Author Archive

by , Behavior Consultant
I've been working with the museum since 2009 as a Behavior Management Consultant. I work with keepers and staff to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care through operant conditioning.
You can find me teaching at Davidson County Community College, or through my business website Animalworksconsulting.com.

Let’s all get weighed!

July 20th, 2013

Keepers are enjoying the new scale in the farmyard, and so are the critters.  Here’s some video of Max and the alpacas getting weighed.

Max’s training focused on keeping him calm as he walked from his enclosure to the scale – he tends to get excited when he goes for a walk.  And 1600 pounds of excited steer can be difficult to manage.  But look how calm he is!

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The alpaca training is more focused on helping them tolerate the brief separation from the rest of the alpacas as they walk to the scale.  Its helpful for them to learn to be separated for short periods of time so they can more easily tolerate vet visits and shearings in the future.  Lots of good clicking and treating going on in the farmyard by keepers Kent, Sarah and Jill!

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  1. Good to see our Animal Department is steering in the right direction!

    Posted by Wendy

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by , Behavior Consultant
I've been working with the museum since 2009 as a Behavior Management Consultant. I work with keepers and staff to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care through operant conditioning.
You can find me teaching at Davidson County Community College, or through my business website Animalworksconsulting.com.

Bribe?

January 26th, 2013

The type of training we do at the museum has a few different names.  Depending on who you ask, they might call it Clicker Training, or Food Training, or Operant Conditioning, or Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT).  All of those are correct labels for our reinforcement-based, contingency-focused style of behavior management for exotic and companion animals.  I’m always happy to answer questions or talk about the training I do at all the institutions with which I work.  And usually, people ask really interesting and thoughtful questions about how we are working to improve the welfare of zoo animals.

Sometimes, though, I run into someone who doesn’t have a very favorable impression of what we do.  Someone might watch me train, either a dog or a steer or a giraffe, and say, “Well, all you did was bribe them!  You just bribed them to do what you wanted them to do!”  This confusion between training and bribing is one I hear often.  So what’s the difference? Are we just bribing these animals?

No, I don’t think we are.  There are a few important differences between our style of training and a bribe.  First, a bribe is generally something you get for doing something you know you shouldn’t.  Like, think of bribing a police officer for letting you off after you’ve been pulled over for speeding (not that anyone would ever do that!).  Or, bribing a football player to lose a game on purpose.  The police officer and the football player are being asked to break an ethical standard for money.  That’s a bribe.

We’re not asking our animals to break any ethical standard!  We’re asking them to do behaviors that will help in their care.  We’re asking them to step on a scale so we can weigh them, or get in a crate so they can take a trip to the vet’s office.  Nothing illegal.  Nothing unethical.  Not tricks for our entertainment.  Just everyday husbandry and veterinary behaviors that can improve the animal’s care immensely.

A second difference between a bribe and our training style: a bribe usually comes BEFORE the unethical behavior.  It’s something given in advance.  You give the police officer the money, and THEN he lets you off.  You give the football player the money, and THEN he throws the game.  Bribes are an advance payment for bad behavior that’s coming in the future.  Our training is more like the paycheck you receive for your job. You get paid at the end of every week (or every two weeks, or every month) for the time you spent at work the preceding week (or two weeks, or month).  The reinforcer comes AFTER the behavior.  For the most part, if you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid.  That’s more like the arrangement we have with the animals.  Max’s payment for getting on the scale comes right AFTER he gets on the scale.  Cassandra’s payment for getting in the crate comes just AFTER she’s gotten in the crate.  And, we can’t pay them in money.  (Or, we could, I guess, but it wouldn’t be very effective!)  Instead, we pay them a reinforcer that’s valuable to them – food, treats, pets, praise.

I don’t think our training is bribing, at all.  We’re asking the animals to do everyday behaviors and we’re paying them after they’ve done those behaviors.  It’s a great way to build a repertoire of behaviors in both exotic and companion animals, and it builds a relationship between the trainer and the animal based on trust.  So train on!

Do you have any training questions you’d like me to address?  Let me know in the comments section!

Join the conversation:

  1. Which one of our animals has been the most challenging to train? Which ones have been the most receptive to training?

    Posted by Shawntel
  2. Shawntel,

    The bears are very receptive to training! I think the red ruffed lemurs are pretty challenging, because they are very laid back, whereas the ring tailed lemurs are always ready to train. Maybe the farm yard keepers can answer the same question about their animals.

    Posted by kimberly
  3. Keeper Comment :

    They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Max, the steer, seems to love to train and have a keeper’s attention, but is very picky about his reinforcements, making him difficult to reward. Lightning, the donkey, has often learned a multi-stepped, brand new behavior in less than 10 minutes, but is often unengaged in training, aggressive or acts like he has “better things to do.” The goats are all extremely willing and interested in training but have very short attention spans and can become overwhelmed (or act confused) quickly.

    Maybe Jill can chime in about the pigs and alpacas?

    Posted by Sarah Van de Berg

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by , Behavior Consultant
I've been working with the museum since 2009 as a Behavior Management Consultant. I work with keepers and staff to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care through operant conditioning.
You can find me teaching at Davidson County Community College, or through my business website Animalworksconsulting.com.

A Training Quiz!

November 14th, 2012

In the tradition of Sherry’s quiz about her trip with Aaron, I’m posting a quiz about our training program here at the museum.  Answers to follow in a few days!

1. Which animal are we currently training to get voluntarily into a trailer, just in case they need to be transported to the vet?

a) Auggie

b) Lightning

c) Gus

d) Chummix

 

2. Craisins are the favorite training treat for which animal?

a) goats

b) lemurs

c) black bears

d) donkey

 

3. Which animal recently made a break through in their crate training, going all the way into their crate for the first time?

a) Max

b) Yona

c) Auggie

d) Miss Piggy

 

4.  Which animals are station training to stumps in their exhibit?

a) lemurs

b) alpacas

c) bears

d) pigs

 

5. Which animals are not involved in the training program because of their involvement in a reintroduction program for an endangered species?

a) lemurs

b) wolf

c) bears

d) alligators

 

6. Who recently added mango to their list of favorite reinforcers?

a) Max Steer

b) Cassandra Lemur

c) Lightning Donkey

d) Yona Bear

 

7. How long ago did the museum start their behavior management program?

a) 6 months

b) 1 year

c) 3 years

d) 10 years

 

8. Which staff member is involved in a training program to increase their tolerance for random hugs?

a) Sherry

b) Julie

c) Marilyn

d) Kent

Join the conversation:

  1. 1-Chummix
    2- lemurs
    3- miss piggy
    4-bears
    5-wolf
    6- max
    7- 3years
    8- sherry

    Posted by Ranger Ro
  2. 1. Lightning
    2. lemurs
    3. Miss Piggy
    4. bears
    5. wolf
    6. Max
    7. 3 years
    8. Kent

    Posted by Leslie
  3. Director Comment :

    I’m disappointed Ro- I am fairly tolerant of hugs- even welcoming them at times.
    (There are two keepers though who cannot handle being hugged).

    Posted by Sherry Samuels
  4. Ok well I know it’s not Marilyn. So Kent or maybe Julie called herself out.

    Posted by Ranger Ro
  5. You know me well Ro! I love hugs!

    Posted by Marilyn
  6. Nope, not me! I’m a hugger! (So I guess we know the answer to that one…) :)

    Posted by Julie
  7. #8 – he is being forced into this training program!!!! My heart goes out to you Kent!!!!!

    Posted by Katy
  8. What were the final answers?

    Posted by Ranger Ro
  9. Behavior Consultant Comment :

    Answers to the Training Quiz:

    1. Lightning
    2. lemurs
    3. Miss Piggy
    4. bears
    5. wolf
    6. Max
    7. 3 years
    8. Kent

    Congratulations to Leslie, who got them all correct! Thanks to everyone for playing!

    Posted by Julie Grimes

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by , Behavior Consultant
I've been working with the museum since 2009 as a Behavior Management Consultant. I work with keepers and staff to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care through operant conditioning.
You can find me teaching at Davidson County Community College, or through my business website Animalworksconsulting.com.

What’s That Click?

September 7th, 2012

Have you watched a training session at the museum lately?  (Click here to see an old video of Marilyn training Chummix) If you see Kent training Max, or Kimberly training the lemurs, or Sarah working with Lightning, you’ve probably heard a clicking sound while they train.  What is that thing?  It’s called a clicker, and it’s used as a conditioned reinforcer.  You can establish any arbitrary sound as a conditioned reinforcer, but clickers and whistles are the two that seem to be preferred by animal trainers.

Remember last time I posted, we talked about using food treats in a reinforcement contingency?  A reinforcer is anything that, when presented immediately following a response, makes the likelihood of that response go up in the future.  Food is a primary reinforcer, a reinforcer that an animal (or person) doesn’t have to learn is reinforcing.  Primary reinforcers satisfy a biological need.  They include food, water, access to mates.  The sound of the clicker is a conditioned reinforcer, a reinforcer that an animal (or a person) has to learn is reinforcing. If you follow a specific behavior with a reinforcer, either primary or conditioned, the chance of that behavior occurring in the future will go up.  So when you watch keepers train the animals, you’ll hear the click immediately following a behavior that the keeper wants to see again in the future.

There are a couple things that are important when you are trying to change the frequency of a behavior with reinforcers.  First, timing is critical!  The reinforcer has to be an immediate consequence of the behavior.  Immediate, like touching in time.  If a reinforcer is delayed by even a few seconds, it looses a bunch of its reinforcing power.  So keepers work hard to click at exactly the moment when the behavior they are watching is completed. Reinforcers that are delayed by a few minutes will have almost no effect on the behavior.  (That’s true with people, too!)

Another important variable is the value of the reinforcer (not monetary value, but how much does the animal value that reinforcer as a special treat?).  We don’t get to define which reinforcers are going to be high-value – the animal gets to decide that.  And part of our job as trainers is to figure out what’s on that list.  For some, it might be favorite food items.  For others, a scratch on the nose could be a high-value reinforcer.  For some, it may be access to a favorite toy or activity.  Every animal has a list of high-value reinforcers, and for training, I always try to work with the Top Five.  Those most favorite reinforcers are reserved for training only, which increases an animal’s motivation to engage in the behaviors that have been reinforced by those items in the past (that’s called a motivating operation).

If food works as a primary reinforcer, why would we bother to establish a conditioned reinforcer for training?  Well, there are a couple reasons that clickers work well with animal training.  The first is precision.  Remember, timing is critical to the power of the reinforcer.  And getting a food item to an animal can take awhile – you have to get the item out of your pouch, reach toward the animal, they have to take the item from your hand.  That takes at least a second or two!  Much too long for reinforcement!  A click happens instantly, with perfect precision.  There’s no delay between the completion of the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer.  That makes the reinforcer much more powerful.

Another reason is distance. Clickers are wonderful because you can deliver reinforcement even when the animal is out of arm’s reach.  Imagine trying to train a bear to station on exhibit (a project on which Katy is currently working).  To station, a bear will move toward a designated log in the exhibit.  Because we can’t go in with the bears, we can’t be right next to the bear to deliver the primary reinforcer the instant the bear is next to their log.  The clicker allows Katy to reinforce the bear from a distance (and then the primary reinforcer is thrown to the bear from the top of the building).  Without the clicker, there’s no way we could deliver reinforcement at exactly the right time from that far away.

It’s pretty easy to establish a conditioned reinforcer – just reliably pair an arbitrary stimulus with a primary reinforcer.  For a clicker, we normally pair the sound with food.  The first session with most animals that are new to training is used to establish the conditioned reinforcer (to power it up) – and it’s not a very exciting session.  Click, treat….click, treat…….click, treat…click, treat.  It doesn’t take long before the click has reinforcing power all it’s own, just like the food item would.  And voila!  You can now begin using it in contingencies!  But it won’t keep it’s power for long all by itself – you need to continue to pair it with food in order for it to maintain it’s value as a reinforcer.  That’s why, in most animal training settings, trainers will follow every click with a treat- so that the clicker continues to work as a reinforcer.  If you clicked too many times without treating, the clicker would lose its power and wouldn’t work to increase the future likelihood of a response.  (That, incidentally, is why we don’t use our voice as a conditioned reinforcer.  The animals hear us talking all the time, and every time they hear our voice and it’s not followed by food, our voice loses its power as a reinforcer.  So I always suggest, if you’re establishing a conditioned reinforcer, don’t use a word like “good” or “yes”.  Much more powerful to give the reinforcing value to a sound the animal ONLY hears in the context of training.)

So get out your clickers and start powering them up!  With good timing and by pairing them with high-value primary reinforcers, conditioned reinforcers are powerful tools in our training toolbox!

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by , Behavior Consultant
I've been working with the museum since 2009 as a Behavior Management Consultant. I work with keepers and staff to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care through operant conditioning.
You can find me teaching at Davidson County Community College, or through my business website Animalworksconsulting.com.

Contingencies

July 3rd, 2012

Hey all!  Have you ever wondered, “How did they get that animal to DO that??”  It’s all about contingency management.  What’s a contingency, you ask?  A contingency is a relationship between a response (or a behavior) and some environmental consequence.  (And by consequence, I don’t mean the normal, everyday definition of that word…like when a small child does something wrong and the parents say, “You’re going to get a consequence!”  Nope, that has an implication that consequences are always bad.)  A consequence, when you’re talking about contingencies, is anything that happens immediately after a behavior.  And in general, there are two types of consequences – the type that make the behavior more likely to occur in the future (reinforcing consequences), and the type that make the behavior less likely to occur in the future (punishing consequences).  At the museum, the keepers work mostly with reinforcement contingencies – we’re always looking for ways to increase the frequency of the behaviors we need to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care and management.

If you want to increase the frequency of a response, there are two ways you can do it.  You can either add something that the animal likes, or you can remove something the animal finds aversive.  If the immediate consequence of a response is the addition of a small, favorite food item, then the future likelihood of that response will go up.  If the immediate consequence of a response if the removal of something the animal finds aversive, then the future likelihood of that response will also go up.  Those two contingencies are called Positive Reinforcement (Positive = addition) and Negative Reinforcement (Negative = removal).

 

Imagine you want your lemur to voluntarily go in a crate so you can transport it to the hospital for a vet visit.  If, every time the animal went into the crate, the keeper delivered a small bite of a raisin, then the lemur would be more likely to go in the crate in the future.  And the likelihood will go up even more if that lemur especially loved raisins, and the only time the lemur got raisins was when he went in the crate.  His motivation for doing the response would be high, because he has to work for that high-value reinforcer (raisins).

Now imagine (and this isn’t the case here at the museum, but let’s just imagine) a lemur that was housed in sight of one of its natural pedators (like a Fossa).  The sight of that predator would be an aversive stimulus – something the lemur really didn’t enjoy.  If, every time the lemur went into the crate, the immediate consequence was the removal of the sight of the predator (because the lemur can’t see through the walls of the crate), then the lemur would ALSO be more likely to go into the crate.  The likelihood of the response goes up because the immediate consequence of the response is the removal of a stimulus that the animal doesn’t like.

Both are reinforcement contingencies, because they both result in an increase in the frequency of the response (going in the crate).  But one contingency is the addition of a stimulus (the raisin) and the other is the removal of a stimulus (the sight of the predator).

Here at the museum, we focus mainly on positive reinforcement contingencies.  Keepers reinforce responses with favorite food items that are reserved just for training.  For the lemurs, dried fruit is a favorite.  For the pigs, popcorn is a big hit.  Max loves his hay.  The bears enjoy apples.

 

 

 

Each individual animal has their list of favorites.  What would be a high value reinforcer for you?

Join the conversation:

  1. Popcorn!

    Posted by Shawntel
  2. vegan cookies!

    Posted by Kimberly
  3. Vacation!

    Posted by Sarah
  4. Keeper Comment :

    Sushi!

    Posted by Marilyn Johnson
  5. Keeper Comment :

    Hey Julie, I just wanted you to know that your lessons about reinforcers are used beyond training. For instance, I like to annoy Kimberly sometimes because her reactions are very amusing to me when she gets all riled up. I finally had to tell her yesterday, “Kimberly, I’m sorry I annoy you, but Julie is right. You see, I have a certain behavior that elicits a desired reaction from you. Therefore, the likelihood of me repeating that behavior increases.” And she responded with, “Oh my gosh, you’re right! Hahaha!” :)

    Posted by Marilyn Johnson
  6. Behavior Consultant Comment :

    I’m so glad you are able to apply the principles to your everyday life, Marilyn! (Kimberly, we need to talk about extinction.) :)

    Posted by Julie Grimes

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by , Behavior Consultant
I've been working with the museum since 2009 as a Behavior Management Consultant. I work with keepers and staff to gain the voluntary cooperation of the animals in their own care through operant conditioning.
You can find me teaching at Davidson County Community College, or through my business website Animalworksconsulting.com.

Introducing Myself

June 3rd, 2012

Hello, Museum of Life and Science Family!  Sherry already did a Spotlight post on me, but I wanted to introduce myself to everyone.  I’m Dr. Julie Grimes, the Behavior Management Consultant for the Museum of Life and Science.  I have a company (well, it’s really just me and my cell phone, but the IRS keeps insisting it’s really a company) called Animalworks, LLC that provides Behavior Management services to institutions with animals in captivity.  I’ve worked with zoos, museums, science centers, police K9 units, livestock farmers, private owners.  I’ve been doing this for about 10 years and I’ve been working with the museum for 3.  I finished by PhD in 2005 , and I also teach full-time at Davidson County Community College.

Folks ask me all the time, “What do you do?”  Well, in a nutshell, I help people figure out how to train animals in a way that maximizes everyone’s welfare – animal and human.  My overall training goal is to get animals to voluntarily participate in their own care and management.  I only work with institutions that support a philosophy of voluntary cooperation with their animals.  One of my mantra’s (and if you are around me in a training context for very long, you will undoubtedly hear me say this many times) is, “We don’t make an animal do anything, we make them want to do.”  Imagine you are a zookeeper, and the vet at your institution comes to you and says, “We need to give your black bear it’s annual vaccines.” If you have an animal that will voluntarily participate in that process – by coming into its holding area voluntarily, by presenting its hip against the mesh voluntarily, by tolerating the injection voluntarily – then everyone’s day is made better.  The bear is less stressed than if we had to restrain it (either physically or chemically), the keepers are less stressed, and the vet is less stressed.  Everyone wins!  Those are the kind of projects I work on for all the species at the museum.

I visit the museum about once each month and consult with keepers about their ongoing training projects.  Sometimes I’ll observe a training session, or we’ll talk about any problems the keepers are having in their training.  Sometimes we’ll set training goals for the upcoming year.  Often we celebrate training successes by doing the Happy Training Dance (don’t ask, you just have to see it).  I love working with this staff – every one of them is dedicated, passionate and engaged in the training process.

I’m excited to be a new contributor to the blog!  Be sure to let me know if you have any questions, or if there are any training topics you want me to cover!

 

 

Join the conversation:

  1. Welcome to the blog Julie!

    Posted by kimberly

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