Lessons From Shedd: Environmental Manipulation

Setting your animal up for success is one of the key qualities of a successful trainer. This concept can take many forms, but one of the most important is your ability to manage your animal’s environment. Environmental management minimizes distractions, prevents your animal from making mistakes, and allows you to focus on shaping and rewarding those behaviors that you like.

This black and white Tegu is provided with a comfortable square of astroturf, which serves to keep him in one spot during his training session in front of our class.

One frequent argument that opponents of positive reinforcement training make is that reward-based training is ineffective in an emergency or uncontrolled situation. “Clicker training may be great,” they say, “but what good is it going to do when my dog is chasing a squirrel towards the highway?” “How is it going to stop my dog from barking at the fence in the middle of the night?” “Are you telling me that I can’t tell my dog ‘no’ when he’s biting the delivery man in the face?”

All of these arguments ignore one of the most important facets of reinforcement-based training, which is setting the animal up for success. My response to questions such as these is always the same, “Why would you allow your dog to be in that situation in the first place?” If your dog does not have a good recall, why is he off leash in an unfenced area? If he tends to bark at noises, why is he outside unsupervised in the middle of the night? If you haven’t socialized him to delivery people, why would you allow him to interact with one? A smart trainer knows what their dog can handle, and doesn’t put the dog in situations that will overface him.

In order to manage your dog’s environment, you must be honest with yourself about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Using gates, crates, tethers, leashes, visual barriers, and the like will allow you to set your dog up to be successful. Smart trainers set the environment up for optimal learning.

When my shy adolescent dog, Dobby, began growling and barking at people as they walked past the house, I covered the front window so that he could no longer look out. Preventing him from practicing this behavior was a form of environmental management. I was then able to teach him to accept people walking past by sitting on my front steps with him on leash and rewarding him for calm behavior when people walked by.

Trainers at Shedd aquarium reduce the risk of aggressive behavior from the sea lions by always leaving a clear path to the water for the animals. If an animal becomes frightened, he can go back to the pool where he’s comfortable, and is therefore more likely to choose flight than to aggress at the trainer. The beluga whales are taught new behaviors in quiet areas away from the public before those behaviors are proofed in the noisier and more chaotic locations. Animals of many species are taught to go to specific targets so that they can easily be separated out from the group and so that large groups of animals can be worked together.

How do you manage your dog’s environment to set him up for success? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

3 responses to “Lessons From Shedd: Environmental Manipulation

  1. When my middle dog was on a high dose of Prednisone he was understandably very hungry, and started getting into the garbage and cupboards when left home unsupervised. This is a dog who had never done this in his whole life, so we knew it was from his medication. I can’t crate him due to a severe crate anxiety, so we simply put the garbage can away and blocked off the kitchen and we had no further problems.

    To prevent my dogs from eating kitty litter or cat food, it is put either in the basement (blocked by a door with a cat door for kitty access) or the back room which is blocked off with a gate the cats can jump over but the dogs can’t.

  2. I have no comment about the article body itself except to say I train large reptiles on a regular basis and Argentine tegus are quite fun to teach things to. :)

  3. This is no different than positive reinforcement for our little human children toddlers for example as they begin to reach that exploring touching everything age. If I don’t want him touching all of the beautiful breakable pretties in grandmother’s living room, then I just block off the entry to that room. I don’t ask her to rearrange her house and I don’t spend our lovely afternoon visit smacking little hands in the living room. We simply gather in another room.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s