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.