#41 - How to Train Any Species

[00:00:00] Allie: But really one of the things that I learned with training a species that is not as domesticated as dogs. Yes, rabbits are domesticated to a point, one of the biggest things I learned was about how to incorporate agency into my training sessions. Really having those training sessions being a two-way communication instead of I, the human want to teach you the animal how to do a thing that I want you to be able to do.

Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:47] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:48] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Michelle Martiya, and one of the topics we discussed was working with multiple species. This week we’re going to dive further into training a species other than dogs and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about a happy tarantula swinging its little legs, a coatimundi dropping from the trees, and how rabbits just go away if they don’t want to work with you. Let’s get to it.

We’ve obviously talked about working with other species before, but I’m excited to talk about actually training other species than dogs, and using those experiences to improve the training that we do with dogs.

[00:01:53] Emily:  Yeah, and this is a really exciting topic for me because it, in almost every enrichment plan, training is a part of it. We have to build skills in order for an animal to be behaviorally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically healthy, and teach them how to be the best version of themselves and do all the species typical things, and so for us to learn how to do that for other species, it’s so impactful on how we bring that back to dogs.

[00:02:23] Allie: And even if you primarily work with, or have dogs in your life, I think what Michelle said about training other species improves your skills is so true.

[00:02:33] Emily:  Exactly. I think it’s almost more important if you only work with dogs to get some experience with other species. If you’re already prone to working with other species then, or multiple species I should say, then you’re gonna see less of an impact from adding another species on. But if this is, if you really only work with dogs, then having at least one of their species that you’ve had experience with, having that relationship and teaching, it’s just gonna open up a whole new world of possibilities for you and help you to think outside of the box in terms of what’s possible, what are some ways that we can approach behavior issues creatively, thinking about behavior change in an enrichment framework, all of those things. For sure. If you only have worked with dogs, definitely go out there and get yourself another species.

[00:03:21] Allie: So, today’s implementation opportunity is a little bit bigger than what we’ve done in the past, and that is to teach a behavior to a species other than dogs, or whatever your primary species is, if you are a cat person, then to teach a behavior to a species other than cats, so on and so forth.

And then to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between working with those species to improve your training skillset. So, the first thing let’s be real, the first thing is find another animal to work with. That is actually the first step of this. And this could be an animal in your home, both Emily and I have talked about we have multi-species households, Emily, you have the dogs and the birds. I have dog, and turtle, and fish, and snails, I guess if you wanna include everything that lives in, in that tank. So, it could be another species in your household that you don’t normally train, or it could be a friend or a family member’s pet, or like Michelle suggested last week that could even involve volunteering at a shelter or rescue and working with animals in their care.

And I don’t know about your experience with this, Emily, but when I’ve offered to train other species besides dogs in, in shelters or rescues, they are so excited about that opportunity. Not many people ask to do that.

[00:04:44] Emily:  Yes. That’s also been my experience.

[00:04:46] Allie: Yeah. So, the first step is to actually determine who you are going to work with, and then once you’ve done that, you’ll need to search for the natural history of the species you’d like to work with. And there are a lot of things, you could go down many rabbit holes with this, but what we typically recommend folks look for is anything about their natural behaviors that might be relevant to the training process. For example, with my turtle, Zorro, a natural behavior is chasing fish. That’s a thing that aquatic turtles do, semi -aquatic turtles, terrapins, if we’re being extra specific here of, of what of what he is. And so, a behavior that we would do together when he was in a, a glass aquarium was play follow the finger where, and he would do this with anybody who wanted to play, follow the finger with him. It didn’t just have to be me, where we would move our finger across the glass, and he would chase after our finger. So, that’s an example of a natural behavior that I could turn into a learned behavior if I wanted to.

And really, we did. The cue was the finger moving across the glass, and we did it mostly because it was entertaining to us. But it also elicited natural behaviors for him, so part of his enrichment plan, though at the time I was not thinking of it in that regard. So, you’ll want to look for natural behaviors that might be relevant to the training process, or natural behaviors that you want to elicit more of and teach them how to perform those skills better or more frequently.

And really importantly, if you’re using food in your training, you need to learn what they eat and how to feed them. And that seems like something where it’s like, what do you mean how to feed them? You just give them the food. It depends on the species, y’all. For example, with Zorro with, with red eared sliders like him, they have to eat underwater. So, if I were to train something on land, I would have to figure out how to have an extra water component in order to be able to eat. For, if we’re looking, birds, what’s an example for birds?

[00:06:59] Emily:  So, a good example is with cockatiels.. Cockatiels tends to be grass and seed eaters, now in captivity, we have to feed them more than that because lots of differences. But I worked with a lot of really scared cockatiels who were scared to approach people, and were not trusting of hands, because hands had always been really scary to them in the past. And the way that I would actually train them and get them to approach me and be willing to eventually take food from me was by using a millet spray to feed them.

Because millet sprays are really long and they have this kind of branching shape to them and they move like branches, and so I can hold a millet spray and still be relatively far away from the cockatiel, and they can come up and pick the millet off of the spray in a species typical behavior way, without having to get close to me. So, I can start working with them by utilizing that species-typical behavior, and not only the food that they eat, but the way that they eat it, to build a relationship with them so that later I can feed them in other ways as well in training. So, I work up to being able to hand them food, but I’ll start with a millet spray.

[00:08:09] Allie: So, if you’re going to use food and training, you have to know how they need to eat that food or how they prefer to eat that food if you’re going to be as effective as possible.

[00:08:19] Emily:  So, the next takeaway is to that discussion that we had with Michelle last week about body language. We don’t always get to learn the body language of a new species because there’s not a whole lot of information about body language on in most non domesticated species.

And so, a lot of that is just learning how to observe their body language, notice what is similar between their body language, and maybe a similar species that you’re already familiar with. And also notice what is different. So, a good example of that is I was working with pigs, and I didn’t know a lot about pigs.

I mean, I knew some medical stuff because I had worked in a large animal veterinary practice, but I did know a lot about pig behavior, or body language at the time, cuz I was brand new to them. But I was able to pretty quickly figure out their body language because there’s actually a lot of similarities between pig body language and dog body language.

Like they wag their tails, and the wag doesn’t always mean they’re happy. They do the little excited tap dance just like dogs do. They get wiggly, and, and loose when they’re happy. They do smile, they do like an open mouth, relaxed smile. So, there are a lot of things that I was able to recognize in pigs.

Oh, they also, even though their mouths are shaped very differently than dogs, they have a version of the pursed lips, commissure forward, scowl thing that dogs do that tells me I’m about to get in trouble with this piggy if I don’t stop doing whatever I’m doing. So, I was able to learn pretty quickly what pig body language looked like because there were a lot of similarities between dogs and pigs.

And then, I also learned what’s different between dogs and pigs. And a lot of times when they come up, and they’re doing a nuzzling, poking behavior, I made the mistake of interpreting that as doggy kind of friendly exploration, and what I learned is that a lot of times they’re like, it’s a warning signal for pigs.

So, I, I learned that is a difference in body language between pigs and dogs. So, there are things like that, that if you, if there’s a similar species that you can work with, you can draw those comparisons and then also figure out what’s different, and really quickly, relatively speaking, learn what their body language means, and what they’re communicating with you.

[00:10:36] Allie: And even if you’re choosing a species that is not very similar to somebody you’ve worked with in the past, and it’s a species that is difficult to find body language information on, I would say that you can find a little bit on many species, but it’s, there’s room for growth, in the information that is out there with that.

But there are going to be some things that tend to be more universal. Where if an animal is avoiding you, they are avoiding you. It doesn’t matter if they are a turtle, or dog, or pig, or rabbit, or bird, or cat. If they’re avoiding you, they’re avoiding you, if they’re hiding. So, there are going to be those things that transcend species as well, and those are just as important to watch for as the more subtle body language signal.

[00:11:27] Emily:  Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I think one of the ones that I really utilize a lot when I’m working with new species, which unfortunately isn’t as common these days as it used to be. But I feel like in my twenties and thirties I was meeting a new species almost every week, and what one of the things that I looked at was, if there are tense muscles, that means there’s some kind of stress.

It could be eustress, but that indicates a level of arousal, and if they’re loose, and loosey goosey, that’s typically means that they’re relaxed, and it’s either low arousal, or happy stress. So, that I have yet to meet a species for whom that isn’t true. That is a really good indicator, and it’s even true for working with spiders and praying mantids.

So, like even insects, when they get really stiff and still, even though they don’t have muscles, they have an exoskeleton. There’s that same like, that stiffness, and that tension typically indicates some kind of arousal and looser, slower, goosey body language typically indicates that they’re feeling alright.

I took care of some tarantulas, that I knew nothing about tarantula body language, but they would come up on my hand, and plunk their little bodies down, and hang their little legs off the either side of my hand, and swing their little leggies, and the, I don’t have to know much about spider body language to know that they were really feeling relaxed and safe in my hand when they did that.

On the other hand, if they’re like tense, and really up high on their legs, and backing away, and especially if those front legs come up, that tells me they’re feeling threatened. I don’t have to know a lot about spider body language to figure that out, deduce that from my work with every other species, right? So even species that don’t have muscles still seem to have that tension equals arousal, lack of tension, loosey goosey equals low arousal, relaxation, whatever.

[00:13:17] Allie: The more species you work with, the more similarities you get to see.

So, you have researched your species as best you can, you have met the individual in front of you, and you’ve observed what they’re saying to you, and who they are saying they are. And then the next thing is to train a thing, train a behavior just like you normally would.

If you would typically shape a dog to go onto their place, you can shape a cat to go onto their place. You can shape a rabbit to do the same thing. If you would lure a dog into a sit, you can lure a cat into a sit, so on and so forth. Obviously, birds and sitting is a little bit different, but you can train that behavior just like you would with the species that you typically work with.

And while you’re training, observe what is similar and what’s different in terms of the training process between those species. Between the new species you’re working with and the species you’re already familiar with. So for example, If I am training Oso and Zorro to do similar behaviors, Zorro’s latency period is going to look very different than Oso’s.

Reptiles move slowly, they move slowly, they respond slowly, they eat fairly slowly, all things considered. And so, the amount of time that I, I would, have Zorro figuring it out, having those little wheels turn is probably longer than for Oso, where I would give him feedback more quickly of like, “Okay, that’s not what I’m looking for. Let me try again. Let me figure out how to teach this in a different way.” So, for those two species, latency period would be different. For teaching a cat versus a dog, the same behavior. Cat stomachs fill much quicker than dog stomachs do, and so I typically have much shorter training sessions with cats than I do with dogs.

So, you’ll, you’re going to see these differences in the training process, but ultimately one of the things that we want you to look for is how similar it really can be to work with different species.

[00:15:25] Emily: All right, so one of my favorite stories relating to having to whirlwind learn how to train a new species without knowing anything about them very well, very much about them is when I, I used to work for a wildlife rehab that was owned by a couple out in the middle of nowhere, and they had, they ended up with a coatimundi even though they’re not native to Texas, they’re a South American species.

Someone must have gotten this animal as a pet and either, she escaped, or they just dumped her out in the woods, who knows? But she showed up injured, and couldn’t be rereleased or, not rereleased in the wild, but couldn’t be rehomed for lots of reasons. And so, she would just live there at the wildlife rehab. So, for those of you who don’t know, coatimundis are very similar to raccoons.

They’re related to raccoons and also, they’re similar in terms of their behavior, and their body language, and they’ve just got a lot going on in terms of raccoony-ness. So, think about everything that a raccoon is, and then imagine that animal is longer, and has a longer piggy snout and you’ve got a coatimundi.

So, this little girl was delightful, but the woman who ran the wildlife rehab warned me that when you would go out to the antelope enclosure, she liked to follow you in the trees. She would run through the trees and make all these little squeaky noises.

And then when you would stop at the antelope enclosure, she would drop down onto you and poke her little nose in your hair. The woman who ran the wildlife rehab told me that it would make her scream because she, it would just be sudden and startling and then this like little animal nose is like getting in your hair. And so, I did a little tiny baby bit of research on coatimundi cuz I was like, “What’s going on here?”

It seems obvious that this little girl is reinforced by the startle response that she’s getting, but why the hair nosing afterwards? Cause the startle response is happening, before the, the nose and the hair stuff is, right? And it was very persistent nose in the hair. And so, I did a little research and I found out that coatimundis, when they’re younger, they run around in these groups, and they all kind of cackle and make noises and are basically like loud and obnoxious together.

And I don’t know how old this coatimundi was when I was working with her, but what a, a lot of times what we see in captivity is that juvenile behaviors last longer than they do in the wild. And so, it’s reasonable to think that she would have continued doing this behavior, but she didn’t have anybody to do it with.

So, I thought maybe one of the things is that she wants to, she’s running around in the trees, she’s making all this noise, she’s doing what they do, but normally this is a group activity, so it may be that she’s trying to get this woman to be a part of that, activity. And then the other thing that occurred to me is the woman who ran this wildlife rehab told me that these coatimundi they use their nose, to dig in and get food.

So, they’ll dig into insect burrows, or dig into to get seeds, or whatever. They’re omnivorus and they use those long piggy snouts to get into places to get food out, so it seems to me, based on what I had been told by the woman who ran this place, that was a foraging behavior.

So, what I would do is I would put on a backpack before I would go out to the antelope enclosure, and I would stuff it with rolled up paper, and bath sponges, and different things, and then put food in that backpack among all the stuffed stuff.

And I started with putting some very visible and kind of smellier foods on the top, so that when she jumped down on me, she would be able to see and smell stinky foods. And so, I would put this backpack on and then I would acknowledge her when we’d start to head out. I’d be like, “Okay, are you ready to go?”

And then she’d run through the trees and start doing her little cackling, whooping thing, and I would try to imitate her. I’d be like, “Woo, woo.” And we’d just make a bunch of noise together. And I would move like she was.

And then, before I got to the antelope enclosure, I would stop and look up at her, and I’d be like, ” What’s in my bag? Do you wanna come look?” She would stop and she’d look at me, and she’d be like, “Oh, I can’t. I can’t dead drop this girl, she knows that I’m here.” So, she’d come down, and start nosing through the backpack instead of nosing into my hair, which I really appreciated cuz I have very thick, curly hair and it gets tangled, and like having an animal nose around in my hair is just a recipe for mats, so I really appreciated having an alternative behavior for her. But that was immediately effective. I never had a problem with her just doing that, like startle drop on me, and nosing through my hair because I was able to figure out where this was coming from in terms of species typical behaviors and what she was getting out of it.

The whooping and the making noise and the jumping on me was that social bonding contact calling thing that they do. And the nosing around in my hair was a foraging behavior, so let’s actually give her foraging. And so that was just my backpack, and it didn’t take her very long to know when I put on that backpack, ” Oh, Nelly. We were about to go on an adventure.” And she would get so excited. So, that is a really good example of like, you really don’t have to know a lot about a species, just do a little bit of research and map what you know, about similar species, and you can usually come up with a good training solution.

[00:20:43] Allie: I should have gone first, your story’s way more exciting than mine.

[00:20:46] Emily:  I think it’s important for us to have one exotic animal story and a dog story, right? You gotta, We gotta do both.

[00:20:52] Allie: I was gonna do a rabbit.

[00:20:53] Emily:  Oh, okay. Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about, rabbits are super exciting.

[00:20:57] Allie: But the story is just not very exciting. It’s like I trained to rabbit . Here’s what I learned.

[00:21:00] Emily:  Okay, tell me what you learned about Jessica The Rabbit.

[00:21:03] Allie: My story is about a rabbit named Jessica. Yes, Jessica Rabbit. You’ve heard that correctly. Any who, I was an intern at a sanctuary, and they had multiple species. And I really wanted to try training another species, up until that point, I had really only trained dogs. I had a cat growing up, but I didn’t train her per se. We would do things together. We would play together, but it wasn’t like a proper training session that we ever did together. And so, I really wanted to try my hand training in other species and for whatever reason, decided rabbits were the species that I really wanted to train at this moment.

I’m so glad I did. I absolutely love them. I learned so much from it. But really one of the things that I learned with training a species that is not as domesticated as dogs. Yes, rabbits are domesticated to a point, and one of the biggest things I learned was about how to incorporate agency into my training sessions, and really having those training sessions being a two-way communication instead of I, the human want to teach you the animal how to do a thing that I want you to be able to do.

And the biggest reason for that is rabbits will just go away if they don’t want to work with you. Very similar to cats in my experience. If they’re like, there’s nothing in this for me, I’m just going to leave, and I don’t care about you, or your feelings. And, and so, Jessica Rabbit, she was a pretty gregarious rabbit as rabbits go, she was quite outgoing which is why I chose her. I did end up working with other rabbits in that area as well, and worked on some of the rabbits that were not as comfortable with humans. There was a rabbit who would bite people.

I worked with that one, but Jessica was my rabbit love. And we just did cute tricks together. There, there was nothing that we were particularly working on. It was really, she was teaching me how to train other species. And so, we, what did we teach? We taught a nose to hand target for her. There was a nose to nose, which was super cute. There was a two paw up on my hand. There were, I think, a few other behaviors in there. And used cheerios and cilantro as the the treats de jure for her.

But she ultimately taught me how to really stop, and listen, and observe in a training session to see how is my learner doing? How are, how frustrated are they? And do they want to actually be learning the thing that they are learning? The reason that I was able to do that was because if she didn’t want to do those things again, she would just go away and lay in the sand and I would just watch her lying in the sand, which was very cute, but not ultimately my goal. That’s my story.

[00:23:52] Emily:  I love that. Okay, so, my story might have been more exciting, but your story was definitely cuter. bunnies are the cutest. And you’re right, Bundini who is living with Peter and Dana right now because we can’t have him at our house. It was very much like that too. he’ll work with me, and work with me, and then if I do something that he doesn’t like, he’s like, “And scene, we’re done for the day. Bye.” And yeah, you’re right. I think rabbits are very good teachers in terms of not pushing your learner too far, and making sure that they are really comfortable, and they are choosing to engage. They’re much less tolerant of our pushiness than dogs tend to be.

[00:24:28] Allie: They’re not here for our nonsense.

[00:24:30] Emily:  They’re not here for it at all. Yeah.

[00:24:31] Allie: So, today we talked about training a species other than dogs to hone your training skills. This could be another pet in your household, or a friend or family member’s pet, or Michelle suggested last week, this could involve volunteering at a shelter rescue.

To train another species, you’ll start by searching for the natural history, including what they eat and how to feed them.

Then you’ll observe body language to develop those communication skills with this new species, and to start learning who they are.

Choose a behavior to train and get started just like you would with a dog. Be sure to observe what is similar and what is different in terms of the training process. And we are really interested in hearing what you find out through, throughout this activity. So be sure to tell us, tag us at pet harmony training. I’m really excited to hear your similarities and differences and takeaways from this one.

Next week we will be talking with Dr. Kristina Spaulding about The Stress Factor in Dogs. This interview was so cool. I find that whether I’m talking to a pet parent about their personal pet, or a professional about their clients, one of the most valuable pieces of information that I can teach is about how stress impacts behavior. I get so much feedback from folks about how that information has drastically helped them to work with their pets. So, I am so excited that you get to hear this interview next week.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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