Many of us deal with challenges everyday but there are some challenges where we have to become more creative. We found 3 stories about animals that have disabilities and the creative solutions to help them. A blind hedgehog that was trained with a scented target, a deaf and blind dog, that has a very unusual bridge and a deaf killer whale that responded to a visual bridge.

Momo the Blind Hedgehog

by The Animal Training Centre, Austria

Momo the blind hedgehog

Momo was found in the wild, malnourished, confused and suffering from serious eye infections. He lost his eyesight and couldn’t be released back into the wild, so he came here to support our wildlife education programs. When Momo arrived at the AnimalTrainingCenter, we instantly fell in love with this little hedgehog and we started to train him for three main reasons:

1. Training Disabled Animals for Better Orientation and Welfare

Training and caretaking of animals with disabilities sometimes requires a little more planning, more patience and more creativity. Often, we don’t know all the details about the physical limitations of the individual animal, but it helps to observe them to find out where they might need a little support. Momo’s exhibit and sleeping dens as well as the presentation of food, water and enrichment items can’t be designed the same way as for sighted hedgehogs. Whenever we have to change anything in his exhibit, we can now use a scented target stick to help him find new things and avoid bumping into new obstacles.

2. Empowering Program Animals

When our animals are part of education shows, we always ask them if they feel like having an adventure that day or not. If we would just grab the hedgehog with a towel to pick him up and hold him while showing him around, we just couldn’t be sure if he “enjoys” his outings or would rather choose to stay in his familiar exhibit that day – we want our animals to attend voluntarily. After training him to follow a target stick, we are able to use the target as a tool to teach him how to crate. As soon as he entered the crate, we always followed the same routine of taking him to animal presentations so he became familiar with the concept of making his own decision. This provides a perfect opportunity for us to give Momo a choice:

YES, I’d like to come: I enter the crate

NO, I’d rather stay at home today: I do NOT enter the crate and keep interacting with trainers or my environment.

3. Enrichment Opportunities

Talking animals on walks can be very enriching for both animals and humans. A solid recall is a must-have before taking any animals out for walks, especially when their body shape won’t allow them to wear a harness for safety. If Momo gets into a hole during one of our recreation outings in the woods, the recall is our solution to bring him back safe and sound. Since his recall is great, we can now walk him.

Calamity the Deaf and Blind Australian Shepherd

By Amanda Fuller

Amanda and Calamity

Calamity’s Marker

With any animal, a clear marker can work wonders for their understanding. A marker is a clear indication to an animal that it did something correctly and will be rewarded. A marker can be a sound, a sign, or in our case, a touch. Since Calamity is deaf and blind, we have to communicate through touch or tactile cues. Like with all training, cues can be anything you want them to, as long as your are consistent. Our marker cue is a small tug on the back of the neck.

Conditioning a marker.

I found this to be easy to deliver, without fear of confusing it for another cue, or accidentally touching her before/after giving the marker cue.

How to Choose a Cue

When coming up with cues for different tricks and behaviours, I like to try and picture how I will teach her the behaviour, and then add something in that is smooth for us both. Since I’m generally using both hands, one to mark, one to deliver treats, and sometimes having to lure, it can get a little messy. I do my best to ensure that my cues are clear and don’t interfere with what we were working on. When working with a deaf dog, or a deaf and blind dog, the first thing I establish is our marker cue. From there, I load the cue just as you would with a clicker and a hearing dog. I want the dog to have a positive emotional response to the marker cue before I move onto other things. I am actively involved in the sport dog world, so I love trick training and other sport foundations. I didn’t want to exclude Calamity from these things and she has been able to earn her expert trick dog title, and we compete in rally through WCRL.

The Experience of Calamity’s Trainer

Training a deaf and blind dog truly isn’t much different. Whether I’m shaping, luring, or capturing, I’m teaching her things in the same fashion as any other dog, I’m just giving my cue differently. As I mentioned above, coming up with cues can be challenge because they all need to feel differently to do the dog in order to be clear and distinct. That’s where you have to get creative. My marker cue is a slight tug on the neck, while my sit cue is a single index finger tap between the ears, on the back of her head. My lay down cue is a swipe down the snout.

Deaf and blind dogs are capable of doing, and learning, nearly everything a seeing/hearing dog can!

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Morgan the Deaf Killer Whale

By Peter Giljam

Morgan is a deaf killer who lives at Loro Parque in Spain. After they concluded that she didn’t hear the same frequencies as the other animals, they also discovered that a normal “whistle” as a marker didn’t really work with her. This is where the team decided to have a visual signal.

A visual bridge/marker is given to tell Morgan she did well.

The Communication Tool

This signal means the same as any other marker but it is a visual cue like in the video above. Different ways of training are the same if you look at the operant conditioning strategies. The biggest differences are that the timing of the bridge is not as accurate, which creates challenges. Parts of a behaviour were not able to be bridged due to the fact that it she wasn’t able to see us.

Another interesting behaviour we saw but couldn’t be 100% certain, was that her frustration level was reached a lot faster than any other killer whale in the group. Which meant that we had to make small steps but also after an incorrect response go to an easy behaviour, before we asked the incorrect behaviour again. There was a higher rate of success than if we didn’t.

Morgan shows us that she understands the bridge/marker. She discriminates both signals given to her.

Morgan discriminates both signals very well. The first signal was an underwater fast swim that is then repeated. The last signal is the marker. She shows us that she understands both signals, we know that she understands by observing the correct response.

A Developing Relationship

Small steps and relationship building sessions were an important part of her day. She learns fast if you find the right ingredients to apply to her personality. Working with a deaf animal like her came with a lot of challenges but at the same time, she was extremely focused because she had to rely heavily on her eye sight.

Some challenges included getting the bridge and the timing correct, which isn’t always easy. This gives a delay in telling Morgan the exact moment where we want to say ‘Well done!’. Poor timing might also teach Morgan something else than what we originally intended. Another challenge is that Morgan always needs to be in visual contact to be able to know if the bridge is given.

Morgan has to look from under water to be able to see the bridge. She curves her body to be able to do so and keep her fluke above the water.

Working with animals that have a disability can be challenging but gives use an opportunity to be more creative. It gives the trainer a skillset that allows the trainer to think outside the box and stay sharp in different scenarios.

Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at info@zoospensefull.com or visit our website zoospensefull.com 

Categories: Trainer Talk

PeterGiljam

PeterGiljam

Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!

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