Professional Animal Training Workshop at the Shedd Aquarium - Part 1

I'm in Chicago to attend the Professional Animal Training Workshop at the Shedd Aquarium. The five day course ran from Monday the 20th until Friday the 24th of August and was taught by Ken Ramirez, a highly respected and world renowned animal trainer with 35 years of training experience. Here's an overview of the first two days of the workshop at Shedd Aquarium:

Day 1:

The 15 minute walk over to the Aquarium on day one was pretty funny! Not a minute after I walked out of my hotel the dark skies fleetingly lit up with cracks of iridescent lightening which was soon followed by roaring claps of thunder. Then, it started to POUR! Of course I didn't bring an umbrella so I got completely drenched as I scrambled to get to Shedd, about a 15 minute walk away.

The John G. Shedd Aquarium (built in 1930)

The day began with an introduction from Ken about his 35 years of experience in the animal training world. He's trained everything from marine mammals to tigers, reptiles, sea otters, penguins and dogs. Topics covered on day 1 included 'the history of animal training', 'knowing our animal', 'trust and relationship building', 'operant conditioning vs classical conditioning', 'the ABC's of learning' and  'reinforcement'. Ken also spoke about the Four Cornerstones of Animal Care:

1. Health care (Veterinary)
2. Nutrition
3. Environment (including social interactions)
4. Behaviour Management (Training)

We were privileged to observe (very close up) training sessions with Tyler, Tanner and Biff (California sea lions) and Piquet and her 90 day old calf (Pacific White-sided dolphins). A number of different husbandry (targeting a range of different targets and body parts) and non-husbandry behaviours (such as vocalisation, spin and salute) were demonstrated and Ken continued to work on a new voluntary rear flipper blood draw behaviour he was teaching Tyler.

One of the gems of wisdom Ken gave us from day one was that "every trainer has a slightly different perspective based on their own training background and experiences" and that this is an important consideration when meeting and talking to other people in the field.

Here's a video of Ken doing a target training session with Piquet and her calf (Pacific White-sided dolphins):

Day 2:

I arrived at Shedd excited for what lay ahead and eager to learn more. Ken didn't disappoint! Some of the topics covered on day two included 'shaping techniques', 'Karen Pryor's 10 laws of shaping', 'stimulus control', 'dealing with incorrect responses', 'training and shaping plans', 'non-formal interactions', 'active vs passive training', 'husbandry training', 'desensitisation' and 'training techniques for medical behaviours'. Ken also discussed the most common mistakes trainers make, such as assuming what an animal finds reinforcing, taking approximations that are too big and using more than one trainer for new behaviours.

We watched six behind the scene training sessions with four different species: Magellanic penguins, Californian sea lions, Beluga whales and Pacific White-sided dolphins. The Beluga whale session was a "none-formal interaction" in which Ken and Rick played with the dolphins. Play is a non-food reinforcer for the Belugas.

Ken playing with Kayavak, the Beluga whale, who LOVES tongue rubs!

"305", the Magellanic penguin, getting reinforcement from his trainer

Check out this clip of a training session with one of the Pacific White-sided dolphins:

Day two ended with some traditional Chicago deep dish pizza for dinner and an informal Q&A session with Ken. Participants were encouraged to ask questions and Ken was more than happy to address them. We had some excellent discussions and heard some incredible stories from Ken. He is such a gifted storyteller and had many of us in tears with one particular story he told.

Ken's gem for day two? Well, there were several. The first: "Every interaction we have with an animal has some type of reinforcing value". The second gem for me was the blatant realisation that you should NEVER believe what you hear or read in the media because in doing so you risk forming ill-informed opinions based on incorrect information and facts. Hearing a first hand account of an incident I had previously read about made me realise how the media can twist facts and introduce fiction all in the name of a "good" story. Like any animal, I have learned from my mistake.

If you're hooked and what to find out what we did on days three to five then why not subscribe and be notified when I post Part 2 of my adventures at Shedd. I promise it will definitely be worth your while!!!


  1. What did Ken say about non-formal interactions? When I had a wild hare living with me, I got into the habit of being ultra consistent in the way I behaved around him. I used the same words in the same tone and said the same phrases in the same sequence and responded to him consistently as well. I got into the habit of doing this because the hare was so flighty, but was much better when he knew what I was going to do. The predictability seemed to make him feel more secure and therefore calm. These habits have got me in trouble as well, though. I tend to get easily stuck in these routines and if unwanted behaviour creeps in out of somewhere I find my routines can cue the unwanted behaviour. So then I have to retrain myself as well as the animals. Often it takes me a while to realise what I'm doing that is perpetuating the problem.

    1. Hey Mel! Ken said that it's really important to be aware of reinforcing unwanted behaviour during non-formal interactions as these occur way more often than formal training sessions. Every interaction we have with an animal has some type of reinforcing value (whether positive or negative). Animals continue to learn outside of training sessions. Ken reiterated the importance of trust and a good relationship with the animals we train. I think it's great that you were being ultra consistent but at the same time you need to gradually desensitise him to different stimuli (e.g. tone, volume of your voice). Animals are great at teaching us where we need to improve!

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