These are my notes from the 6th Art and Science of Animal Training Conference, held in March 2014 at the University of North Texas. Visit this page for more conference notes.
Ken Ramirez’s presentation centered around different strategies and approaches for working with more than one animal at a time. I thought this was a great topic, as it is one that animal trainers often ask about. For those of us who have more than one pet, it can be pretty fun to work with more than one animal at a time. I enjoyed Ken’s talk because it does take some careful thinking and planning to do this in a way that is both fun and safe for all of the animals and human(s) involved.
Why work with a group of animals?
With pets, it’s often fun to train multiple animals to perform tricks or certain behaviors as a group. As well, in a multiple-animal household, it’s often a necessity to be able to ask several animals to do something at the same time. With personal pets, however, we often have the luxury of being able to separate animals and work with one animal at a time. This can be ideal, especially at the beginning of training, because the trainer can devote her full energy and attention to a particular animal.
Most of Ken Ramirez’s work is with exotic animals in aquariums and zoos. Often, multiple animals are housed together and it is not possible to separate the animals for training sessions. Or, especially with animals new to training, the animal would be too stressed if it was separated from the group. So, these trainers have had to devise all sorts of creative strategies for working with groups of animals.
Special considerations for group training
Training multiple animals at the same time obviously presents some challenges that are not present when training a single animal. Here are some questions to ask (and answer) before beginning to work with two or more animals at a time.
What feeding strategy will you use? Who will get fed first? How will the food be delivered to each animal? How will you ensure each animal gets its food? This often has to be adapted or changed, depending on the group of animals and the context.
How will you give a cue to a particular animal? Ken Ramirez gave two examples of this, name cues, where the trainer says the animal’s name before giving the cue and tactile cues, where the trainer touches the animal before giving the cue.
What behaviors will you train? Ken suggested starting with simple behaviors that all the animals already know. At the beginning, the concept you are working on is teaching the animals that they can work together as a group.
How will you tell the animal when it is correct? If you are using markers, will you have a separate marker signal for each animal? Ken suggested training additional markers for each animal, including audible, tactile, and visual markers. This can make it easier to mark a behavior for an individual animal in certain situations.
What will each animal be doing? When working with a group of animals, it is really important to remember that each animal is always doing something. Staying on a station while another animal does a behavior is a pretty tough behavior. This animal should also get a reward!
Arranging animals using stationing
In his talk, Ken Ramirez outlined several different ways to work with multiple animals at the same time. When working with a group of animals, it is very important to understand the social structure of the group. Certain types of social interactions between two animals can be far more reinforcing (or punishing) than the rewards provided by the trainer. The trainer must be aware of the interactions between the animals before, during, and after a training session.
Zoo and marine mammal trainers often use stationing when working with multiple animals at the same time. This means they train the animals to go to certain places or “stations” so that they can keep the animals separate during a group training session. Ken Ramirez told a great story about a trainer who he met very early in his career. Ken was quite impressed as he watched this trainer work with about two dozen seals and sea lions, all at the same time. Each animal had a spot to go to that was “his” spot. The trainer could call each animal by name, ask for different behaviors, and then throw a fish to a particular animal, after it had performed the behavior.
As Ken Ramirez explained, stationing can help create order from chaos. Ken then went on to explain several different types of stationing. I really enjoyed this part of the lecture, as I was familiar with some of these types of stationing, but not all of them and it was fun to think about all of the different variations.
Types of stationing:
Location: Each animal goes to a specific location.
Position-specific stationing: The animals always line up in the same order in front of the trainer, although the position of the trainer can change.
Name targets: Each animal has a target that they recognize as uniquely their target. The targets can be placed or hung in different spots to tell each animal where to go for that training session.
Choice: The animals get to go where they want. So, there might be four animals and four spots where the animals can sit. Each animal has to go to a station, but they can pick which one.
Shuffle: The animals come to the trainer when a cue is given, then the trainer uses previously trained cues to move around and rearrange the animals.
These strategies can also be combined together. For example, Ken Ramirez talked about combining Location and Choice with a group of 38 penguins of two different species. One species has to go to Trainer A in a specific location and one species has to go to Trainer B in a different location. However, once they reach the trainers, they can choose where they want to be.
Introducing new animals
The last thing that Ken Ramirez discussed was a protocol that he uses at the Shedd aquarium to introduce new animals to each other. The trainers start by working with each animal separately to teach basic foundation behaviors. Then, they work with both animals together, but with a barrier in between. The animals can see each other and start to get acquainted and the trainers can observe the body language of both animals.
Then, the trainers begin working on cooperative behaviors where the two animals have to do something together, such as touching a target at the same time. Next, the trainers repeat all of these training steps, but without a barrier in between the two animals. This leads to strategic social introductions. Finally, the trainers repeat this process with new animals and in new contexts. In his presentation, Ken Ramirez shared several examples of this, including introducing an older male sea lion to a young, blind sea lion. He also shared some work that he has been doing recently with this protocol with “problem” dogs from shelters.
Working with groups of animals can have plenty of challenges. However, with the right training tools, there are many possibilities for working successfully with multiple animals at the same time. This can also open up opportunities for training behaviors that are not possible with a single animal. Finally, trainers should always remember that training is not a luxury, but a key and necessary part of good animal care.