For well-behaved pet, take tips from zoo trainers

Sunday, December 27, 2009

You'll never have to teach a panda to walk on a leash. But if any kind of animal lives in your house, trainers at the zoo have some useful lessons for you.

Modern training methods rely on a simple principle of learning: If an action has a pleasurable consequence, the animal will repeat it. Or as animal behaviorist Emily Weiss puts it, "If it feels good, do it again."

So it should be easy to mold a pet's behavior -- reward it when it does what we like, and don't when it doesn't. But getting the details right can be a challenge, whether with a panda or a pup, and that's often because we don't understand what is actually rewarding to the animal.

The simplest type of reward-based training involves food. It works with animals that don't care about pleasing us. Weiss has trained a Komodo dragon to enter a crate using food.

But it's critical to realize that food is not all that's rewarding, and that the alternatives may be unexpected, such as when Weiss found that Aldabra tortoises could be rewarded in training by having their necks stroked.

Being aware of other possible rewards can help if your pet is not particularly food motivated. If you're not aware of everything that's rewarding to an animal, you may be accidentally training it to do exactly what you don't want.

Weiss was trying to train a group of chimps to hold still for injections using their favorite food reward, Jello jigglers. But she couldn't even get to the first step: getting them to put their hands on the bars. The problem was that they wouldn't stop using their hands for something else instead: throwing feces at her.

"After a month, it finally dawned on me -- what do you do when a chimp throws poop? You jump. You wipe it off," she said.

Once Weiss realized that watching her reaction was more rewarding to many of the chimps than getting a treat, the solution was simple. When humans stopped responding in an interesting way, the behavior stopped.

Many pet problems arise the same way. If your dog jumps up on you when you come home, it's because your reaction, like Weiss's to the chimps, is rewarding. Try turning your back and not making eye contact or speaking until he stops jumping, and the behavior should eventually disappear.

In other cases you may also need to think about how to prevent the behavior before it starts. Consider a dog that barks constantly.

The first step is the same: Be sure you're not accidentally rewarding the behavior. But after that, your best bet isn't trying to train the animal to stop doing something. Rather, says Lisa Stevens, curator of pandas and primates at the National Zoo, "Change the environment that elicits the behavior."

This requires some observation. If you notice your dog's barking begins when a person or dog walks by, the best solution may be restricting access to the room that faces the street, or not leaving him in the yard alone -- much simpler than the big project of training the dog to stop barking on command.

Finally, like a good animal keeper, make sure that your pet's lifestyle allows him to exercise his natural abilities. Part of what zoos call "enrichment" is providing a complex environment that allows an animal to perform its natural behaviors. A panda that has opportunities to climb and search for food is less likely to pace.

Likewise a dog needs enough exercise and chances to use his brain. In fact, both pandas and dogs enjoy the many types of puzzle feeders that are now available. Give your dog enough chances to be a dog, and he'll get into less trouble.

"Often behavior problems in dogs are because they're not living in an enriched environment," says Stevens.

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