Sunday, May 24, 2015

Secrets to an Awesome Training Session

I had one of those training sessions the other day. You know the kind, the ones that stay in your mind because you just felt so great afterwards.  This particular training session was at a zoo, one of my regular contracts. When I work with zoos I usually do a lot of coaching and stand back and let the keepers do the hands on portion. I only step in if needed since the goal is for keepers to practice and refine their training skills, as I am only a temporary visitor. On this day our third person was needed elsewhere which left just two of us of to work with one of the female giraffes.  This meant I needed to help out a bit more than usual to attain the intended training goal. I had been told this female had been hesitant to offer much in the way of behavior and while she was often enthusiastic to eat the special leaf eater biscuits we had to offer it was challenging to get her to actually do much.  I wasn’t quite sure what this meant but I kept it in the back of my mind as we discussed out training goal and plan.

A major healthcare goal for giraffes is to be able to trim their hooves. A nice behavior to have them do to facilitate this is to voluntarily curl a front hoof under their body and rest their fetlock on something like a bale of hay. This gives us full access to the bottom of their hoof for trimming. This was our behavior goal. The challenge is how do you get a giraffe to voluntarily present this behavior?

No matter what species you are training or what behavior, the first goal is to find a way to get an action happening so that you can reinforce it. There are a number of ways to do this. You can show what you have to offer. For example you can lure a rabbit onto a scale by leaving a trail of favorite food items to the scale. Eventually you can start leaving less of a trail and start delivering the food after your rabbit gets onto the scale. This is a good strategy as you don’t want your animal to be dependent on seeing what you have to offer.

You can also get action by using a target. You can easily train your parrot to gently touch a ball on the end of a stick with his beak. This can then be used to direct him where to go. This is especially helpful for parrots that may have issues with hands. You can easily direct them in and out of enclosure without having to pick them up.

Another strategy is to use free shaping. This is when the animal offers tiny actions towards the desired behavior and these actions are bridged and reinforced. This approach requires excellent observation skills by the trainer and good timing of the bridging stimulus and delivery of reinforcers.  This approach creates an animal that typically is eagerly offering actions trying to discover what works. Trainers must walk a fine line of pushing for more action but also keep reinforcement rates high enough to avoid frustration.

We decided to use the free shaping strategy with this giraffe. We also set up our environment so that it might be easy for her to present the action we wanted. This meant placing the bale of hay close to her front feet, with the keeper on the other side of the fence offering her biscuits for any actions that involved interacting with the bale.  She did start offering tiny movements of her feet right away, however as mentioned the challenging part can be trying to up the criteria without frustrating your animal or causing them to lose interest. To address this we came up with a strategy that relies on behavior economics. In other words we assigned a rating system to her efforts as we raised our criteria; 1, 3 or 5 biscuits.  Low but acceptable effort only got 1 biscuit, a little extra effort got 3 biscuits and when she really gave us extra effort she received 5 or more biscuits. Yes sometimes her efforts were too low to receive any biscuits and as we raised criteria what earned biscuits did change. But we did this carefully and our rating system allowed us to reinforce more often rather than less often. This helped address the challenge of her reputation of not offering much. By keeping our rates of reinforcement high and communicating what was more important with extra reinforcers we were able to increase criteria and keep our giraffe girl eagerly participating.

Giraffes are BIG. I was focused on the feet and shouting out 1, 3 or 5 and the trainer feeding was also watching the giraffe's face and body language for her level of focus and engagement in the session. She could also decide if we needed to offer more to keep her engaged in the session.  It may seem odd to have two trainers making decisions, but it is sometimes required when you can’t see the entire animal. In any case our strategies worked! Within 8 minutes we had her holding her left hoof in the exact position we wanted for a good 10 seconds.

Talk about a rush! We got the behavior quickly, our animal was eager and engaged and no longer labeled a hesitant learner once we revisited our training strategies.  Best of all we are now looking forward to having regular hoof care be a breeze. 

You probably are not training a giraffe in your home, but believe it or not the same principles can apply to your parrot, rabbit, guinea pig, dog, even your fish! Do you have a behavior or animal that has been a bit of a challenge to train? Do you have a good plan for getting an action started? Have you set up your environment so that it is easy for your animal to present the action? How will you keep your animal engaged in the session and avoid frustration? Take a look at these factors and with a few adjustments to your strategy maybe you too can have one of those training sessions that make you and your animal feel just awesome.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

1 comment:

Ellen Thiede said...

It sure would be fun to work with an animal that big!
I only wish I could do it.