Barkin’ at the Shedd

I recently watched an awesome hour-long lecture by animal trainer Ken Ramirez that is available to view for free on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with Ken Ramirez, he’s the head trainer at the Shedd aquarium in Chicago. He’s been a professional trainer for several decades and has trained hundreds of animals and dozens of different species.

I’ve heard Ken speak many times at both ClickerExpo and at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference and I always love listening to him talk about training. So, I definitely encourage you to take the time to watch this. Below are some of my notes and favorite highlights from the lecture.

Why do we train animals?

Often when people train an animal, it’s to train the animal to do something that will benefit a human, such as training working animals, training animals for sports, or teaching an animal tricks for entertainment. For Ken, these are all secondary reasons for training an animal.

In the talk, Ken discussed three primary reasons for training an animal. These are all primary reasons for training because they directly benefit the animal’s welfare and well-being.

1) Physical exercise: Training is often a form of physical exercise. However, training also makes it easier for us to provide physical exercise for an animal. For example, it’s much easier to take a dog for a walk if the dog has been trained to walk nicely on a leash.

2) Mental stimulation: Animals that are kept as pets, as well as exotic animals kept in zoos or aquariums, get much less mental stimulation than an animal in the wild. This can often lead to boredom and the development of unwanted behaviors. Training provides enrichment and gives animals an opportunity to exercise their mind.

3) Cooperative behavior: Training can be used to teach animals to cooperate with their own care. This could include training a dog to sit still to have his nails trimmed or training a baboon to present its arm for a blood draw. Owners who use training to teach cooperative behaviors can provide their animals with an even higher quality of care.

Ken also briefly discussed the four roles of modern zoos and aquariums: education, research, rescue and rehabilitation, and conservation. Training animals helps zoos achieve these goals. For example, Ken talked about a group of sea otters that were rescued after an oil spill and brought to the Shedd aquarium. The trainers at the Shedd trained the otters to cooperate during veterinary procedures.

Using training to explore the limits of animal “intelligence”

Much of Ken’s lecture concerned animal intelligence and cognitive abilities. When we really study the animal kingdom in depth, we find out that there is a lot that we don’t know about animals and what they are capable of.

Teaching with positive reinforcement has opened up possibilities and allowed animal trainers to train behaviors that previously were thought to be impossible. This is because teaching with positive reinforcement opens up new avenues for communication between animal and trainer.

Ken discussed some of the work he has done with guide dogs, police dog forces, and even some of the research he has done on teaching dogs to mimic other dogs. In all of these cases, trainers have been much more successful when they have used positive reinforcement to make learning fun for the animals.

Ken also told a wonderful story about some work he did with endangered sea turtles after the BP oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico. Conservation groups were worried that the turtle babies would hatch and then die, as they swam into an ocean of oily water. A decision was made to dig up and collect as many eggs as could be found and then to release the babies in safer waters after they hatched. However, volunteers were only able to find about 12,000 of the 60,000-70,000 eggs.

In ten days, Ken Ramirez and a team of trainers were able to train a dozen scent detection dogs to find turtle eggs based on their smell. Then, in the days that followed, the trained dogs were able to find 29,000 additional turtle eggs. This is a great example of how positive reinforcement training can be used to aid conservation.

Is training a luxury?

This is a quote from Ken Ramirez’s presentation that I really loved and that I thought was worth sharing.

It always bothers me when I find someone who has a pet or I go to a zoo or aquarium and I find out that they say something like “yeah, we didn’t have time to train the animals this week.” And to me that’s like saying “I didn’t have time to feed my dog this week.”

What do you mean you didn’t have time? That’s an essential component to good animal care.

Too often people look at training as if it is a luxury. We’ll train if we have time. And that’s the reason 8 million pets are put to sleep in the United States every single year. Because people bring dogs into their home not thinking that training is an important part of their care. So then when the dog messes up their carpet or barks and keeps the neighbors up, they end up taking it to the pound or taking it to the shelter where it often gets put to sleep. Because they didn’t think that training was important.

They knew they had to feed it. They knew they had to take it to the vet. But they didn’t think that training was important. That’s a shame. Because training provides such a high quality of life to the animals that we care for.

I encourage you to take the time to watch this lecture by Ken Ramirez. It’s a great reminder about how positive reinforcement training can help us take better care of our pets and it is also full of great stories and video clips from Ken Ramirez’s work with dolphins, dogs, and all sorts of other critters.

Watch on YouTube: Barkin’ at the Shedd

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