Folsom Zookeepers Train Animals While Testing Their Skills

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Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM
R.I.P. 1966-2014

Trainer with bear folsom zoo

First, the Trainers

It’s a sunny morning in Folsom and something odd is happening at the Folsom Zoo. Zookeepers and staff are waving their arms, flailing their legs, and balancing in weird positions. No, they’re not there to entertain the animals. They’re playing the training game. The game where two people collude to train a third person to perform behavior unknown to her. The only clues they can give are to click and treat whenever she performs a behavior close to what they want. It’s a game where they get to experience the confusion that animals feel when humans are training and learn the importance of timing, criteria, and thinking outside the box.

The Folsom Zoo is a tiny zoo with many rescued and somewhat tame animals. Regardless of size and the shortness of staff, everyone there knows the importance of training the animals. And that’s why I’m here today, giving a workshop to get everyone on the same level. Says Jill Lute, “In just dollars alone, it’s saves thousands of dollars if we can train the animals to cooperate for veterinary procedures rather than needing to dart them just for their annual exams and vaccinations. And it’s way less stressful for everyone too.”

But before training an animal everyone has to make sure they can train a person first, and it’s easy to get stuck.

For instance, Rebecca’s trainers want her to jump with one knee off the ground, but what she’s doing looks more like the running man followed by an arabesque. Why? Because the trainers need to be more precise about what they click and treat. They keep clicking when she puts her foot down after raising her knee, so she thinks they want her to raise her knee and then put her foot down. Hence the hip-hop dance move. They should have clicked as she was raising her knee. The click needs to occur immediately as the person or animal is performing the correct behavior.

So we take a step back. First reward her for just lifting her knee high until she does this to earn 5 click-treats in a row. Then we need to find a way to get her to jump. She’s good at raising her knee higher but is not getting the idea to jump. So I stand on a box and click when she raises her knee, but reward her up high so she has to jump to get the treat. Within several click-treats, she’s jumping with her knee in the air.

Then there’s Angelica. Her trainers have her waving her arm above her head and leaning to the left side. She keeps wrapping her arm over her head and touching her head with the back of her hand. What they want her to do is to pat herself on the head. The problem? They accidentally reward the arm wrapping behavior and when they realize they need criteria to try to get something different they start rewarding her for leaning to the side. How do we fix it? We first extinguish the leaning by failing to reward leaning behavior and only rewarding the arm over the head when she’s standing straight. We reward this behavior 5 times in a row so she understands which behavior works. Then we stop rewarding this so that she’ll try something different. She starts moving her hand on her head in different ways, and ta-da, she’s soon patting herself on the head.

Possibly the trickiest is Sharifa, who keeps raising both arms and flapping them like a duck. The trainers are trying to train her to slap her pants simultaneously with both hands, so they reward when she flaps her hands and brings them down and graze her pants. But the problem is that this behavior is not distinct compared to the arm flapping. So they take a completely different approach. We take post-it notes and reward slapping the post-it notes with the hand. Then we place the post-it notes on Rebecca’s pants so she slaps them. Then we remove the post-it notes and reward slapping the pants.

Now for some animals

Now the keepers have more refined skills for training the zoo animals to cooperate for husbandry procedures and to just be more manageable overall. For instance, the bears already know how to open their mouth for veterinary exams but the cougars need to learn to perform this behavior on cue as well. The feral pigs are rude about being fed. They jump on the food trough to jam their head through the opening on the wall where the food is dumped in. They need to learn to stand stationary while waiting for their food. And many of the animals need to learn to present their side to the fence for examination and vaccination. Training these behaviors serves dual purposes. It improves the bond between keepers and animals, reduces stress on the animals, and greatly reduces the veterinary costs, especially those associated with animal tranquilization for what would otherwise be a routine procedure.

The Keepers Use Their New Skills

Next the keepers use their newly refined skills. They start to train the pigs to stand patiently to have their food tossed into their trough. We train this by rewarding the pigs for standing before they have a chance to jump up. Then we continue rewarding with a sequence of treats (their regular food) so they remain standing. We systematically increase the interval between treats so that they learn to be more patient between treats. Now it’s a matter of doing this regularly and with multiple keepers until the new behavior becomes a habit.

The bear training is equally successful. We shape one bear to stand with his side to the fence. Lynn, the bear keeper starts by just clicking/treating for a slight head turn to the right. [To see an example of training a head turn in a lion, click here]. After several minutes the bear is getting the head turn consistently. Next she only clicks and rewards when he shifts his weight to the right, then when he’s taking a step to the right, then when he’s turning his body to the right. After just 15-20 minutes of training he’s turning all the way to the side. The behavior still needs refining as the bear doesn’t know it really well. Later we’ll also want him to hold the position and offer the position on cue. But with the improved skills these changes won’t take long to train.

Conclusion

So, while many people might wonder why bother practicing on humans first anyone who’s played the training game knows. Learning how it feels to be trained provides an invaluable insight into how skilled animal training should be done. 

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