Animal Behaviour Seminars, Workshops and a bit of Parrot Behaviour Consulting

Wow! It's been a long time since my last blog post! Since returning home from the Animal Training Workshop at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, work has been incredibly busy. Here's a run down of what I've been up to during the last two months...

Upon my return I got busy working on a professional development seminar for animal care staff at Melbourne Aquarium. Months ago I'd been approached by the organisation to develop and run several workshops on animal behaviour and training for their staff who car for numerous species of fish and King and Gentoo penguins. I ran two workshops in mid September, with the help of my brilliant colleague and helper, Mia Cobb. What fun! The Melbourne Aquarium staff were fabulous and the feedback from the workshops was amazing. 

I found Nemo!!!
Here's a testimonial I received from the Manager of the Bird Department: 
"Kate provided staff at Melbourne Aquarium with a great understanding of theoretical and practical applications to animal training. Our seminar was both fun and educational. Kate presented the information in a way that was suitable for beginner as well as experienced animal trainers. With fun activities, videos and observing in-house practices, the staff enjoyed an educational seminar on animal behaviour and training".
Staff training workshop (in the PARTY room) at Melbourne Aquarium
The workshops, designed in consultation with management and specific to the needs of the organisation, included theory (PowerPoint presentation), observational learning (watching animals) and practical skill building (applying the theory in training) components.

Meeting the beautiful King penguins
In addition to the professional workshops, I ran a Parrot Health & Behaviour seminar along with Specialist Avian Veterinarian Dr Patricia Macwhirter, for parrot care-givers in Melbourne. The event was a great success with twenty-five attendants including parrot owners, breeders and bird trainers. Several attendees provided fantastic feedback on the day and one called me the following day to say how educational and worthwhile he'd found the seminar. He and his friend had travelled from rural N.S.W. to attend. Amazing!

Presenting about companion parrot behaviour at my seminar
I will be running another seminar; 'The Science of Dog Behaviour & Training' at the end of November in Melbourne. I'm really looking forward to helping attendees better understand their dog's behaviour and how to get the best behaviour from their canine companions. We have support for the event from some great companies including Kong, Love'em and Dog Diggity.

In addition to organising and running seminars and workshops on animal training and behaviour I've recently partnered with an Avian vet clinic in Melbourne to deliver in-clinic bird behaviour consultations. I've had the opportunity to meet some very dedicated and caring parrot owners who want the best for their birds. This work is incredibly rewarding!

Well, that's it for now. My next blog post will provide an overview of some ongoing education I've completed recently including attending the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Australia conference and completing Dr Susan Friedman's Living and Learning with Animals for Professionals course. Bye for now :)

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!

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!!!

This is not a travel blog but let me tell you a little bit about Chicago...

At the end of my last post I mentioned I was currently in Chicago in the USA. While this is not a travel blog I do want to share my experiences in this amazing city so far and the reason I came here in the first place...

I arrived in Chicago on Thursday night last week after a 30+ hour journey from my home in Melbourne, Australia. The reason I'm here is to participate in an animal training workshop, run by world-renowned animal trainer Ken Ramirez, at the Shedd Aquarium. The 5 day workshop starts tomorrow (Monday) and around 30 people, mainly from the USA but also other parts of the globe, are attending.
Here's a brochure about the workshop
For last three days I've been getting to know the city of Chicago and I must admit, I'm a bit in love! The architecture (especially the Gothic!), the weather (warm with sunny blue skies), the skyline, the sights, the people and even the coffee (well, in one shop at least) have really left an impression.

REAL coffee in the USA!!!
I'm blown away by how friendly people are. People actually say "hello" and "good morning" to you here! This morning when I left the hotel to walk to my favourite coffee shop; Intelligentsia (where they make REAL coffee!), I counted about five "hellos" and "good mornings" from complete strangers. As a tourist I really feel at home here.

Taken just outside my hotel looking down S. Michigan Avenue
I've spent hours walking around downtown Chicago admiring the buildings and taking in all the sights and sounds. The city is really clean, full of cultural diversity and literally crawling with people! This weekend the Chicago Air and Water Show is on. Lake Michigan is teaming with and boats and yachts of all shapes and sizes and jet planes scream as they buzz the Chicago skyline, including my hotel!

Yesterday I did a 'Hop On, Hop Off' bus tour - a fantastic way to see the sights. I learnt of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which destroyed almost the entire city which, at the time, was constructed mainly of timber. Chicago was completely rebuilt and is nicknamed "The Second City". We drove down the Magnificent Mile where, we were told by our guide, most of the shops are lucky to break even due to exorbitant rent. Other landmarks we saw were Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, Millennium Park and the Chicago Theatre.

Chicago Theatre
Today I walked to the Museum campus, where Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum are located. I spent a couple of hours exploring the museum and learned all about Sue, the largest and best preserved fossil specimen of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found. Sue was named after Sue Hendrickson, the Palaeontologist who discovered the 90% complete skeleton.

"Sue" the T-Rex fossil at the Field Museum in Chicago
Well that's a taste of my time in Chicago so far. Over the next few days I'll post about what I learn and who I meet at the workshop at Shedd Aquarium. Stay tuned!

A brief history on how I became an Animal Behaviourist...

Welcome! This is a blog about animal behaviour and training as well as my work as an animal behaviourist.

I have been meaning to start a blog for years now and was recently inspired to bite the bullet by my lovely friend Mia Cobb, who has just started a fabulous blog, about all things canine science, called Do You Believe in Dog? You should follow her blog too if you love (or believe in) dogs!

So here we go. I guess I'll start with a brief history of how I became an animal behaviourist...

After finishing school back in 1996 I had no idea what I wanted to be. So, I did what most kids in such a predicament do, I enrolled in an Arts degree! In my first year of Arts at La Trobe Uni I studied Archaeology, Sociology and History. For a brief while I thought I might like to be a Palaeontologist and spend my life digging in the dirt for dinosaurs. After all, Jurassic Park was one of my favourite movies. Fortunately I realised my real passion was studying living animals when I transferred to an Arts/Science double degree in my second year. I soon discovered I LOVED science! Well, more specifically, I loved Zoology. Learning all about the ecology, behaviour and physiology of different taxa was fascinating! I loved zoology so much that I worked really hard and received high enough marks in my third year to get into the zoology honours program (4th year).

In 2003 I completed my honours year and was fortunate enough to work with a world renowned ornithologist called Dr Richard Zann, investigating sexual attractiveness and mate choice in zebra finches. My honours year was incredible. I loved the whole experience; the friends I made, the independent research and the supervisor-student relationship were just brilliant. During honours I was responsible for the daily husbandry of Dr Zann's zebra finch colony on campus. Every day I would feed, water and clean (even on weekends!). It was hard work but it paid off. I was awarded first class honours!

Male (left) and female (right) zebra finches

In 2009 Richard was tragically killed in the Victorian bush fires, along with his wife and daughter. I still miss Richard to this day. He was an amazing supervisor and a mentor. Generous with his time and genuinely interested in my career after honours, we would catch up every year when I came to lecture his third year students about dog behaviour and my work as an animal behaviourist. I miss him very much and I'm so grateful I had the privilege of knowing, and learning from, him.

After honours, in 2004, I travelled to Thailand and Borneo where I volunteered with SOSRhino in the jungles of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. You can read about that adventure here.

Me with France and JJ chasing Rhinos in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Borneo, Malaysia

Upon returning from my travels I worked briefly in a large pet shop which opened my eyes to the welfare issues associated with selling animals in pet shops. I saw a lot of things that turned my stomach, the details of which I won't go into here, hence I lasted less than 6 months! During my time in the pet shop customers constantly asked me about pet behaviour problems..."my puppy keeps weeing on my rug", "my bird won't stop screaming", "how do I stop my cat scratching the couch?" I happened to know a bit about behaviour and was able to provide some advice. I realised that many people needed help to understand their pets behaviour and how to resolve common behaviour problems and so Pets Behaving Badly was born! Follow me on Facebook on the Pets Behaving Badly Facebook page!

I left the pet shop and concentrated on the business and gaining more knowledge and experience in the field of animal behaviour. I decided I would go back to university to do a PhD so I set about finding a supervisor whose research area was human-animal interactions (also called Anthrozoology). When I met Associate Professor Pauleen Bennett for the first time to discuss the possibility of her supervising me, we immediately hit it off. At the time she was based at Monash University (now at La Trobe University in Bendigo) and she offered me a casual Research Assistant job in the Anthrozoology Research Group helping her with various research projects her group was conducting.

In 2006 I enrolled to do a PhD in canine behaviour, researching the assessment of shelter dog behaviour for adoption suitability. Six years later and I'm still plugging away. One of the reasons it's taking me so long is that Pets Behaving Badly is now a huge success!

In my first year as an animal behaviour consultant I had less than 10 behaviour consultations. All I had was a basic website and some business cards. I couldn't afford marketing or advertising, so business was slow. Fast forward to this year and I'll crack well over 100 behaviour consultations! In addition to providing in-home consultations I run seminars and workshops for pet owners and people who work professionally in the animal industry and I provide an expert witness service in legal cases where a dog's behaviour has been called into question. I also work as a freelance writer and regularly write articles for Pets Magazine, Pet Pages, Pooch Magazine, Dogs NSW and the Herald Sun. To see more of my media work, including an interview on A Current Affair, click here.

My job is really fun and diverse. Not only do I get to meet and work with amazing people who love animals, I get to do other fun stuff like radio interviews and even a stint on the TV as behaviourist/presenter on the wonderful show all about dogs: Hound TV. Here's the first episode I appeared in...

My job also allows me to travel interstate and overseas for conferences and workshops, as part of my ongoing education in the field. Recently I went to Orlando, Florida to do the Contemporary Animal Training & Management workshop at Natural Encounters Inc.

Recall training with a Green Wing Macaw, Natural Encounters Inc., Orlando, USA

Whilst in Florida I had to visit the theme parks. At Sea World I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to train the Beluga whales. Funniest thing, they feel like hard boiled eggs!

Training a Beluga whale at Sea World, Orlando, USA

Right this minute I'm sitting in my hotel room in Chicago in the USA. Why am I here? Well, it's animal related and a whole other story. So, stay tuned for the next instalment to find out...

Well, that's how I became an animal behaviourist (in a nutshell). Ok, so that wasn't exactly "a brief history". I promise I will try to keep my posts short and sweet from here on in. Thanks for stopping by and (hopefully) reading the first instalment of my blog. I hope you enjoyed it :)