Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Resolution Ideas for Animal Trainers

 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody does the health and fitness resolution for the New Year. But animal people are different, aren’t we? Why break tradition now? How about some New Year’s resolution ideas that will benefit you and the animals in your life? Here are 10 ideas that will help animal trainers start the New Year just right.

1.    Train a behavior that will make veterinary care easier for an animal in your life. Simple things like loading into a carrier, being comfortable with touch and training for restraint can make a big difference in reducing stress for veterinary care. Here is a video clip to get you inspired to train your parrots.

2.    Read a book that is related to the field but not specifically about animal training. I really enjoyed reading the Science of Consequences by Susan Schneider this year. Another good one is Coercion and its Fallout by Murray Sidman. Not a book but another interesting resource is the Brain Science Podcast.

3.    Try shaking up your training practices. If you always use a bridging stimulus, try to become a faster treat deliverer and see if you can train some behaviors without a bridge. (Trust me, you can) If you never bridge, try training a behavior that requires one, such as working with an animal at a distance.

4.    Train a species you have never worked with before. This is a great way to really learn how important natural history and ethology are when it comes to behavior modification. Sure the behavior analysis principles are the same. But real behavior change comes with practical application. This means also learning about what matters to that species.

5.    Train a solid recall on an animal in your life. It is a pleasure when an animal comes running/flying towards you the moment a recall cue is given. Practice recalling at short distances when you are 99.9% sure your animal will come. Gradually increase the distance and make sure quick response to the cue is part of your criteria.

6.    Train a behavior you have never done before. I had a blast training my rabbit to do a scent discrimination this year.

7.    Attend an animal training conference, workshop or lecture live and in person. In addition to learning you also get to meet like-minded animal training enthusiasts. Often the best part of attending an event is the wonderful friendships that are forged. Check the calendar here for upcoming events in 2015.

8.    Share something you have learned about force free animal training with at least one other person. Remember this movement to get people to understand you can be nice to animals and still have them be well behaved is a wonderful virus we want to spread. Pretty soon, being kind in animal training will be the norm and traditionally heavy handed approaches will be a thing of the past.

9.    Do a before and after story. If you work with animals with behavior problems or have one in your home with issues you would like to address, start documenting! Nothing shows how beneficial force free animal training is than a transformation story. Take video footage or notes on the behavior problem before intervention. Develop an intervention plan, implement it and document your process. Once you have resolution (and you will) take your “after” video and share with the world! Real life success stories are great motivation for others and show people that behavior problems can be fixed.
10.    Question a practice you have always done. Decide if it still has a place in your training tool kit. If it doesn’t maybe it’s time for out with the old and in with the new.  When I reflect on my own growth as a trainer, I see there are many things I used to do, that I would no longer consider. Some dropped off naturally but others were conscious decisions. Every trainer that improves their practices contributes to an even stronger and better training community.

There you go! Ten ideas to jump start the New Year for animal trainers. Feel free to share with other animal lovers looking to kick off 2015 with some animal training adventures.

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) provides pet training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Memorable Moments with and for Animals in 2014

The year is not quite over yet, but it is hard to resist taking a trip down memory lane.  I usually like to reflect on my top three animal training related moments. This year, conservation initiatives took the top spots.

1. Working with Kakapo Chicks
Coming in it at number one has to be the opportunity to work with the Kakapo Recovery Program and this year’s chicks. Certainly training these youngsters was a thrill, but the real reward is being able to help merge science based training technology with conservation. These two fields are rarely intentionally overlapped, but the truth is there is a growing need for what trainers can contribute to conservation. One of our main goals is to reduce stress related to capture and restraint for kakapo health care. With today’s technology there are a number of ways we can accomplish this goal without impacting natural behavior adversely. Not only did we get started on this type of training with the hand raised chicks, we also developed a plan for parent raised chicks in the future.  I love that this dedicated team thinks about and explores such options. Check out these blogs to read more about the training we did with these amazing rare parrots.Why Train Kakapo?  and Powerful Parrot Training 

2. Blue Hair for Blue Throated Macaws
You gotta love viral internet campaigns. That ALS ice bucket challenge was my inspiration for the Go Blue for Blue Throated Macaws idea. Yes, I was challenged to dump ice on my head. And while I thought it was a worthy campaign, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. As I pondered what to do I found myself thinking about the charities I love and support. Of course my blue throated macaw Blu Lu and the Bird Endowment immediately came to mind. In jest, I texted a friend I should dye my hair blue and start a viral campaign to raise money and awareness for blue throated macaw conservation. As I was writing the text I thought “Hmmmm, I could be on to something here”. Next thing you know we have people all over the world dying their hair blue and donating to the Bird Endowment.  I never did actually find out how many people dyed their hair. But it was A LOT! And it was a blast watching people video challenge each other on social media. Some people really ended up with some amazing hair. The best news was that enough money was raised to support a bunch more nest boxes for blue throated macaws in the wild in Bolivia. The nest boxes have proven to be the most successful method of increasing the wild population to date.

3. Shaking Things Up in the Bird Training World
After 24 years as a professional bird trainer (plus another 8 years in animal care prior to that) you would hope one would learn a few things along the way. And I guess I did. I realized my current training practices were vastly different from what I had been doing for a good chunk of my career. This led me to explore the reasons why my training had changed.  Conversations with other trainers also made me realize those old practices I had left behind were a still a problem out there and they needed to be addressed.  Inspired by others I decided it was time to challenge some of the commonly accepted practices in bird training and asked the professional community to do the same.  In particular my concerns were about methods people have used for many years to create motivation for food.  I definitely ruffled a few feathers. I may have even lost a few friends over it. But I also gained new ones. Questioning some old practices started bringing amazing new people into my life. Ones who expanded my thinking about animal welfare and taught me there is so much more to learn. Some people openly attacked me in a professional setting and some hugged me with tears in their eyes, thanking me for saying what needed to be said. While it has been a bittersweet journey, (and an ongoing one) it counts as a very memorable moment for me in 2014. I am looking forward to a symposium some colleagues and I have put together on the ethics of creating motivation in animal training to further advance people’s knowledge on this important topic.

Bonus: Spending Time with Amazing People and Animals
2014 was the year of extensive travel. This meant meeting amazing animals and people from all around the world. They all have been the best teachers, mentors and inspiration. This year I had a walrus suck my thumb, a goat decide I was the object of his affection, a kakapo sit on my lap, and a giraffe give birth an hour after feeding her a biscuit to name a few fun animal moments. From people I learned about the evolution of animal emotions, had deep discussions about the use of time outs, LRS and no reward markers, discovered there are things trainers do that don’t exactly fit neatly into a category defined by behavior analysis and realized some kindred spirits live 1000’s of miles away in other countries, but are kindred spirits none the less.

I get to spend the rest of 2014 home with my animal family and friends.  I am enjoying spending my mornings training and caring for my companion animals and spending my afternoons developing new resources for those interested in training.  2015 is already shaping up to be an interesting year as well. Can it beat 2014? I can’t wait to find out. 

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.