Updated: Aug 15, 2018
We don’t train tigers, we train more domesticated pets but I have in the past and I can see a lot of crossover between my work with exotics and the work we do everyday with our pets in training. Between Northern California and North Carolina I spent years working with exotics; leopards, raptors, lions, tigers, and bears (Oh my!), ect. Transitioning from that kind of work to Dog Training and Behavior Modification, it ended up being a lot easier of a transition than I anticipated. The big change was teaching pet parents instead of handlers. What made it easier, was the similarities found in the methodology and learning theories with exotics, are the same that we use everyday with our critters.
A few years into my work with exotics I ended up at a facility in Northern California. After being exposed to the facility for a little bit and talking with the owner I discovered that they were very reliant on negative reinforcement (adding a constant aversion until the animal gives a desired response) and positive punishment (adding an immediate undesirable response when the animal gives you an undesired behavior). This style of training had led to a complete lack of trust and respect for the handlers from a lot of the animals, especially the big cats. A lot of the problems were happening due to safety concerns around feeding times.
In response, I came up with a plan to restructure how we interacted with the animals to encourage an environment of trust, respect and especially safety (nothing is more important). I started by using free shaping to get a tiger to touch a manila folder woven through the bars of her cage. She was hesitant at first but over time, by using positive reinforcement, I was able to encourage her to give me the desired behavior of touching the folder. Then, I used the contextual cue of the door closing behind her to signify her being fed. I combined both behaviors so she on cue would go target the manila folder inside the feeding cage, patiently wait for the door to close behind her. Allowing her to be fed and the habitat could be safely cleaned.
Overtime we switched the target out for a toy and placed multiple targets around her habitat, all with different cues and desired behaviors. This allowed the handler and caretakers to be able to voluntarily and positively relocate the animal, all while fostering and regaining a relationship based off trust and respect again. After that success, I then partnered with the other trainers/handlers and applied the same process to the majority of the other animals, even the alligator and lemur. Not only did this foster a positive relationship, helped with confidence building and trust, but it also provide great cognitive enrichment.
When I think about my tiger story, it makes me think about all the dogs and pet parents that I have worked with over the years. People seek trainers out to learn more and gain more tools in their tool box of being a pet parents. As a positive, force-free trainer, we are able to show them scientifically-founded training methods, utilizing positive reinforcement (adding a desired response for a desired behavior) and negative punishment (removing a desired response for an unwanted behavior). Training should be fun, voluntary and effective. Not only for our pets but for us as well.
We should be able to believe and support what we are doing. By using the exact same approach not only can a positive impact be made on a tiger but also a dog. By comparing a tiger and a dog you can see the commonality that exists between species when it comes to training methodology, learning theories and even behavior modification. Over our time training we can start to see the relationship between ourselves and our dogs (or other pets) grow and evolve into something beautiful. All due to the positive, fun and voluntary techniques that we utilize. No matter the species of animal we take the same journey to foster the relationship.