tiistai 1. joulukuuta 2015

Let’s focus on what we want to accomplish

Many times I hear how some animal owners are annoyed of behaviors which are performed by their pets; dog or any other animal.

“How can I fix that barging or screaming?”, or hopping or whatever it is they’d like to change at that time.

I believe that often times we focus more on so called “wrong” behaviors our animals are performing than to the proper ones.  Therefore we are actually giving more attention to the misbehaved patterns than to the ones we’d consider to be the good behaviors. In short we are … yes; reinforcing the behaviors we consider being the bad ones.
Great ! That is exactly what we don't want to do! The balance of our communication and interaction is gradually getting more and more into the negative side of reinforcement.

Zooming into something we actually don't want to reinforce
I do many times refer to small children when talking about animal training. We humans are of course more complex when it comes to behavior management but still there are many-many things common with us and animals. How some of our basic behaviors can be modified is following often similar trends as what we are using in animal training. Many of the animal training “tips” or methods are after all from inventions in human psychological research which have been studied on us humans.

I believe that small kids are reactive just like animals are. If there’s something they don’t like - they will surely show it instantly. The same goes for the things they like. Make a game out of cleaning their toys and you are winner of the situation.  I believe the salt in working or being with kids and animals is the enthusiasm and intensity they react upon on our feedback. Therefore, in my opinion, it is far more fruitful to try to redirect their attention into something that is interesting and which makes them focus on a positive way of acting. It is also far better to get there a little bit in advance than a little too late. I believe many of you have experienced this.  If you know your animal well enough you can tell if it is going to bark or jump.

Absolutely the best way to correct that behavior is when it has not yet happened!
Does that surprise you?

Well this is true. If you can anticipate correctly i.e. you dogs or bird’s behavior - you can modify its behavior before the misbehaving occurs. This methodology can be found in most articles and literature concerning any kind of aggressive behavior management.  Just redirect the attention of your pet into something more acceptable when you see the first small hints or the "head lifting" of the unwanted behavior.  On the other hand we have to be careful not to anticipate too much as the animals tend to take advantage of our predictable behaviors. Balance between these two therefore plays a key role in finding the proper way of behavior management in this kind of situations.
Quite some time ago I was listening to one psychologist and I think the best thought she gave to me was that when we are focusing ourselves on some action or emotion, we are at the same time emphasizing our energy to that state of mind. In general I don’t like to talk about energy when I’m talking about animal training but there are a few exceptions. This one is one of them.

 I believe that animal training in many cases is actually redirecting the attention of the animal in question to something that will avoid the execution of the disliked misbehavior. By paying our attention to these kinds of disliked behaviors we are at the same time focusing our energy on that particular action.
Anticipation is very important together with successive approximation.

Let me tell you an example from our cat at home.  She is a sort of a wild one as she was an orphan for quite some time after she was born. Therefore she never fully got marked to humans at her early days. I knew that there would be occasions when I’d have to transport her by car for quite some distance. The trip would take more than 6 hour. By using good approximations, taking short trips with her i.e. to the nearby grocery occasionally I managed to have her successfully in my  car also on those long trips. I even have taken that “wildish” little fellow in a plane to fly small distances.

In short I focused on a behavior I wanted her to do. I focused on a calm response of being in a car for a short period of time. By using a little anticipation and approximation one can make a great difference. Gradually we extended the time of transportation and ended the trips on a high note. I managed to keep her in good comfort level and therefore I was not forced to direct my energy into that particular type of bad behavior.

Try it and you’ll fall in love with this simple way of behavior management.

 Kai Mattsson

Meritime Consulting, Finland
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tiistai 5. toukokuuta 2015

What makes an exceptional animal trainer?

What are good animal trainer made of?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself several times. 
What are the skills or abilities that make one a good animal trainer? Or actually I should say an exceptional animal trainer?  Who has the ability to mold the animal nature into the direction we humans want it to be formed?

I’ve had several discussions on this topic with my colleagues.  We have listed several skills that an exceptional animal trainer should possess; among them are patience, creativity, innovativity, joyfulness, being consistent, playful mind, visionary etc. All these describe the quality features of a good animal trainer. But as we know there are trainers and then there are those trainers who have something extra in their relationship with animals. What is it that makes the difference?

Good trainer has to know the animal and be aware of the circumstances the animals are exposed to; environmental wise and the reinforcements they are affected by. Surely we must know the ins and outs of animal behaviorism and the geometrics of animal behavior management, i.e.  different forces that  affect the animals in our care. How are we capable of changing the balance in reinforcements?
Basically, that’s all it is, the balance of reinforcement.  How do get our dog or any other animal to behave the way we’d like it to behave.  We just need to find a way to give a stronger feedback, reinforcement, than the feedback, enrichment or stimulus the animal´s environment is providing to it.

Needless to say, the training methods have to be based on positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. When we are talking about positive way of animal training we should remember that it doesn’t mean that everything is allowed for the animal in question. It is just the way we handle the animals, whether they are dogs, cats, birds, horses, otters, dolphins or rhinos etc. The idea is to redirect the focus of the animal with positive and more powerful secondary or primary reinforcement into a trail of success.

But let’s get back to the original question. In my opinion what makes an exceptional animal trainer is the ability of closeness.

We all love and cherish our animals. Especial attention is given to domestic animals because we spend a great deal of time with them. The closeness I am thinking of is not the same as love. Of course we have to love our animals and get involved with them but love is a bit different matter than closeness. What I mean by closeness is:  all the quality features listed above combined with sensitivity, intuition and capability to read the small signals animals in our care are giving to us. It’s neither supernatural nor superstitious but a way to read the animal´s motions and signals, to be sensitive to what they might do next and to be just a little bit ahead of them - as no animal trainer should be surprised in training situation by our animal companions.

Kai Mattsson

Meritime Consulting
Tmi Meritime

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perjantai 30. tammikuuta 2015

Why Don’t I just get a dog?

Why Don’t I just get a dog?

This is a question that popped into my mind as I again started to train another bizarre animal species.
I’ve been now involved with animal care and training about thirty years. Never in my life have I owned a dog. This does not mean that I would not have been working with one but it seems that I’m bound to work with some more exotic animals.

Most of my experience is related to aquatic environment; like seals, dolphins etc. Lately I've been more involved with domestic animals; ponies, bunnies and also birds.
I do find it interesting to get involved with challenging tasks. Once you get to the goal it is so very rewarding. However sometimes I come to think that why on earth do I have to collect so challenging training tasks? Why not just work with a dog?
I’m sorry for the word “just” – it’s not to give any discredit to any dog trainer / -training. Sometimes it just feels that it would be so much easier.

Banded Archerfish
Anyhow, the latest training task is; Banded archerfish. On the other hand this is one of the very first animals I’ve trained in my early days as aquarist.
Banded archerfish is best known for its ability to spit a jet of water to "shoot down" prey, like small insects or flies. Banded archerfish have mouths adapted to spit jets of water over distance, usually to knock prey into the water. The banded archerfish shoots the jet of water by raising its tongue against the roof of its mouth, forming a tube. The opercula then close quickly, pressurizing water along the tube. 

The shooting ability is genetically imprinted in this fish species but the accuracy of a “shot” is a learned ability. It is even said that they can hit a moving target. Shooting distance can be up to appr. 150 cm.
This school of fishes I started to work with is situated on a public aquarium here in Finland (Särkänniemi Oy, Tampere). At the starting moment none of the fish school individuals were using their special ability to catch prey this way. Often times animals tend to behave on energy based principle. What this means is that they act on a way which is most energy effective way to satisfy their primary needs. Especially this applies for hunting behavior; if there is a way of getting food with less effort and smaller amount of energy loss, it is of course a better option for the animal in question for its survival.
In other words this school of banded archerfishes had been kind of “spoiled”. They have always been fed to the water. It’s been easy for them just be at spot where the food is been delivered. There is no need for using the shooting ability as food is available also without doing so.
The very first experience that I now have with them is reinforcing this theory. I did a feeding platform for getting them spit water to get the food. The platform is made of long ice-cream spoons. Nothing happened during the first trial.

Primary forces
Hunger is a very strong primary force. It even makes some of us humans steal, in order to get our needs to be satisfied. With this case I’ll be using it also on a controlled way. I will not leave those poor fish starving. I believe I can achieve the ultimate goal of “waking up” their unique ability, just by transforming the regular daily feeding schedule to later moment during the day. What the fishes will get is an instant reward of shooting the prey – the lure I've made them in the spoons. This food is available for them earlier during the day - they just need to make a small effort of getting it.
By doing this I’m actually trying to get them frustrated and seek for nourishment from the environment. This is very natural hunting phenomena and it is indeed enriching their environment. So by adding this type of behavioral need in their environment I am getting them mental exercise, especially as this school of fishes has not been using their shooting ability.
At the beginning I used a bit of luring by feeding these fishes underneath the spoons I made for the purpose. I’m also keeping the feeding spot at the beginning in the very same place so that they will understand the connection between food and spoons faster. I am also observing all activity of the fish school because I want to reinforce most of their effort of making the shot by tossing some food underneath the spoons every time any of the individuals is making an effort. At the very beginning the spoons are almost touching the water surface, later once the behavior of shooting the water has been established I will take the  spoons further away from the surface.

Frustration is a difficult matter to be handled once we are using it on animal training. You don’t want to get the animals too frustrated as it will most likely lead into some form of aggression. Even after three days of this exercise with banded archerfish I can already see some territorial or dominant behavior between the fishes in the school.  However if you are capable of using it a properly small amount of frustration your creating a phenomenon called extinction burst.  
Extinction burst is a short timeline in the animal’s behavior when it is trying a bit harder to accomplish the reinforcement it is used to get by performing a certain magnitude of behavior. This is something that is very much programmed into any of us, but it is also a great tool in animal behavior management. However one should be rather talented when we are using this kind of method in molding animal behavior.

By restraining a bit the food intake to these animals I’m convinced that they will be affected by the previously mentioned phenomenon. This will make them search for different ways of getting the reinforcement. Actually after three days of exercise this has been proven to be true – some, not all, individuals of the school of these fishes have started to spit on my lure (the spoon with food in it). And just by the day five I could already raise the spoon appr. 10 cm above the water surface.
I also got a very good experience on how powerful the spitting of water with these rather small fishes is; while I was putting some minced shrimp on the spoon I was shot by one of the fish right at my eye. It was striking how powerful the shot was! No wonder they can get i.e. flies dropped into water by this way.

The process of training this natural ability to this school of fishes is still, while I am writing this article, in the very beginning stage. However the progress after only a few days is extreme – not necessarily surprising but rather vast. The task is to get most of the fishes involved in using their ability to use this preying method. Also one of the clear target is to get the target further away from the fishes so that they have to make shot longer, as they do have according to the literature an ability to make the shot up to 1,5 meters.

This will be an interesting task and if you find it also interesting you can follow the progress on Meritime (my consulting company) Facebook profile at;


Kai Mattsson
animal behaviorist