In my blog last month I wrote about my trip to Winter Haven, Florida to attend a professional training course on animal training. The course was put on by Natural Encounters Inc. Now that I have had some time to reflect on my trip and the things I have learned, I wanted to share with you some of the key points of the course and how I plan to apply them at our Zoo.
Power or Positive reinforcement: If an animal does something you like, reward it! Usually, at the Zoo this means with a treat, but it can also be with praise, a scratch or something else the animal really enjoys. Always keep it positive and go at the pace of the animal. Never force them to do anything. This leads to my next key point.
Repetition builds trust: If you continually give an animal reinforcement for performing a behavior over and over again, you will build what the teachers of the course called a “trust bank account.” Just like a real bank, it takes a lot of time to build up a trust account. Make sure that you are always adding to the account, and if you need to “withdraw” from the account, do so only as a last resort. Just like with a real bank account, it is much easier to withdraw a lot at once than it is to deposit a lot at once.
Choice equals empowerment: Giving an animal the opportunity to perform a variety of behaviors, and choose what it would like to do it a very self-rewarding. Just like when you go to a restaurant, you like to have a choice of what to eat. The same goes for an animal. Give them choice in their food, their environment and the behavior they perform. It is very empowering!
Be clear in your communication: Always make sure that when you ask an animal to perform a behavior you are doing it clearly, and if they do the behavior, make sure it is rewarded. We cannot physically talk to our animals (well, maybe a parrot or two!), but we can communicate with our body language and with our reaction to a behavior. So always be aware of what you are communicating to the animal, but also be aware of the animal’s behavior. What are they doing to communicate with you?
The five days I spent at the course may have been some of the most productive time I have spent training for my job, and I certainly took more knowledge away from the course than I ever thought possible. I will incorporate the information from the course in training animals in our education collection. These are the animals you see in a number of our educational programs, such as camps, scouts, ZooMobiles (see photo at right) and the summer interpretive programs.
Lastly, I met great animal trainers from all over the world, and built a support group I can go to with questions. It was a truly rewarding experience and I am so grateful to the Zoo for sending me to the course!
– Kenny Nelson, Interpretation Coordinator