After many years of training many different species I found that there are only a couple techniques that really makes a change when training hoofstock. As we all know hoofstock species are almost always in groups. This comes with some challenges along the way. Working with groups in general is challenging but what about the motivation strategies? There is always food available.
Carnivores or piscivores only eat periodically which makes training these types of animals a lot easier. But when we start talking about enrichment these species are actually a lot more difficult in comparison. More and more species are on our list of experience especially herbivores. Every time we apply the same techniques right from the start.
Herbivores are difficult to motivate and the whole reason really is that there are continuously competing reinforcers around. Some even say it’s important for these animals that they eat all the time. This means that there needs to be food all the time. From the trainings perspective the animal always has different choices. Don’t want to interact? Go eat green grass. To be able to still keep them engaged with us in our sessions we can use a variety of different reinforcers. We will apply the surprise factor. Which makes the animal curious about what we have. That’s when they become more interested in you.
In some cases I use the exact same reinforcer which they have present in their environment 24/7. So I just bring a bag of green grass which is the same as what they would eat anyway. Believe it or not it works like a charm.
2. Reinforcement Placement
Due to the fact that most herbivores live in groups I can make sure that the placement of the reinforcer helps me with the success of the whole group I’m trying to train. I mean imagine reinforcing a group of 10 animals all in a space of 1 meter total. Quite some displacement would happen. The strongest one would win and eat all the reinforcers. When you do this a couple more times we now have the issue of the weaker animals not wanting to come anymore. So whats the solution? We can extend the place of the reinforcer. When you have 10 animals make sure you create enough space that would reinforce all individuals.
Through proper placement of the reinforcer we can decrease the chances of competing for a food source. The goal is that everybody has a chance to receive the reinforcer. Therefore it is very important to place the reinforcer properly after a behaviour started to happen.
3. Cooperative Feeding
This is a technique where we teach higher ranked animals to accept lower ranked animals. We reinforce the higher ranked animal to accept the lower ranked and teach the lower ranked to be brave enough to stay next to the higher ranked. When you do this controllably you will discover that instead of one animal chasing everybody away you now have all animals coming to you. The goal is ultimately that you have them all. To be able to reach this goal you have to get control over the higher ranked animal this way you can reinforce this animal under proper control for allowing lower ranked animals to come closer and join the reinforcer.
Often we say well we want the lower ranked animal to come closer so this is my focus. With really any animal you want to get control over the behaviour of animals. To do so you want to teach them which choice is higher in reinforcement for them which in this case is accepting one another.
4. Know the species
This is probably not a technique but equal important. To be honest this is not just focused on herbivores. The difference only is that herbivores are often being herded into places, being darted and so on. This is what old school management looks like. The question beside their history is that we need to know if they are fight or flight animals. I mean do we have a waterbuffel in front of us or do we have a fallow deer in front of us? That’s quite a different approach for each of them.
If they have been in the old school management system they will see humans and sometimes the amount if humas as negative. You now have to start the counter conditioning program to get you back to lovable instead. You either work wit species who run away or with species that go into full attack. For both situations there are different techniques but the end goal is change their perspective they have with you.
With these 4 techniques you will reach the successes you need with training hoofstock. Have you seen this article? Which explains some reinforcers wit 5 different hoofstock species.