From the start of my career I have been exposed to shows with marine mammals with a lot of excitement. It has been a big part in my life to train animals for “show” behaviors. Lots of fun I have to say and learned so much on the way. From vertical spins with sea lions to ventral bows with killer whales, in my career the focus mostly has been for such high energy behaviors till I started to work with Killer Whales. I started to learn more and more about the importance of medical behaviors for better care of the animals. Over time I trained a deaf killer whale to pee in a cup and tubing with a fur seal.
My focus started to change completely after such achievements. In 2014 I moved to Sweden to have the job as a senior marine mammal trainer where my thoughts of conditioning animals for strong foundation and tight medical behaviors started to grow more and more.
After a couple of years, I took a job as what I do today Coordinator Animal Training in our Zoo. With all the previous experiences I took the medical behaviors that I conditioned with some animals with me. I’m trying to find out how we can apply those thoughts with different cultures within the zoo. It hasn’t been easy but slowly changes are made. The difference for the animals is incredible and from a welfare point of view a lot higher afterwards.
For some animal species it is very uncommon to condition them for a variety of necessary husbandry behaviors to give the animal that extra comfort. Challenging scenarios has been a passion for me over the last couple years and it has been working. I believe every animal should get the same chances.
These days of thinking about the goals we need to reach with our animals start to reach new heights. Being creative to do so is one of the passions within animal training that I try to develop. Training animals from the beginning and especially species that never really had been trained before by anybody gives me this extra kick of motivation. How to reach individuals in a big group to give them all a chance is one of the thoughts that I think about all the time. But this makes me thinking a bit more. I’ve been talking about various cultures to explain it easy. Recently I wrote a piece about horses where I discovered some great people working their animals in a different and cool way.
This time let’s talk dogs, the dog training world is getting bigger and bigger and with Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training people start to get more interested working their animals with clickers also known as a bridge. Focused on positive reinforcement reaches new grounds in the dog community. From fly ball to doggy dance to obedience many different sports within the dog world go to new levels, but what about the medical behaviors we are so used to training in the zoological societies? There is a big difference with training animals in a zoo and training dogs. As I search over the internet I do see more and more dog trainers start to implement medical behaviors in their daily care of their dogs. Fiends of min are both Veterinarians and I talk with them a whole lot about their work and my work. This is where I discover the need for medical behaviours in our pets. Animals are afraid to go to the vet they have to be hold with 6 nurses etc etc. The time and joy you will get back from your dog or any other pet by conditioning them for those important health care behaviour is incredibly big. The life of your animal is going up and so does its own welfare and well-being what is for the zoo an important subject to consider.
While searching a bit more I came across a website called The Animal Training Centre they have some cool videos about training their pets for husbandry behaviors. I asked the owner if I could have some videos and share them in my blogs. You should definitely visit their website!
A friend of mine who has a Rhodesian Ridgeback thought her dog a mouth open behavior. This behavior is actually more important than we think. Most of the time when an animal doesn’t want to eat there is or might be a potential problem with their mouth or their throat. With a mouth open behavior we are able to see what the issue might be. Training this behavior is a very normal one in the zoo. This behavior also allows you to look at their teeth, getting a saliva sample, starting to tube train you animal and so on.
Claw clipping is another behavior that we are training our animals in the zoo. This is a very common practice with elephants for example. We teach them a particular position where we can reach all the feet to see if its needed. Same for our birds of prey, we teach our birds of prey to accept to be claw clipped. This helps them to not get over grown nails. Lately I’m busy with a project to do the same to 27 fellow deer’s. Its uncommon with such animals and definitely a challenge. There are dog trainers out there who are teaching their dogs the same thing. What about your household cat?
Ultrasound is another great behavior to have with your animals. This will help to see if the animal is pregnant or see if there are problems with their intestines. If I think even further training regardless the desensitization this behavior helps you with heart rate meters, stethoscope training and even palpation. When I work with vets one of the very helpful behaviors they want is palpation so they can feel differences in the body of the animal. An ultrasound might confirm their thinking and there for helps the health of the animal. It’s a common behavior trained in marine mammals.
Training your animal for an ultrasound actually helps for radiography as well. Many medical behaviours is a matter of duration and counter conditioning your animal for various objects with lights, sounds and movements. You might have seen the video we posted on our social media from the giraffe where we trained an radiography. This allowed us to see if his teeth is in good condition and if his nutrition is proper. It backs up the theories the veterinarians have for the health of the animal. Understanding the body of an animal is important and sometimes we can’t see or discover why an animal has bad locomotion. With conditioning the animal for an radiography we can come closer to the problem and solving it becomes more directed to the problem.
Many of the zoo animals are being trained for blood samples and or injections. This behavior is important to get an insight in their health or apply some vaccinations or even when a diabetic animal needs their medicine on a regular base. The biggest difference is just that the zoo world 9 out of 10 times needs to train this in Protective Contact what doesn’t make this behavior impossible! We become creative the way we train animals for injections. The best part is when an animal is trained for an injection you have so many challenges set. To get this you do need some foundation and some great desensitization what most of the time is a huge challenge. When you train an animal for accepting a needle, you have many extra procedures done. Blood samples, vaccinations, cleaning wounds (depending on the size), sedation etc.
Conditioning an Injection with a Black Bear at Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society
The Animal Training Centre in Austria focusses a lot on medical training with pets. Its great to see their passion and I suggest following them. The website isn’t available in English but contacting them in English is definitely not a problem. Just another example of the possibilities.
Medical behaviors don’t just start with desensitization of the objects we actually need many behaviours before that. We have to think about the patience of the animal and so proper control what is important for later duration in the behavior you want them to do. The body positioning is the next step you want to take. How and where do you want to do it? What’s the easiest and most comfortable for the animal to do so? After those steps you can start your actual goal, Ultrasounds, Radiography, Blood samples etc etc.