Monday, 21 January 2008

dog training and zoo management

When we first brought Penny home we knew nothing, zilch, nada about dog training. To illustrate our abysmal ignorance, I'll reveal that I brought her - an eight-week-old puppy - home on the Friday of a long weekend so that we'd have three days to get her settled in and trained. Then we'd be back to work on the Tuesday with our guard-dog looking after the house.

Quick fast-forward now through chewed up socks, annihilated tissues, massacred seedlings.

Luckily for Penny, I had fixed in my head the idea that it's important to train dogs and the only club I knew was the wonderful Kintala club, one of the earliest clubs around to use only reward-based training.

I've been thinking about how fortunate we were in stumbling across 'gentle training', because the question of training philosophy is part of an unpleasant issue that has erupted at our local zoo. The Melbourne Zoo has been accused of abuse and neglect of some of the animals in their care. The particular incident that saddens me is that the elephant trainer has been accused of stabbing a 13-year old elephant with a marlin spike. I'll quote a little of the article by Royce Millar and Cameron Houston in The Age, our local Melbourne newspaper:
Former and current zoo staff say the stabbing and other incidents reflect an outmoded disciplinary approach to animals...
It seems to me I still hear all too much about 'dominating' and disciplining animals - including dogs. (Of course, I realise it's necessary to set limits to the behaviour expected of our canine companions in our households and in public.) I also believe that, as a society, we need to review all our attitudes to animals - food animals, pets and the wildlife that shares our environment.

In a follow-up article the next day it was reported that
The zoo stressed that all animal "conditioning" (training) was built on positive reinforcement, not punishment.
I was discussing the issue with Jabari's mum today and she commented that she has seen this type of positive reinforcement in action at the Melbourne Zoo. She said that the elephants 'work' in the morning by bringing out their hay and putting it up in the trees ready for the day and are then rewarded for this task. (The newest elephants arrived from Thailand in the last couple of years and were accustomed to working there.) I laughed when she told me that the pygmy hippo used to be rewarded with vegemite sandwiches. What a true-blue Aussie!

The report on the problems at the zoo is enhanced by an in-depth discussion (by the same two writers) of the ethics of zoos.


Wayfarer Scientista said...

Hey, just thought I'd let you know that this, positive reinforcement, is how we train aquarium animals for research needs (which is also a way of reducing their stress and their boredom).

parlance said...

Wayfarer, I think I read somewhere that the whole idea of positive training for pets came about by someone observing how dolphins were rewarded. After all, you can't jump into a pool and give a dolphin a shaking ot hit it!
What sort of aquarium animals would you be talking about? Fish? Mammals?
I once tried to train my goldfish to come over to the side of the pond when I rang a bell. I think it was working okay but the human side of the equation (me) got distracted and didn't continue with it.