Mountain Coatis and Training Mechanics

I played just a bit this afternoon with the Mountain Coati at the Heard Museum. Coatis, which are close relatives of the raccoon, are found in South America and some parts of South Texas. This coati was a gregarious, agreeable sort of fellow, similar to most raccoons that I’ve met. We mainly worked on a bit of targeting with him, having him touch a ball on the end of a stick in exchange for a piece of apple or grape. He understood the targeting well, so it became a fun exercise of moving him up and down and around his cage as he eagerly followed the target stick. (Read more about target training.)

My main issues with working with the coati were mechanical in nature. I was working one-handed as I currently have my left hand in a cast. This meant as soon as he targeted the stick, I had to set it down so I could deliver food with the same hand. However, he was pretty forgiving of my lack of speed. A larger problem was actual food delivery. Coatis have really long noses. (They remind me almost of an anteater’s snout.) As well, the upper jaw extends quite further than the bottom. Since I was feeding him through the cage, I had to hold my tidbit of food just right so that he could grasp it with his teeth. I was a bit clumsy with this at the beginning and he kept dropping the food.

I was feeding cut up pieces of grapes and apples as reinforcers. After a few of each, it was clear that he much preferred the grapes as he would grab those much faster. After a few more pieces of apple the picky little fellow started refusing them entirely! This made me wonder a bit if the earlier dropped pieces of apple could have been somewhat on purpose…

The coati was super interested in me and willing to continue playing the targeting game even though my mechanics were less than stellar. However, with many animals, especially those that are shy, hesitant, newer to training or less eager to offer behavior, this big of a breakdown in mechanics could have been too much for the animal. A less eager animal might have become bored, distracted or disinterested by my slow food  delivery or lack of food delivery (when pieces were dropped or when the coati refused the apples).

At it’s essence, training is a mechanical skill. When you train it’s always important to consider mechanics. If you are keeping a high rate of reinforcement and your animal still seems bored, disinterested or is leaving the session, consider if your mechanics could be at fault. Think about these questions:

Is the animal getting the reward every time?
Could the timing of your food delivery be improved?
Can the timing of your click or marker signal be improved?
Are you using a good enough reinforcer?
What are you doing that is preventing or interrupting the flow of the training session?
(Click here for suggestions to improve your mechanical skills.)

Bad mechanics often become apparent when the animal leaves or becomes frustrated. However, even if you think your training is going well, it still could benefit from improved mechanics. I find certain styles of clickers are easier to click than others. With some designs, I find the stiffness of the button means I click too slowly. (And then I potentially reinforce the wrong behavior!) I can improve my timing just by changing the type of clicker I use. With the coati, even though he was targeting well, I had plenty of room for improvement So, even when you think training is going well, it’s beneficial to pause every once in awhile and assess whether improving your mechanical skills could make a good training session into a great training session.

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