abnormal mothering behavior.  There are three main behaviors that should happen in the hours immediately after birth.  These are contact and retrievals, mother following, and nursing.   In animals where there is  healthy mother-calf bond,  the trainers would observe all of these happening.  If these behaviors did not happen, then the trainers would have to intervene.

In the year that this story takes place, they had two pregnant beluga whales that were due around the same time.  Crissy was an experienced mother who has successfully raised a calf (calves?).  Luna had been bred before, but she had ignored her calf at birth and the trainers had to intervene and raise it instead. They have the means to do this, but they have found that these babies often have a hard time fitting into the social structure of their species and they are never quite “normal.”  Babies are learning from the moment they are born and they really need to be learning how to fit in with their own kind.

Because Luna had ignored her last calf, the team decided they needed to have a post-parturition plan for what to do if Luna ignored her new calf.  The plan included closely monitoring Luna and the calf to see if the three behaviors were happening, and if not, intervening to provide the calf with his nutritional and social needs. They were hoping that Crissy would calve first and provide an example for Luna, but instead Luna had her baby (Samson) first. 

Samson’s birth was uneventful, but in the first hours after birth Luna did not initiate any contact and make retrievals.  Samson just swam around the pool by himself.   The first priority was getting Samson to eat.   While mother’s milk is ideal, milking a beluga is slow work, so Samson was fed a combination of Luna’s milk and formula.   In anticipation of possibly needing to do this, the trainers had already done some training so that Luna would allow herself to be milked. 

Samson was bottle fed to meet his physical needs. But what about his social needs?  They introduced him to another beluga whale (Martha) who was an experienced mother. She showed an interest in him, encouraged him to follow her, retrieved him when he wandered off, and even allowed him to “nurse.”  It was never clear if he was getting anything from nursing, but he did continue to try, so perhaps he was getting something.  Martha had not calved recently but animals can sometimes produce milk under the right set of circumstances.

At this point things were going pretty well. Samson was growing and he was bonding with Martha and showing normal calf behavior.  The next question was whether or not he could be re-introduced to Luna. The hope was that now that Samson had learned how to interact with his surrogate mother, perhaps he would initiate that kind of relationship with Luna.   The question was what would Luna do?

Luckily, they had a “secret weapon” which was Crissy who was due to calve any day.  They put both females in the same tank and let Luna observe Crissy give birth to and bond with her baby.   They kept Luna in there for two days following the birth and then they re-introduced her to Samson.  This time the pair did engage in normal mother-calf behavior.   All three of the major behaviors (contact and retrieval, mother following, and nursing) were observed.  I thought it was interesting that Martha was ok with this and allowed Samson to go off with Luna.

Steve finished his talk by asking the question “Why do we care about this?”  Yes, it’s a nice story, but is that all?  No.  The reason it’s worth sharing (and why I wanted to share it) is that it shows that good training can make a big difference in how successful we are with our animals, not just for performance, but in all aspects of their lives. Or to put it simply, “everything matters.”

  • It mattered that they had trained Luna to be milked.
  • It mattered that they had training and trust in Martha, so they were comfortable introducing her as a surrogate mom.
  • It mattered that they had training and trust in Luna, so that they could allow Luna to observe Crissy deliver and mother her calf.
  • It mattered that they had training and trust in Crissy so they were comfortable allowing her to deliver in the same tank as Luna.

    If they had not spent time training Crissy, Martha, and Luna, it would have been much harder to make decisions about how to help Samson.   The training time created relationships with these animals so that the trainers had good choices about how to help Luna and Samson.  You never know when something unexpected is going to happen, but if you have spent time training and building a relationship with your animal, you will have built a solid foundation, and that will make a successful outcome much more likely. 

ORCA students

Three of the ORCA students presented at the private talks.  Sean Will talked about constructive petting, Chase Owen talked about CAT, and Erica Foss and Mary Hunter talked about PORTL (portable operant research and teaching lab). 

Sean Will has been working on a protocol he calls “constructive petting.”   He has been using this with both shelter dogs and other students’ dogs as a way to reinforce desired behavior.   In most cases, the petting was used to reinforce calmness and eliminate jumping or mugging behavior.  He starts by reinforcing for very simple behaviors like four feet on the floor. Using petting and attention as a reinforcer, he can then shape for more duration, teach a dog to wait, or shape a different behavior (lying down).  Sean showed how he uses a specific hand position to mark the beginning of “the petting loop” so the dog knows what is being reinforced.

They use constructional petting in the animal shelter for dogs that get overexcited when greeting people.  The person waits until the dog has all 4 feet on the floor and then pats the dog.   The patting will continue while the dog stays down.  Over time they add moments when they remove their hands (stop patting) but then immediately return to patting if the dog stays down.  By doing this, the dog learns that having all four feet on the floor gets him pats and attention.   Sean calls this “giving them love.”

He had another example that showed a student’s dog that gets overexcited when the harness is put on.  They used constructional petting to reinforce the dog for calmer behaviors.  I think they said they worked on this for about two weeks. By the end of that time the dog was calm about having the harness and leash put on.   In the last example the owner used constructional petting to reinforce waiting.  She used it to shape waiting while she brought in groceries and lying down while she was doing exercises.   Dogs that have been reinforced for calmness with petting learn to offer the same behaviors to new people, so it seems to transfer well from one person to another. 

Chase Owen talked about using CAT (constructional aggression treatment) with shelter dogs who are fearful of people and for dogs that are reactive to other dogs.  I have written about CAT before so I’m not going to go into it more here, but I will say that it is based on using distance to reinforce “friendly” behaviors.  If you want to learn more about CAT, there are some good articles available online that will go into more detail on the protocol itself. Chase shared some interesting video both from the shelter and with dog-dog interactions. 

Erica Foss and Mary Hunter shared some work they have been doing with a new research tool called PORTL.  PORTL is based on Kay Laurence’s table game GenAbacab.  The original game included a set of small objects that could be manipulated and the game can be used to show people how to shape behavior, add cues, and learn other things about training (building chains, extinction, etc..) .  Mary and Erica are using it both as a teaching tool and as a way to reproduce interesting things that can happen in actual training sessions.  I had to smile when I listened to Erica talking about PORTL because apparently it’s a fun party game for behavior analysis students.

Mary Hunter used PORTL to look at a specific training scenario that she had observed.  She wanted to see if the first behavior that was clicked after a period of extinction was one that the learner would offer more often than other previously clicked behaviors.  She was able to set up PORTL sessions to duplicate this situation and used that as the subject for her master’s thesis.  She found that PORTL allowed her to work with a number of new learners in a short period of time, and it’s fairly easy to set it up so that the learners have similar training histories. The data from the sessions can be collected and analyzed to see if similar patterns emerge.

In her study, she did find that the behavior that was clicked after a period of extinction is one that the learner tends to return to more often than other previously reinforced behaviors.  So if you are training and the animal goes into extinction, don’t be tempted to click “anything” to get things going again.  Kay Laurence says you can never undo a click, but that “desperation click” after a period of extinction is going to be even harder to undo.  It’s better to stop, regroup and start again, or come back another day with a better plan. 

 If you want to try playing with your own version of PORTL, it’s easy to put it together.  You just need a number of small objects that can be manipulated in different ways and some reinforcers.  The only rule that Erica specifically mentioned was “no verbal communication.” Oh, and have fun with it!

I have a few other things that I would like to share from the private talks and will add them on here as I have time.  I hope these short reviews have been helpful.  Attending the ORCA conference has been a great learning experience and I would encourage anyone to attend. If you want to learn more about ORCA, you can visit their website:  https://https://orgs.unt.edu/orca/.