How to train your tiger… or dog.

Louise Ginman, the Unit Supervisor of Carnivores at Taronga Zoo bases her relationship with the animals she looks after on the principles of choice, trust and mutual respect. And if this works for lions, tigers and snow leopards then you can be sure that this is a good choice for our dogs too.

The theme of the Modern Pet Dog seminar held at Canine Kindergarden in Narrabeen, Sydney, last night was all about relationship building, presented by a range of experts. This first installment of the topics covered will focus on how positive reinforcement is being used to manage the health and wellbeing of the carnivores at Taronga Zoo and implications for those of us who own meat-eaters of the canine variety.

Louise is seeing the difference that positive reinforcement is making to the health and wellbeing of the animals she manages at the Zoo. She said that the approach has changed in the last 16 plus years. For example, animals used to have pressure applied to get them to move between different parts of their enclosures.

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Louise Ginman focuses on building relationships with all her animals.

The focus, these days, is on building relationships. Using food as positive reward is a key part of it, but it’s not just about treats. It’s also about trust, seeking connection with the animal and investing in time to built the relationship.

That’s important when you’re sticking a needle into a full-grown male lion. Who, by the way, is voluntarily presenting his hip for his inoculation. Or when cleaning the sharp teeth of a large Sunbear that is sitting patiently while a buzzing electric tooth-brush is run around its mouth. With the prevalence of paralysis ticks in the area, the Red Pandas need tick treatment applied around their necks every two weeks. Previously animals had to be darted and sedated for these types of healthcare activities.

But what Louise has achieved through her training philosophy is nothing short of remarkable. From the minute an animal enters the Zoo, either as a new-born or a transfer from elsewhere, relationship building activities start. These are equally important as all the other parts of looking after them such as cage cleaning, feeding and providing environmental enrichment.

It may involve sitting quietly with new-born tiger cubs while their parents are in another area having breakfast. Quietly talking to them and patting them gently so they get used to humans and their touch. Or feeding baby Fennec Fox kits food off a teaspoon so that these highly strung animals make the early association that humans mean good things by choosing to come closer to get a treat. They don’t need to hang out all the time or want to spend vast amounts of time with the humans, but objective is that they can be calm and accepting in the presence of their keepers. It keeps the animals’ stress levels down and makes managing them much easier.

Louise demonstrated her approach through a number of videos. In one, she is crouching down in the front of a Fishing Cat’s cage. She is turned sideways to it, sits very quietly and doesn’t look at it directly so she doesn’t appear threatening. The cat is given choice to interact as it can either come closer or move away, and when it stops hissing and growling at her, she marks the calm behaviour with a clicker and gives it a treat.

So what about our dogs? Louise is also a dog trainer and runs a company called Positive Dogs. She applies her relationship philosophy to her canine clients too:

  • If positive reinforcement works for wild animals, then it will work for our dogs. It’s about giving them choice and freedom to interact and building mutual trust that humans mean good things.
  • You can mark the behaviour you want very clearly when you’re reward it as the most effective way to communicate what your dog should be doing.
  • Food is a great tool to desensitize fear through classical conditioning – either by reinforcing the behaviours you want or making positive associations with things that may frighten them. For example, if they are scared of going to the vet, take lots of treats and their favourite toys with you when they go.
  • It took the lion 5 years to learn to shift his hip towards Louise while lying on his belly so that he could present it for the inoculation. Learning takes time so be patient and don’t get frustrated or give up.
  • Use available tools to help your dog. At Taronga Zoo they play ‘Through A Dog’s Ear’ in the enclosures, which is music scientifically chosen to create calm. They also use the Adaptil or Feliway synthetic pheromones to relax and reassure their carnivore charges. Flower essences have also proven effective.

It was great to see how positive learning methods are benefitting the amazing animals of Taronga Zoo.

Look out for the next installment of the ‘Building Relationships’ theme of the night coming soon. If you want to find out about future events email barbara@goodog.com.au or follow the Modern Pet Dog on Facebook.

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