#97: Types of Training

I have been a trainer for four years now. In that time, I have learned a lot about what it means to train and how you can go about doing it. I have also had the awesome opportunity to use a variety of training methods with our marine mammals. This blog post describes the different training methods that I have used and gives video examples of the behaviors that have come from them. It is pretty amazing when you open your eyes to the limitless ways you can train a behavior. Plus it's a lot of fun!

The training method that I use most often is called Shaping. By shaping a behavior, you are basically breaking it down into steps called approximations and you reinforce each step that the animal reaches. This allows you to build up a behavior and "shape" it as you go. Think of climbing a flight of stairs ... If you want to get to the eighth step, you have to walk up steps one through seven first. Shaping can be broken down even further into categories. The two shaping categories that I have used are successive approximations and selective reinforcement.

This above video is an example of Successive Approximations. Reggae is demonstrating his sink spin behavior. Since there are several components to the behavior, Reggae has to learn to spin in a circle, then to sink before putting the two behaviors together. In the video, you will see how he was trained to sink to successively deeper levels in the water column. Once that part was completed, he was given the spin signal which he was already trained to do at the surface. This requires a bit of abstract learning on his part since he was never asked to spin underwater but he can handle it! I can't take credit for training this one but it is a perfect example of the approximations needed to build a behavior.

Another category that is part of the shaping method of training is Selective Reinforcement. Before they headed off for their vacation in New York, I worked with our northern fur seals Cordova and Ursula. Both of them were quick studies and selective reinforcement was a new and exciting way for me to train behaviors with them. To train using this method, you basically wait until the seal offers something that you want. Then, you reinforce only that movement.

An example of this is Cordova's spin behavior. To start the training of this behavior, I gave Cordova (pictured at left) the spin signal (which she had never seen before) and then waited until she turned her head ever so slightly. From there, I continued to reinforce her head movement as long as it was past the point she reached the last time. As her head would turn, her body would follow and she would begin to turn in a circle.

By using this technique, I was able to train Cordova to spin in two days! It also gave me an opportunity to fine tune my bridging skills. It is really important to give a clear message to the seal so the accuracy of your bridge is crucial. This is a also a great training method to use when trying to introduce an animal to new surroundings. So stay tuned for the return of our northern fur seals because I am sure we will be using selective reinforcement as a very helpful training tool when introducing them to their brand new exhibit!

Shaping is also a really helpful way to rework an old behavior that has broken down over time. There are a number of reasons a behavior breaks down or no longer meets criteria. The seal may have been reinforced for a lesser version of what was originally required. Sometimes other trainers give a different version of the signal that the seal may not recognize. Reggae's dance behavior became progressively lower and slower. Below is a video of of the behavior.

Right now, he doesn't extend his flippers very far out of the water and he also moves verrrrrry slooooowly. Through shaping, I am hoping to sharpen this behavior so that he dances the salsa (like Cayenne in the video) rather than a waltz. Stay tuned for an update ...

Another training category that has been really fun to use with Reggae is Capturing. This is a training technique where you capture a behavior that the animal offers on their own. Reggae exhibits many different fun and energetic behaviors during the breeding season. Reggae would often offer these different behaviors after training sessions so I would wait on exhibit with a few fish and feed him when he did the desired behavior. In the video below, you can see him offering all sorts of behaviors in an attempt to get reinforced. The more he was reinforced for doing a specific behavior, the more he offered it. Then I picked a word or a signal to go with the behavior and transferred it into training sessions. This video shows a couple sessions where I am trying to capture Reggae's underwater bubbles. You can see him starting to understand what I am looking for because he offers behaviors other than underwater bubbles less and less as we go along.

The behaviors Reggae offers during breeding season usually involve blowing bubbles, slapping the water and quick body movements. Over the past two years I have been able to capture three of these behaviors and pair then with a signal. This video shows all the cool behaviors that Reggae has come up with. Check it out! :)

Some of the many captured behaviors from Reggae the Atlantic harbor seal at the New England Aquarium.

So the sky is the limit with the types of training we utilize with our animals but it always comes down to one main theme ... positive reinforcement. Make it positive for the animal and for the trainer and you are bound to have success!

Thanks to all our volunteers who helped me videotape Reggae's behaviors. I don't know what we would do without you!




#96: Want to Race?

Watching the seals gracefully turn, roll and glide as they navigate the Harbor Seal Exhibit is peaceful and relaxing. As they leisurely cruise upside down, some people may be surprised at just how fast the seals can swim. The powerful propulsion for harbor seals comes from their hind flippers. To swim fast, they spread those flippers to act like paddles and move them quickly from side to side. During a sprint, harbor seals can reach 20 mph. Seals use this speed to evade predators, chase fish, or intimidate a rival while establishing territory. In the following video Amelia creates a large wake as she demonstrates the power of her hind flippers.



#95: Anaconda Training

In the past few weeks some of the trainers have introduced you to and updated you on the different types of animals we've had the opportunity to work with during the fur seals' absence (lumpfish, lobsters and frogs). Rochelle and I have been working with two young female anacondas, Marion and Wilson, who were born here at the Aquarium last January. (Video of their birth)

Presently, they're living in two tanks in the Aquarium Medical Center. In the beginning Rochelle and I just tried to spend time with the girls getting to know them so that they would be comfortable working with us. Never having worked with snakes we needed to learn about their physiology, their likes and dislikes and, perhaps most importantly, their behavior. Working closely with Scott Dowd, who runs the Aquarium's fresh water gallery, Aquarium biologists Pilar Gibson and Eric Payne and Veterinary Services, we learned a lot of what we needed to know to help us develop an effective training plan.

Recently Rochelle and I, along one of Scott Dowd's volunteers named Marion (no relation to the snake), took advantage of the opportunity to visit New England Reptile Distributors in Plaistow, New Hampshire. As you can see from the photographs, the folks there were kind enough to introduce us to some of the reptiles that they care for and work with on a daily basis and pass on some of their knowledge about reptiles in general and snakes in particular.

One of the things that Rochelle and I learned early on was that snakes rarely, if ever, lie in a fully extended position and, when relaxed, tend to coil up or wrap around an object, a position that makes it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image when you x-ray them. So, one of the first behaviors that Rochelle and I wanted to train Marion and Wilson to do was to go into and remain still in a clear PVC pipe so that Veterinary Services could obtain the type of x-rays they need to effectively monitor their health.

We started off by having them move through very short, larger diameter sections of pipe so that they could be desensitized to the feel of the pipe on their bodies. Just as we would do with the seals, we progressed, in small steps or approximations, to longer, narrower pieces of pipe that would begin to slow their movement to the point where, once in the pipe, they might remain motionless long enough (about 1/20th of a second) for an x-ray to be taken. In the training process we encountered a few challenges. Marion and Wilson eat once a week so reinforcing them with food when they did a good job was not an option. Also, some snakes, especially anacondas, spend a lot of time resting. In the wild this resting might better be described as "laying in wait." Anacondas are, to some extent, ambush predators that submerge themselves just underwater or along muddy banks and wait for their prey to happen by.

So, unlike the seals, who generally anticipate training sessions and seem to be waiting for us when we head out to their exhibit, we never know how active or participatory Marion and Wilson might be when we plan on working with them. When we plan to do a training session we have to make sure that we have plenty of time to devote to it. If the snakes are resting it might take some time for them to warm up and become active enough for us to work with them. Just as we had to desensitize Marion and Wilson to the feel of the pipes around their body, we also need to desensitize them to different surroundings, in this case, the x-ray room. Fortunately, desensitizing them to anything at all hasn't been too difficult as they're actually very curious about their surroundings and have made the most of any opportunity to explore and investigate something new.

In the video you might be able to tell that Marion would have been perfectly happy to go off exploring every nook and cranny that the x-ray room has to offer. But you can also see that she did a great job of going through the pipe. As long as she is, we figured from the get go that she, as well as Wilson, would need to be x-rayed in sections. At some point you might be able to hear me say "hold it" as I apply a very little bit of gentle pressure to her back end to get her to remain still long enough for an x-ray to be taken. After she holds a second or two I say "good," release her hind end and let her move some distance through the pipe before applying a little pressure again, saying "hold it" as I do. Fortunately, Dr. Innis, one of our vets, happened along and reminded me that when we actually do the x-rays Rochelle and I will need to wear bulky, heavy lead lined gloves to protect our hands. Though Marion doesn't seem to be bothered by the gloves at all I can tell you that they made it a little difficult to manipulate her.

No worries. Practice (training) makes perfect.




#94: Meet Our Teen Intern

Katie playing with Amelia

Hi! My name is Katie. I am an 18-year-old junior at the Boston Arts Academy where I major in theatre. I am a teen intern at the Aquarium. I work in the Marine Mammals Department one day a week for eight hours. My day starts at 8:00 a.m. and I begin by thawing and preparing fish for the four training sessions with the harbor seals. Before the training sessions I am responsible for cutting the fish into small pieces for the seals. After training sessions I assist the trainers with scrubbing fishy buckets and cleaning the seals' exhibit. In the afternoons I have the opportunity to observe and participate in training sessions with Myrtle the green sea turtle.

My favorite part of my job is helping Reggae practice his new kiss behavior. I act as the guinea pig while Lindsay is teaching him to kiss my cheek. Sometimes he misses my cheek and gets the side of my head or my eye. He drools a lot. Check out this video of a recent session I helped out with.

I was given all of these opportunities by the Teen Programs Department at the Aquarium. Teen Programs gives teens a chance to gain more knowledge, learn job skills and interact with animals while meeting great new friends! Click here to learn more about summer internships for teens who live in Boston and Cambridge.




#93: Chacoda featured in the Boston Globe

All of our recent posts on toothbrushing seems to have attracted some attention, because on Wednesday, Feb. 4, Chacoda and I did an interview with the Boston Globe to celebrate National Children's Dental Health Month (it is also National Pet Dental Health Month).

While Chuck did seem a little distracted by the camera at times, he was great while I brushed his teeth and the photographer was able to get some really great shots. Not only did the story make the front page of Boston.com that afternoon, but it was also featured on the front page of the Boston Globe's Metro section on Thursday!