Training Dogs of the Sea
Recently, my husband and I took a trip to the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific. Being the animal behavior/training geek that I am, I took as many videos as possible to bring home. So many people gather around these exhibits amazed by how these trainers can be so close with these animal and how these beautiful creatures have so much respect for their handlers. Truth is, their training techniques are no different then the positive reinforcement training techniques we use to train our own dogs.
Any kind of animal training is going to start small. It is traditional for marine mammals to learn to follow a "target". Once the animal learns the rewards of touching the "target", they are motivated to follow the target. When the animal follows their "target" you can start to lure the animal and shape the behavior you want. For dogs, the "target" is traditionally the trainers hand.
It is key to take one step at a time. Next step? Find and touch the "target"
Then follow the "target".
Animals can learn to recognize different targets. This is how trainers teach their dogs to recognize numbers and/or colors.
To reduce anxiety and stress it is important for any animal to feel safe and confident in any situation. In this situation, the trainer uses "target" practice and shaping with her hand for the otter to open his mouth. Opening his mouth may seem like a small thing to ask and maybe not a big deal. But when it comes time for the vet checks and safety, the vet is going to need the otter to open his mouth without force.
Once the "target" has been mastered and the animal understands the rewards of following the "target" (shaping), the animal starts to make connections and associations with the movements of arms, hands and body. These become the hand signals. Hand signals are a clear way to communicate with any animal. It is very difficult for a trainer to tell a dolphin to jump. So they will give a hand signal and use the target to lead the animal to the wanted behavior.
Correcting a sea lion sounds like it would be difficult. But, when you work on a relationship built with trust, the animal is always motivated for that reward. So what do you do? This trainer gave her cue, the sea lion tried but the trainer knew he could do better. So no reward was given and she asked him again. When he gave the correct behavior, he received his reward.
This little otter is enjoying his lunch. Just like they would have to hunt in the wild, it is a great stimulation and mental work out for an animal to work for his or her food.
People are always so impressed with how well trained these animals are and think the job is done with some magic talent. It is just understanding simple basic animal behavior. It is because of marine mammal training that I have faith in positive reinforcement training. Imagine what would happen if these trainers used other methods such as shock collars, pinch collars, or choke chains on an otter or sea lion. Somehow I don't think they would get these beautiful animal to be motivated to respond in front of a crowd. Perfect behavior cannot be created over night. The main ingredient to train any animal is patience.
There have been major advances in the past 20 years for dog training. Unfortunately, punishment for unwanted behavior had become the norm and their wolf ancestry has been the blame for bad behavior. Dogs are often labeled as "too stubborn" to train. However, with positive reinforcement techniques, we set our dogs up to succeed and give them rewards for good choices. This helps a stubborn dog become more eager to learn and more motivated to build great relationships.
Positive reinforcement started in the 1930's with B.F. Skinner's scientific studies of Operant Conditioning. Hollywood animal trainers use this method of training because the animals become happy, dependable performers. The wildest undomesticated animals can learn and trust you when using positive reinforcement training. Instead of jerking and forcing an animal with a choke chain hoping the dog will eventually understand, you can shape and reward your dog to the appropriate wanted behaviors.
What positive reinforcement means is that the dog works to get the things he likes. The key to positive reinforcement is timing. To increase the likelihood that the dog will repeat a behavior is to reward the dog at the moment the dog performs the desirable behavior. Positive reinforcements have been scientifically proven to gain favorable results. We are more likely to perform better in our work when we expect a paycheck, a raise, a bonus, and/or a promotion. Just like us, dogs need motivation and reinforcement as well.
An example of positive reinforcement is giving your dog a treat the moment he sits.
Examples of positive reinforcers are:
By implementing positive reinforcement today, your dog will be on his way to becoming the well behaved dog you desire.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is rewarding good behavior with treats, praise, or life rewards (games, walks, car rides)
Anyone can do it.
When using positive reinforcement training techniques, anyone in your family can train the dog. With positive reinforcements, there is no need to use physical strength for leash corrections, or a strong tone of voice.
Clearer communication for the dog.
Consequences aren’t always clear to a dog. For example, punishing indoor accidents teaches your dog not to eliminate around you. On the other hand, rewarding outside potties will communicate clearly that good things happen when he eliminates outdoors.
Used for different behaviors
Positive reinforcement can be used to teach your dog new commands or to reinforce good behavior. For example, you can prevent bolting, jumping on people, or good meal-time manners, all with positive reinforcement training.
It's a mental workout.
Boredom can give rise to a lot of unwanted behavior, like digging, excessive barking, and chewing. A few short positive training sessions throughout the day will help your dog burn oﬀ a lot of that excess energy.
Once your dog realizes that training leads to the things he likes, your dog will begin to view training sessions as playtime. He will begin behaving in a desirable way in the hopes of getting his rewards, while you get to enjoy his antics.
Strengthens the bond with your dog.
Do you like being recognized for work you do well? So does your dog! While other training methods will teach your dog how to behave, positive reinforcement will also build trust, strengthening your relationship.
I am an ABC Certified Dog Trainer and owner of Furry Tail Dog Training.
Books I've read: