I would have posted this blog sooner but my stupid computer disk drive was acting up and I couldn't access the photos from the weekend. What is a blog post without cool pictures?? But at last, here is awesomeness :).
At the end of July I attended a three-day seminar by Ken McCort at Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana - The Behavior of Canids: Similarities and Differences. It was amazing! :) Last year at the APDT conference I sat in on Ken's seminar so when I saw that he was coming to Wolf Park, I got excited and signed up.
The three-day seminar covered quite a bit of information and featured both Ken and Pat Goodman. They covered so many wonderful topics, I'm not sure I can choose a favorite :). But I did find reviewing the role of Dopamine (DA) and Endorphins in reward-based learning fascinating. Three years ago I attended a Karen Overall seminar and learned all about the way the brain works and how the chemicals correspond with behavior. Ken reviewed how those chemicals work with and facilitate the learning process.
When you are teaching a behavior the DA spike is after the bridge (or marker), but once you have an established behavior the DA spike actually comes at the antecedent (cue). And when you have moved the behavior to a variable reward schedule, the DA spike is still at the antecedent but it comes at a much higher level. The same follows for Endorphins, which just proves how addicting learning can be :).
<for those not familiar, the process of teaching behaviors goes: antecedent (cue), behavior, consequence, and the bridge (marker) comes at the behavior>
Obviously, the best parts of the weekend were spending time with the animals :). I mean I love learning, but hands-on learning is the best lol. We got to go in with Gray Foxes, five different wolves, and also a coyote. All three species are considered canids but all are very different from each other and act very different. There is just something so thrilling about interacting with a wild animal. Obviously, these animals are not 'completely' wild as they have been socialized to humans, but they still have all their instincts and behaviors.
The foxes were quite skittish and always seemed to be moving. They move just like cats lol!! And they even climb trees - I had no idea they could do that. The foxes were soft as well but pretty smelly. I guess their urine smell is very strong, although we couldn't smell it outside the enclosure, we could definitely smell it inside. Foxes also like to steal :). At one point I had a fox in my lap - their feet feel just like cats, seriously. Their toes are soo tiny and tight together.
The coyotes were fascinating as well. The first session, we just watched Ken work with them on some basic behaviors. It was really interesting to watch him teach the same things we teach our dogs to a pair of coyotes :). The coyotes are also very skittish and have tons of energy. You could almost feel the energy come off of them. The coyotes are super smart but very wary. You can definitely see how that attribute would help them live so close to humans and survive!
On the last day of the seminar we got to go in with one of the coyotes - Twister, the male (he less crazy than the female). We were actually the first group to get to interact with the coyotes (outside of senior Wolf Park staff) EVER. That was way cool - we got to be guinea pigs (and hey we all survived lol). We went inside the enclosure in pairs with Ken and two other staff members and we each worked a few targeting repetitions.
And obviously we interacted with the wolves! They have them divided out to keep the peace :). The first session we went in with Fiona (the dark one) and Wonton, two of the older wolves. They were obviously more used to visitors and were quite calm about everything. Fiona was a social butterfly and I'm sure she visited everyone in our group at least twice :). The wolves are incredible and when they are this well socialized, you can totally see some of our canine companion's traits in them. Just never forget these are wolves and they have a different line of communication :).
We also went in with the 2-year-olds - Bicho, Kanti, and Dharma (the darker one). Bicho and Kanti are lovingly referred to as the Butterscotch boys. They are gorgeous...and hard to tell apart! Since these three were a bit younger, they are also much more rowdy compared to the two we visited with earlier. Which I totally thought was more fun :), they reminded me of my crew lol. It was also interesting to watch the staff manage the wolves to help them maintain their level of control. Management always come into play at a certain extent until the animal you are working understands what is expected of them. Sometimes I wish pet dog owners understood this :).
It was quite a weekend! I wish I lived closer (it's a 7-hour drive for me to get there), I would totally visit all the time. I will definitely have to carve out some time to visit next year and bring along Nicholas :). I think he would love it! I highly recommend attending a seminar out there or even just visiting on a regular day and doing the tour. You won't regret it!
**All photos pictured here were taken by Monty Sloan during the weekend seminar and are posted with permission.