Professional Animal Training Workshop at the Shedd Aquarium - Part 2

The first two days of the Animal Training Workshop at Shedd Aquarium were absolutely fantastic. Little did I know it was going to get EVEN better! How so? Well, you'll just have to read on!

Day 3:

Wednesday began in the usual way. Most of us arrived just after 8:30am. Coffee, juice, bagels and yummy pastries laid out again as they had been each day - spoilt! The first item on the agenda for the day was an exam to assess our knowledge of what we had learned over the past two days. Piece of cake!

The lectures on day three covered 'One on One vs Group Training' and included 'stationing strategies' (where you teach an animal to go to a particular location) and 'new animal introductions' and 'Providing Your Animal with Variety' (in training sessions, habitat selection, play sessions, social structure and toys). We then moved onto 'Advanced Techniques and Concepts' in training which require experience to apply. This topic covered 'defining your criteria', 'secondary reinforcers', 'schedules of reinforcement' and 'punishment, negative reinforcers and aversive stimuli'.

We observed training sessions with a Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl and a Harris Hawk. These sessions concentrated on desensitising the birds to a large crowd of people (us!), teaching them to accept tactile from their trainer, stationing and target training.

At 6pm we had a lovely social dinner at Shedd but immediately prior to that was the most incredible surprise. At about 5pm we were taken to the room where staff prepare guests for animal encounter experiences. It was at this point we were told that we were all going to have a once a lifetime Beluga whale encounter. After being fitted with some super stylish brown waders we headed for the Beluga habitat. In my group was Sharon (a horse trainer), Mariela (a dog trainer), Allison (a zookeeper), Erin (who wants to be a marine mammal trainer) and myself. Our group was very fortunate to be led by Ken Ramirez himself who introduced us to Kayavak, a 13 year old female Beluga. Ken has known and trained her since she was born at Shedd. Ken and Kayavak have the most amazingly close relationship, unlike anything I've seen between a trainer and non-domestic animal. She followed him everywhere and relished the chance to have Ken tickle her tongue - hilarious!

Me hand targeting Kavayak, the Beluga whale

We each got to cue several behaviours with Kayavak including targeting, spy-hopping, spitting water, vocalising and various other husbandry behaviours. This was an experience we will never forget!

Day 4:

Thursday began with lectures and we continued on with 'Advanced Training Concepts'. Topics covered were 'conditioned punishers', 'recall training' and 'chained behaviour'. We then moved onto 'Aggression' and 'Solving Problem Behaviour'. Ken spoke about aggression being a normal behaviour and that almost all animals have some degree of aggression in their behavioural repertoire. We tend to forget (or fail to acknowledge) this when it comes to our companion animals. Ken spoke of the importance of 'identifying the problem', 'planning', 'determining the cause' of problem behaviour and 'considering the balance of reinforcers vs punishers (motivation)' and that once a behaviour modification plan had been implemented that 'behaviour analysis and constant monitoring' is critical to evaluate its effectiveness.

Animal training sessions included sessions with Tyler and Tanner (Californian Sea Lions) in which Ken continued to work on the training goals he had set at the start of the week: A voluntary blood draw (for Tyler) and Free Contact with Tanner. We also saw a training session with two Sea Otters. The trainers worked on a range of behaviours including targeting (multiple targets and body parts), stationing, accepting being caught in a net, porpoise (kind of like a duck dive), retrieve objects, go inside a crate etc.

After another jam packed day of learning, networking and observing training sessions I went to dinner with a friend I met at the workshop.

Day 5:

As I walked to Shedd in the sunshine on the final day of the workshop I was sad that it was coming to an end. The people and animals I'd met, friends I'd made, conversations I'd had and knowledge gained made for a memorable and extremely enjoyable week in Chicago.

Friday began with our final exam which tested our knowledge of topics covered on the previous two days. After that, we met two very cool animals; a Black and White Tegu called Uncle Fester and an Aracari called Beau.

Target training "Uncle Fester" the Black and White Tegu
Training "Beau", the gorgeous Aracari, to station on the hand

During the lunch break we got to see the Aquatic Show which starred the Pacific White-sided dolphins, Beluga whales, Tyler the California sea lion and Ken Ramirez! It was a great opportunity to see how the training we had observed throughout the week is applied in shows to demonstrate species specific behaviour, animal intelligence, communicate critical conservation messages and the special relationships the trainers have with the animals to the general public.

After lunch we broke into groups to play some trainer games. Each group was provided with a bag containing about 20 small objects (e.g. toy cars, dominoes, dice, toy animals etc). We played three different versions of the game in which one person was the trainer and another person was the animal. The trainer used a clicker to mark a desired behaviour and verbal praise to reinforce it. The first game involved teaching the animal to perform three different behaviours (e.g. move toy car along table surface) and then put each behaviour on a different cue. The second game also required the trainer to teach the animal three behaviours on cue and in addition, to chain the behaviours together and introduce a new cue for the three chained behaviours. Talk about a challenge! These games were lots of fun and an invaluable way to gain insight into the way another animal learns. The games also helped us improve our timing of marking and reinforcing desired behaviour.

In the afternoon we made our way to the last training sessions with Tyler and Tanner. Watching Ken train Tyler throughout the week was certainly one of my highlights. They share such a unique and close relationship. Tyler's personality and behaviour really reminds me of a giant playful dog.

Just as we lined up to observe Tyler's last session Ken told us another amazing surprise. Each of us was given the opportunity to be "kissed" on the cheek by Tyler. Of course, every single one of us jumped at the opportunity! While this may seem like an enormous task for Tyler, he easily accomplished it. Ken kept up a very high rate of reinforcement and took breaks in between kisses to work on other behaviours that Tyler enjoyed. As you can tell from the photo below I thoroughly enjoyed my sloppy, smelly and very fishy kiss!

A kiss from the gorgeous Tyler, a California sea lion

I couldn't resist a photo opportunity with Ken on the last day! He's such a rock star of the animal training world :)

Me with Ken Ramirez

The very last animal training session we observed for the workshop was the Beluga whales. We made our way to the beluga habitat and watched five trainers work six animals. Here's a video highlighting some of that training...

The workshop concluded with a farewell dinner in the President's room overlooking Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Ken sat at our table and entertained us with some incredible stories of animals he had worked with and their amazing intelligence and personalities.

In the President's room for the farewell dinner
At the closing dinner overlooking Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline

My week at Shedd Aquarium was one I will never forget. I met some amazing people and animals and learned from one of the world's most well respected animal trainers. I cannot say enough about how amazing Ken Ramirez is - a gifted teacher, animal trainer and storyteller. If you're an animal behaviour and training geek (like me) and you're lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn from him then take it! You won't regret it.

The knowledge and experiences I bring home from the Animal Training Workshop will further improve the services I provide my clients as an animal behaviourist and consultant. As it turns out, the timing of this workshop could not have been better. I have been hired by Melbourne Aquarium to deliver several staff training workshops on animal behaviour, learning and training later this year. I look forward to assisting their staff to better understand the behaviour of the animals in their care and how to interact with them to promote optimal behaviour outcomes.

Keep an eye out for a future blog post about the Melbourne Aquarium workshops!