One of the many things animal keepers are tasked with aside from the expected poop scooping and wall scrubbing is operant conditioning (aka “animal training”). Nearly all the animals at the museum have a primary trainer who thinks of new behaviors they’d like that animal to learn, then builds a step-by-step program to shape that behavior, and ultimately implements that program over the course of days to months (depending on the complexity and the animal’s response) until we’re at a 90% success rate.
Why 90% success rate and not 100%? Because every animal’s participation in our training program is 100% voluntary and sometimes they, just like their trainers, have an off day.
Here are the basics of how training works:
Long before a trainer starts working with an animal, we do a lot of documentation. Believe it or not, while much of the world is now digital, our daily lives of animal husbandry and operant conditioning are largely documented on paper. You should see the pile of dead pens we accumulate in a year!
Trainers sit down with our Animal Behavior Consultant and teammates to discuss where we and our animals have been and what’s next on their plates to learn. We write these goals down on a form, keeping in mind the “job” the animal has at the museum and their specific veterinary requirements.
Next, I personally think it’s very helpful to look at the behaviors the animal already “knows.” Reason being, it’s sometimes easier to start with something the trainer and animal know well and build from that than it is starting every single new behavior from the ground up.
Regardless of whether the new behavior is being built off something previously learned or from square one, it needs a critical eye and some breaking down before being taken into a training session.
On a shaping form, we try and make something very flexible and fluid (learning) into a play-by-play based on how we expect our animal will react to the new task. Some animals are very predictable with how they learn and are quite easy to write shaping forms for. In my experience, Betty and Jean the farmyard rabbits, are easy to write shaping forms for as they react to training sessions and objects in very predictable ways. Conversely, Lightning the donkey is almost always a surprise.
Shaping forms are “living documents” while an animal is learning a new behavior. Animals often skip steps -called, “approximations”- that trainers think they’ll take and at other times get stuck on a step that seems simple but proves challenging for them. Once the behavior is learned, we often go back and adjust the shaping forms to match the actual learning path the animal took.
Once the behavior is learned and the animal chooses to exhibit it 9 times out of 10 requests, it’s considered “complete” and we document it on a chart that hangs on our office wall. For the animals I train, it’s also added to a chart that lists completed behaviors and what those human cues look like.
This is the fun part!
The very first thing we teach our animals is called a “bridge.” In our case, we use small box clickers that make a fairly unique sound, not dissimilar from the clicking of a pen. Lots and lots of trainers use various whistles or verbal cues, like the words “okay” or “yes,” or flash a small light for animals that are deaf or who startle easily, some even use a simple hand gesture like an “okay” sign or “thumbs up.” As long as it can be produced in the same tone, volume, and intensity consistently, it’ll do.
The bridge is paired with something the animal finds rewarding. It’s often part of their daily diet but some animals happily work for toys or for tactile stimulation (brushing or scratching or being sprayed with water). The trick is finding the things they’re willing to work to get. As much as I might want all the goats to work for love and attention because they tend to be chubby, the reality is that I only have 1 goat who actually finds that rewarding. To the rest of the goats, I need their chow or something extra tasty.
Once they learn that the clicking sounds means something awesome is about to happen, it’s a reasonably easy jump to start teaching a simple behavior. Most of our animals learn a variation of “target” first but others, particularly those that live in herds, may learn name recognition, “look,” or to recall.
Putting Simple Behaviors to Work
The animals in the farmyard live in smaller yards than they would on most farms. We have a few different ways we get them the exercise and mental stimulation they need and operant conditioning plays a huge role in that! The alpacas, donkey, and bulls go on keeper lead walks while the goats and pigs have free roaming time in the early morning. The chickens and rabbits are often asked to do “A-to-B”s -go from point A to point B- or we offer their food in a way that requires a little more work and running around.
In Charlie’s case, he’s such a champ at walking on a lead rope and being around people that he was asked to be an “actor” for some of this year’s museum advertisements!
If you’re lucky, you might catch me up in the farmyard during a training session and you can watch the animals learn something new or practice what they already know.