Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Shedd Experience

This post has taken me a long time to write :), mostly because I don't even know where to start. The week at Shedd Aquarium covered so much that I probably have enough for a year's worth of posts! It's hard to figure out where to begin, what to cover, when to stop (because really I think I could go on forever, haha). So, with all that, I think I will start at the beginning, clever aren't I? :)

Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
The premise of this seminar was the basic foundation of Operant Conditioning and how the science of it applies to animal learning no matter what species you are working with. I got to see a lot of that in action!! We watched multiple training sessions each day that worked with several different animals in multiple ways - dogs, whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, birds of prey, and lizards. The basic principles never changed, although sometimes the application did since obviously the animals are all very diverse :).

This is a video of Ken Rameriz working with one of the dolphins through the underwater viewing area's glass. The dolphin is receiving secondary reinforcers from Ken as feedback for performing cues correctly, and then he sends her to the surface to receive primary ones from another trainer in the actual dolphin enclosure.

Most of the training that Shedd Aquarium does is related to medical behaviors. It makes everyone's lives easier (animal, vet, and aquarist) if the animal willingly participates in medical procedures. Especially for the animal, as being restrained and forced into something is such a stressor and can have lasting negative impacts. This is something I walked away thinking about - what are some medical procedures my dogs can be trained to accept more easily? Obviously, nail trimming comes to mind because that is something that is performed often :).

Of course not everything they do is related to medical :). They have fun with their animals as well! A lot of the medical procedure cues are interspersed through the training sessions around fun cues that the animals like to perform. <hint, hint - think Premack Principle here!> Which brings me to something else I walked away thinking about - during their training sessions they go through many different behaviors even when teaching a new behavior. In reflection, at least from my perspective, in dog training when we want to teach a new behavior we mainly focus on that until we think they have it and then we start mingling other behaviors in. Which might increase the frustration and decrease the rate of learning. I am going to mull this one over and revamp some of my training sessions I think :).

Not everything was learning and work for us either, we broke up our 'training' (aka learning) sessions with moments of play as well :).

This is Tyler, a California Sea Lion, giving me a kiss :). We watched several training sessions with him and he was certainly one of my favorites. The other sea lion we worked with was Cruz, you can check out Cruz's story HERE.
Touching a stingray! These were much smaller than the ones
we swam with on our honeymoon but I was still excited :). 
Olivia, a Magellanic Penguin, visited our lecture room for a quick break.
She was quite cute and loved sitting in laps!
And of course the dogs. Who could forget the dogs?!? :) We got to watch all three dogs in training sessions, I must say I quite loved all three of them! They will be up for adoption in a few months, some lucky families will get some incredible dogs!! I might have to keep my eye out for Dory ;).

Bruce is quite a cutie, you can read about his background story HERE.
Dory is very smart and quite accomplished already.
You can check out her story and Coral's story HERE.
I didn't have any pictures of Coral, but I did find a video! Here is Coral during one of their emergency recall training sessions.

The most amazing experience of all was the Beluga Encounter. I have enough to write about that to fill up its own blog post so you'll just have to wait in suspense until next week :). But before I leave you, here is a short video of a Taegu Lizard targeting. Obviously, with the primary reinforcer being baby mice you can only get so many repetitions in while training in the classroom environment :).

Training is so fascinating. I'm pretty sure I am a training nerd, lol. But I have had great experiences and met some very, very, very knowledgeable people through my learning quest :). At the Shedd Aquarium Ken Rameriz is the Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Training and he was our 'trainer' for the week long seminar. I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak at a different seminar as well and he will be at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference this October so I look forward to seeing him again :).

Who are your favorite trainers to learn from?


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun! I can see why you like Dory. Look at those paws! Cute.

    One of my favorite trainers is Patricia McConnell. I would love to attend one of her seminars sometime. I always learn from her common sense approach in her books and on her blog.

    1. I love Patricia McConnell. I've been to a few of her seminars and have all her books, lol :) She's always been a main resource for me as well.