Spending the day at Sea World recently, it was most interesting to observe the animals and consider all that goes into their training. We get frustrated because we cannot teach our dog some simple obedience skills and then we watch these thousand pound whales performing amazing feats just for a few fish. Whether they are creatures of the sea or more common pets, they are having a wonderful time doing what they have been asked to do in exchange for treats and praise.
Sea World offers a class through San Diego State University on Marine Mammal Behavior and Training. How interesting it would be to take the class. The training manual introduction states that people have been training animals for thousands of years. Falcons and dogs have been trained to hunt. Camels and horses have been trained for riding and pulling and elephants were trained for many tasks.
Some of the methods for training were positive and some were rather brutal. Wolves were brought into the campfires in early times with luring. They were hungry and the smells and the tidbits given to them were worth the risk. Eventually, they learned to trust humans and the rest is history.
Marine mammal training is relatively new. Killer whales have been trained for less than 40 years. At facilities like Sea World, trainers are always learning about how these animals learn and what they are capable of learning. They are constantly amazed.
According to the training manual, "Animal Training at Sea World," behavior is defined as the way an animal acts. Walking, breathing, swimming and eating are all behaviors. Animals behave in certain ways to find food, to avoid predators and to reproduce. The study of animal behavior is known as ethology. Learned behavior is a permanent change in behavior as a result of experience.
Operant conditioning is used to train marine mammals. Operant conditioning is a process of learning in which behaviors are altered by the consequences that follow them. When an animal performs a particular desired behavior, that behavior is reinforced. If the reinforcement (treat, toy or back scratch) is pleasing, the behavior is likely to be repeated. If there is no response to the behavior, it will most likely be dropped. While training the mammals, positive behavior is reinforced immediately. Unwanted behavior is ignored.
Targeting is an important training method used at Sea World. The animal is taught to touch a particular object -- such as a stick with a ball on the end. At first, the stick is brought to the animal and he is rewarded. Then it is moved a short distance where he has to reach a bit for it. When he does touch it, there is a wonderful reward. The target is moved further away -- or brought into the air -- which is how sea animals are taught to jump higher and higher. A clicker or other sound is used to let the animal know that the behavior was good. That clicker means that the trainer has a wonderful treat waiting for him. Clicker training and targeting are commonly used to teach service dogs specific behaviors and are a fun way to teach tricks.
Although Sea World works primarily with creatures of the sea, the pet pavilion consisted of many trained dogs, cats and one large white pig. The announcer stated that most of these pets were rescued from animal shelters. They were turned in because their owners said they could not be trained. Many had been abused. He also reminded us that our pets need exercise, training and attention. Watching these dogs and cats performing together was amazing. Each had a specialty. The pig was very good at weave poles. One cat walked across the length of the stage on a tight wire overhead and another walked upside down across the stage holding on to a large rope. These pets were having a great time performing for treats and praise.
Animals have an amazing ability to learn. Our pets deserve a little of our time for training. If we make it fun for them, they will respond in ways which will be fun for us. Our pets love to please us. We need to provide them with opportunities.
Admission to Sea World is expensive. However, some of that money goes into rescuing lost and wounded animals from the sea. They are restored to health and then released if at all possible. Those that cannot be released are taken care of for life.
If you are in the area, visit Sea World. You will be amazed at what you see. Incidentally, both Sea World and Disneyland provide kennels for day boarding. Bring a water dish and a chew toy or something to help your dog pass the time. What a great service this is for those of us who like to travel with a dog or two.
Christy Powers is a columnist for the Payson Roundup. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.