How do you move an animal from an enclosure to the other? From a backstage are to a presentation area? To the veterinarian or to another zoo?
A transport box would be the answer. But how do you train such a behaviour is a question we often get here at Zoospensefull. It’s not as difficult as one might think but often, certain important details are overlooked.
One of the most important traits to have when we train any behaviour is patience. The animal will tell you the pace at which to train and their comfort level. You can proceed when the animal shows you it’s ready but we always suggest repeating an approximation as it will help you in the long run. It’s important to remember the history of a behaviour is more important than the outcome, think of the foundation of the behaviour like the base of a pyramid. The first layer, or the base of the pyramid, contains the majority of stones and the largest stones. This makes the base very strong and a good foundation for building the other layers. And it is the same when training behaviours, if you have a strong foundation you have a better chance of the behaviour remaining strong and intact.
When training any behaviour we have to ask ourselves, why are we training this behaviour? We need a well thought through goal and we have to make our shaping plan. We have to think about the reinforcers we can give the animal. We also need to remember about that foundation and are there behaviours that need to be trained first? All this before we even start training. Next step is what kind of box will you be using? Do you have one or two entrances? (this can have a huge impact on your success). Is the door a guillotine or not? What is the box for: short transfer, weighing, restraint?
You have done your shaping plan, chose your appropriate reinforcers and box, you have even trained some foundation behaviours. The animal knows a target and a stay behaviour. Before starting box training, teaching these behaviours will help you drastically. It is also important to know that working towards a transport box is not as simple as sending an animal into the box. Often the box is new and can be very frightening to the animals. Many times you think it will be fine and suddenly they are afraid of the squeaking sound the door makes, if there is a sudden movement or loud noise. It is very important to teach the animal that the box is good. Pair it with enrichment, food, other type of reinforcements, so the animal starts to associate the transport box with fun and enriching experiences.
When you come to the point where you are ready to start training the animal. It is important to listen to what the animal tells you. When we say ‘what the animal tells you’ we are talking about body language. We can’t stress it enough, but observation before, during and after the training session is very important. A transport box is similar to gating animals from place to place, check out our blog on gating HERE.
When you think the animal is fine with the transport box and you suddenly see a decrease in behaviour or when you ask them to go in they won’t you may have pushed too far. The key is small approximations and to put the animals in control of the boxing themselves, they chose when they go in, they have the control on whether the door is open or closed and they can exit anytime. This strategy called choice and control and you can read about it HERE. In this example we see a Princess parrot being crate trained. The parrot has control on when the door opens and closes. As he approaches the crate the door opens, once he is in and reinforced the door closes. The trainer will then read his body language through observation. If the parrot finishes his seed and wishes to leave the box the trainer will open the door. Control builds trust and trust builds confidence. There are many strategies to use when training this behaviour and this is where a shaping plan comes in. The next step in this behaviour is to have the parrot enter, the door to close and the reinforcement to be presented.
The beginning stages of training can be difficult things that we perceive as non issues like the little edge on a box or a trailer. While helping the team at Kolmården train the camels, it was interesting to see that the trailer itself wasn’t the problem, but the way to get inside seemed to be the biggest challenge.
The trainers added some steps leading into the trailer to make it easier for the camel. This helped them to become more comfortable and the camel decided to step onto the plank going towards the trailer. (See Cover Photo) But then the next step came, the feeling when camel had his whole weight on the plank was very different to how it felt before. The animal backed away but understood that a target was a high value behaviour, the camel then stepped on it again but this time with more confidence.
Listening to the animal is very important. We often find that many species show a similar behaviour of exiting the crate, trailer or transport box once they receive their reinforcement inside. This would suggest that the animal prefers to be outside instead of inside. This tells us that the transport box isn’t as high in value as we might think, and we need to be a bit more creative with our reinforcement. The solution was actually very simple and a none food based reinforcer. We decided to send the animal back out as reinforcer to go inside the crate. The animal will start to get more and more comfortable at a faster pace. This technique will help build trust and a strong foundation.
Depending on the animal and the size of the box the next step is often overlooked. How will the door or gate be closed? Will you as the trainer close the door behind the animal as it goes in or will you turn the animal around first so the animal sees the door being closed? It’s a small detail but it’s a very big one for the animals you work with.
At the Kolmarden we had some young pigs that were pretty nervous. We wanted to train them for a transport box. Pigs are incredible smart and often confident animals so we thought it would be fairly straight forward but it turned out it wasn’t as easy as we first thought. The trainer conditioned the animals to a strong target and a stay behaviour which helped the animals to get used to the conditioning of the box. The animals had access to this box all the time and enrichment was presented the times we didn’t train them. The end result can be seen in the video below.
When the animal is comfortable in the box/crate with the door closed, you still need to teach the animal all the other aspects: duration, movement, sounds and anything else they might experience. The goal isn’t only to get the animal in the box with the door closed it is to have a relaxed, confident animal. Small approximations are necessary in this process of desensitisation.
When the animal is truly comfortable being in the box, we should be able to open the door and ask the animal to come out and then rebox them straight away. If they run in to the box it’s a sign of comfortable animal; if the animal doesn’t want to go in, you have pushed too far and a step back has to be taken. Remember to build a strong foundation.
Below are some studies about animals stress levels and the effect voluntary boxing has on stress in various situations.