Animal Behavior Intern: Lessons From One Student’s Internship

0 | Posted:

By Sophie Liu


To the typical student, the words “summer vacation” usually evoke images of swaying palm trees, warm weather, and, best of all, no school or work! But, for my summer vacation, I had different plans in mind. For one month, I spent my time away from school as an intern for Dr. Sophia Yin, and I learned more than I ever could have imagined about animal behavior. From behavior theory to its practical applications, I learned about the historical background of applied animal behavior, the fundamental principles of behavior modification, and how to apply my newly honed skills to different types of animals. There was certainly no beach lounging for me, but how many college students can say they trained a chicken? Here are some lessons I learned about animal behavior and about training as a finely tuned skill:

Lesson 1: A hungry dog, cat, or chick will work for food.


My first few days at the internship were spent familiarizing myself with the care and training of our newly arrived chicks. They grew quickly and, by week three, we started training the chicks to focus on us for food rewards, even in a new environment. Intuitively, I knew that a hungry animal worked more exuberantly for food than a full animal. However, having never raised chicks before, I had no clue what a hungry chick looked or acted like! So, to err on the side of caution, we pulled the chicks’ crumbled feed in the early morning. A couple of hours later, we moved them to the new environment and tried training them to focus on and approach us for food.


At first they were nervous in the new environment, so we had to first make sure they would eat the food in that environment. Then, we would lure them to walk a few steps by holding the food a few steps away. By day two they were consistently walking a few steps to get to the food. (Though this sounds simple enough, it’s difficult convincing young chicks that find safety in being with their flock that it’s safe enough in a new environment to move around and eat food independently!) All went fairly well, except, one day, we forgot to pull their morning feed until about 11AM and decided to train them several hours later. Big mistake! The chicks weren’t hungry and were more concerned with their environment than focusing on us. We learned we needed to withhold food even longer in order to be sure that they were consistently hungry. When they were consistently hungry, chicks quickly learned to run across the table to get their food and to focus on us to get the food.


The lesson? Even very young chicks can learn to be relaxed in a new environment and can focus well on training, as long as they’re motivated and hungry enough (and the environment is not too scary). For our chicks, that meant pulling food in the morning and training them by late afternoon, at least 4 to 6 hours later. After training, they got full access to food to ensure they grew at a healthy rate. Now that the “chicks” are maturing (into pullets), they’re also proving to be much more interested in people and in training after having their food pulled at night. By pulling their food at night, we could began their first training session earlier in the day!


Likewise, Dante, the resident cat, also had to switch to earning most of his food in training instead of being free-fed meals in a bowl. It took 3 days before he figured out that training was the only way to earn his food. At first he was picky about whether he’d eat during a training session until he realized if he didn’t work for it he wasn’t going to get it again for a long time because the next potential training/feeding session wouldn’t occur until several hours later. On the first days, he would blow me off after a few sits and run out the cat door to go lounge outside in the sun. Once he understood this was the new routine, I quickly had Dante doing Sit exercises (where I walk a few steps backwards, wait for Dante to follow, and then wait for an automatic Sit from him) so well it could’ve put some dogs to shame! I was also able to target him from the ground to an obstacle (and off again) with ease. Like the chicks, Dante received his evening meals as usual to ensure his health, but, if I had time, we could have used that to train him, as well! he In fact, his morning training session consisted of his morning meal pulled to ensure he’d be motivated for training; while training, we only fed him the amount he’d willingly eat during the day.


Lesson 2: Dogs need negative punishment, as well as positive reinforcement, to learn how to walk nicely on lead and that pulling won’t work.


When I received Clyde, a foster cocker spaniel, to practice the Learn to Earn program, the first thing we noticed was that he was overly dependent on his foster mom. He whined and pulled toward her when she wasn’t near and paced and whine when she was out of sight. He also lacked impulse control in other situations. He lunged after toys even when on leash (instead of sitting politely for permission to get them), barged out of his crate (instead of laying down calmly for permission to come out), and tended to want to be in motion instead of lying calmly throughout the day. Because Clyde initially couldn’t focus at all on us (even for tasty treats when we knew he had to be hungry) and just wanted to pace and look for his foster mom, we put him on a Gentle Leader to better guide him. We worked for 20 minutes just walking, stopping, and then gently guiding him to sit. Dr. Yin started this exercise first. After just 10 minutes he started heeling nicely, taking food treats as a reward, and was focused on Dr. Yin. Then we switched and I worked on the exercises and he quickly transferred this focused, relaxed behavior to me.


Overall, though, he was doing really well on the Learn to Earn program in the house and on walks. I easily could ask Clyde to “Say Please by Sitting” and perform the progression of repeat sits backwards, with me running to the side or with him in heel position. He also readily sat to go out the door, come in, and for petting. However, what I didn’t realize was, that although he was extremely attentive, he was not that relaxed. He paced and squirmed excitedly in between sits and could not lie down for long periods unless treats were coming at a fairly rapid rate, even after three days on the Learn to Earn protocol. At that point I could have been more consistent about increasing the interval between treats. We decided to switch to petting-only as a reward for one training session in the house because it seemed that petting produced calmer results than food alone. A few repetitions of this, and, success! As soon as he sat, I massaged him for 5-20 seconds and then we repeated the exercise of walking around the living room, stopping, and then my petting Clyde for sitting. At first I had to make sure I was holding the leash short enough so that, if he didn’t stop immediately when I did, he’d quickly get to the end of the leash and realize he was going nowhere—and as a result sit quickly. After one or two trials he just stopped and sat on his own. So, after just 10 minutes of this combination of petting as a reinforcement plus keeping the leash short enough so that it was clear to him that he couldn’t pace around when we stopped, Clyde’s pacing decreased dramatically. He started sitting automatically, and calmly, whenever I stopped. Once he calmed down, then he was even calmer for food rewards too!

Lesson 3: Predictable patterns = bored animal.


Often, while training dogs to o repeat sits on the left side, I moved in a quick, predictable pattern. Take five steps, stop. Take another five steps, stop. Using these predictable patterns made it easy for me to navigate unfamiliar environments, but I forgot that they also made my dog incredibly bored! After a few minutes, I’d wonder why the happy, focused dog with which I’d initially started suddenly morphed into a slow, unresponsive pooch. The answer?  I had fallen into a predictable pattern. Another clue was that, when I switched the dog over to Dr. Yin, the dog would perform excitedly, so I knew it was a matter of handler technique. So, to avoid predictability, I had to monitor myself constantly and vary the speed at which I moved and how long I moved. The lesson? Even if it requires a bit more brainpower and a lot more muscle memory, never fall into a predictable pattern, or say “Good-bye!” to your dog’s focus.

Lesson 4: If you don’t train for full focus in increasingly distracting environments, all that training can (and likely will) fall apart in real life.


Riley, the neighbor’s dog, had seven full days of practice doing the Learn to Earn program with me, and she was performing well inside the house. On quiet streets, too, she walked on a loose leash and sat immediately whenever I stopped walking. Unfortunately, that gave me a false sense of security, so I didn’t train for full focus (eye contact) while on walks and forgot to practice with increasing distractions, like new neighborhoods or in areas with strange people or dogs walking around. So, when we decided to borrow Riley to help a client practice keeping her dog’s focus around distractions, Riley became the dog unable to give focus! The Riley we saw heeling and focusing so nicely in the house clearly didn’t have enough practice focusing on her handler and working with distractions outside of the house. The lesson? You must train the dog to focus on you in increasingly difficult situations and avoid feeling satisfied with an easier-to-walk (but unfocused) dog. If the dog is unable to give full attention to you, her good behavior at home is likely to fall apart in real life situations.

Lesson 5: Animal behavior science practically guarantees success. If you’re not getting the results you want and fast, you may need to improve your technique or try a different one.


When I first started training Riley to sit automatically on my left side as part of the Learn to Earn program, I quickly placed a treat at her mouth right before I stopped walking in order to block her from running by (called a “flash lure” —refer to Perfect Puppy in 7 Days p 83). Once she stopped, I lifted the treat to get her to sit squarely on my left side. Dr. Yin calls it a “flash lure” because we extend our hands down in front of the dogs’ faces just long enough to grab their attention, get them to stop, and raise the treat to get them to perform an automatic sit. After three days, I thought Riley was doing well in the house because she would walk by my side and stop every time I stopped. Still, I did have to use the flash lure to prevent her from blowing past me because she wasn’t yet anticipating my stops and wasn’t sitting automatically without needing a lure. She also ambled half-heartedly beside me, and she performed her Sit’s like they were boring requirements rather than fun games. Dr. Yin reminded me that when she teaches dogs this exercise, she’s often able to fade the flash lure out and have the dog performing automatic sits on the left side after one or two 10 to 20 minute sessions. After all, since new dogs on the Learn to Earn program should receive at least 50 reinforcements for sitting automatically by Day 1, they generally perform automatic sits on the handler’s left side when walking on a loose leash by Day 2.


So, Dr. Yin took Riley and tested her out but without a flash lure. To prevent Riley from running by, Dr. Yin held the leash just short enough with her arm extended down low, such that her hand was at Riley’s head level. For the first trial, Riley continued walking half a step after Dr. Yin stopped, but, then, she immediately sat energetically and looked up at her handler. After that, whenever Dr. Yin started walking, Riley trotted energetically and automatically stopped and sat. So, within just one trial, Riley’s demeanor changed completely because Dr. Yin had increased her expectation of what she wanted. When I took the leash and tried it, Riley was immediately better with me, too. At first, she tried to continue walking forward, but, because I held the leash just short enough for that first trial, she understood that forging ahead wouldn’t work. Then, I was able to let the leash hang in a loose loop, and she automatically sat when I stopped. Within a few minutes and less than a dozen tries, Riley had clearly improved for me, too. She started anticipating my stops and sitting automatically without needing the leash shortened or held back. So, the lesson here was if you stay on one step too long (I’d stayed using the flash lure about 2 days and 100 reinforcements too long) and if that step requires luring, your dog may never improve. Indeed, improvement doesn’t just mean perfecting one step; it also requires increasing your expectations and moving to the next step to keep the dog happy and focused.

A common theme


All these lessons share a common theme: animal training requires more than reading, memorization, and good technical skills. To train animals well you must understand the concepts fully, see how they are applied similarly across different species, and recognize the way handler technique greatly influences the speed at which an animal learns. Although I didn’t get to spend my summer vacation at the beach, I did learn important lessons and had experiences no amount of school could ever provide. Now, that’s a real summer well spent!


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *