By Laura Monaco-Torelli
Progress in both animal and human training
|Twiga with her calf, Zuri|
This past year has been full of growth and excitement at Niabi Zoo! Two healthy reticulated giraffe calves were born, and the colobus troop has grown by one new baby, too—all while the zoo was under renovation. Through it all, we augmented and advanced our animal training programs to start fresh in 2011.
To help move our programs forward, we looked at the human end of training. After all, we experience day-to-day interactions with more than just the animals in our care; we have frequent interactions and conversations with our colleagues and zoo patrons. As great trainers know, good people skills only enhance and improve any work surroundings. Our goals in the human area include helping others know what is expected of them without nagging, and focusing training beyond the animals and toward zookeeper continuing education and professional growth.
Time for TAGteach!In 2008, while I was a student in the Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Dog Trainer Program, I learned about Theresa McKeon and TAGteach International. When Niabi Zoo heard that I attended Theresa’s TAGteach seminar in Chicago to earn primary certification, they offered to host her at the zoo in March 2010. Theresa invited TAGteach Level 3 instructor Eva Bertilsson from Sweden to join us as well. We were very lucky to have both women teaching a two-day seminar at the zoo, working with us toward several of our goals. TAGteach lessons helped staff members achieve even more success clicker training the zoo animals. The lessons also helped staff members feel upbeat about themselves and their many workday interactions.
We received very positive comments from keepers who attended the seminar:
“Clicker training has opened my eyes to a new perspective of zookeeping. I have been able to do daily husbandry and vet visits with so much less stress on the animals. In the last two years I have seen animals go from not wanting any interaction to waiting to be trained on a daily basis. Clicker training and TAGteach have had nothing but a positive effect in my life and on the animals at Niabi Zoo.” ~Jessi Lench Porter
“The clicker provided our team with an effective tool of communication that transformed the behaviors of a variety of species such as giraffe, gibbon, lion, and jaguar. Clicker training brought our overall animal management to the highest level of care.
To enhance and expand the communication skills of our staff, we were introduced to the principles of TAGteach by Theresa McKeon. Theresa's contagious enthusiasm about TAG brought to light how we all process information in a variety of ways, which sometimes leads to different interpretations in our everyday communications. Using the concepts of TAG, we were able to clearly set criteria and offer positive feedback to each other. We can all benefit from this type of teaching, which focuses on what is correct rather than the opposite.” ~Colleen Stalf
“Clicker training has made me so much more aware of my interactions with animals (and people), has taught me patience, and has helped me understand that effective communication can work wonders. Training a lion or having a positive interaction with a coworker, the skills have been invaluable. Such a warm feeling of accomplishment to realize that small, positive steps can lead to a finished behavior that will reduce stress levels during veterinary procedures. Clicker training can deepen the relationship and create trust between trainer and animal. When you start training animals and practice that positive spin on life, it becomes second-nature and is so much easier to transfer to your human relationships.” ~Mandy Turnbull
Observing Theresa and Eva while they taught was extremely reinforcing for me. I knew that the keepers would gain first-rate information easily translatable and applicable to their daily interactions with people and with animals. We all learned how to be more effective, proactive, and positive with our communication skills. We had a lot of fun with this process!
TAGteach in action: using food toolsOne of the safety goals we worked on with the keepers during Theresa’s workshop was feeding the large cats (lion, tigers, cougars, leopards, jaguar, and bobcats) with tongs, spoons, or feed poles. These tools keep zookeepers’ hands safe. For the keepers, learning how to mark the desired behavior with the clicker and then move the hand to load the primary reinforcer can prove challenging! We found it helpful to practice clicker mechanics before we actually trained and fed any animal, and made that step part of a fun training game. But the keepers’ biggest challenge was to replace a previous behavior (feeding the large cats with their hands), especially since the behavior had a strong reinforcement history.
In this video (view the original article to see the video), keepers Colleen, Mandy, and Jessi practice feeding techniques using TAGteach. To determine their focus they used the Focus Funnel, a strategy for organizing and delivering verbal lessons and instructions to a learner.
It begins with: The Lesson is…
Follows with: The Directions are…
And ends with a tag point of 5 words or less: The TAG point is:Using the focus funnel reduces the amount of language that must be processed by a learner right before attempting a behavior.
Lesson: The hand that delivers the treat needs to go to a neutral place immediately after delivering the reinforcement. This way the lion will turn his direction back to you instead of following the feeding stick. We call that neutral place “home.”
Directions: Move your feeding hand back to home position immediately after delivery.
tag point: Initiate hand to home.Training sequence: Mandy cues mouth open behavior-> Jessi offers mouth open behavior-> Mandy marks behavior-> Mandy moves reinforcement hand to place food onto pole-> Mandy places food into Jessi’s hand-> Mandy initiates hand to home (tag point).
Watch Colleen in the background as she observes the sequence. She is observing the series of behaviors patiently without talking and without giving extra verbal information to Mandy. The tag point was discussed ahead of time. Each time Mandy offers the tag point (initiate hand to home) successfully, Colleen marks that behavior with a clicker.
Later, as I worked on earning TAGteach Level 1 certification, we focused on Jessi’s tag point: feed with tongs. At ~36 seconds into the video loop, you can see Jessi self-assess as she reaches for the food with her bare hand, only to correct herself and then reach behind her with the tongs. My role was to mark with the clicker each time she offered the tag point successfully.
Theresa McKeon was as positive as the Niabi keepers and I were about the TAGteach learning experience. She saw that we all understood the connections between the human and the animal training, and worked hard to benefit from the positive principles in action. She shared some of her thoughts about the Niabi seminar:
“When I was asked to present a TAGteach workshop to the keepers at Niabi Zoo, I was beyond thrilled. Not only for the opportunity to work with Laura, but to see the clicker training technology come full circle. Laura had already been teaching the keepers that optimal animal learning occurs when information is delivered in finite bits, immediately marked, and followed up with reinforcement. She also wanted them to experience how the principles of clicker training hold true for any learner—including people.
Because of our reliance on verbal language, people need a bit of practice when transferring clicker training skill to other people. People teachers can quickly progress from using language to abusing it. Important points get buried in long lists of criteria and even longer explanations. Social responses divert concentration. We resort to nagging and escalate from there. Nagging doesn’t work on cougars and it doesn’t work on people.
The TAGteach workshop demonstrated to the Niabi staff that we can learn and teach each other with the same respectful process they use with their animal learners. Deliver information in finite bits, immediately mark an acquired behavior, and follow up with something that is reinforcing for the learner (usually success). I can’t think of a better gauge of an application’s power than its flexibility. This clicker ‘stuff’ can bend all the way around in a full circle.”