How to Train Your Goldfish

Col. Konrad Most, one of the pioneers of modern animal training, began training service dogs while serving in the Royal Prussian Police in 1906. His book on the subject, Training Dogs, described many of the basic elements of operant conditioning—including reinforcement, extinction, and shaping—that American behaviorist B.F. Skinner would later popularize. If Most were alive today, he’d probably get a kick out of the Canis Film Festival, which features videos of owners using operant conditioning to train their pups, and appreciate that the same principles he used to train his dogs are now applied to many other species, including chickens, llamas, and even fish.

The Commercialization of Animal Training

In 1943, Marian and Keller Breland, who had worked under Skinner, founded Animal Behavior Enterprises in Minnesota.

(As one of the commenters on Matt Soniak’s recent article about the CIA’s plan to use cats as spies said, an entire article could be devoted to Marian Breland’s life.)

At ABE, the Brelands trained all sorts of species for television and movie roles, circuses, theme parks, and zoos. The couple helped establish positive reinforcement, rather than punishment, as the preferred technique to train animals. ABE-trained chickens were advertising farm feeds by 1947, and the Brelands authored an instruction manual about behavioral analysis for other trainers. Keller Breland died in 1965, the same year that Bob Bailey, who was the first Director of Training in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, joined ABE. Marian married Bob and became Marian Breland Bailey in 1976. Twenty years later, the couple founded Bailey & Bailey Operant Conditioning Workshops.

Here are a few examples of animals that are trained using operant conditioning today.

Chickens

In 1975, Terry and Bill Ryan founded Legacy Canine Behavior & Training. During the 1980s, the couple began hosting canine training camps in their home state of Washington. Turnout was strong from the start, but the Ryans wanted to broaden the reach of their training. In an effort to make the camps more accessible to owners who were unable to travel with their dogs, they started teaching the basics of operant conditioning, including the importance of rewarding a behavior at the correct time, by using rats in Skinner boxes.

In the early 1990s, Terry Ryan teamed with Kang Shallenberger, a retired dolphin trainer of 25 years at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park, and began using chickens as training models. “With a dog, you want to take short cuts and skip steps,” Shallenberger told the Lewiston Morning Tribune in 1993. “But as soon as you skip a step with a chicken, you’re lost.” Chicken training, which the Brelands had demonstrated nearly 50 years earlier, became an increasingly popular way for dog owners to hone their training technique.

Today, chicken training camps and workshops are held throughout the world. The aforementioned Bob Bailey, who has appeared as a guest at Legacy camps in the past, hosted chicken training seminars until his retirement in 2008. Using simple clicker training, chickens can be taught to play Tic-Tac-Toe and navigate obstacle courses.

Fish For $29.99, the R2 Fish School will give you the tools to teach your fish to “shoot hoops, limbo dance, play fetch, kick a goal, and much more.” The training kit uses positive reinforcement to combat the notion that fish only have 3-second memories. According to the site, “fish have shown the ability to swim through mazes, identify different colors, recognize types of music and even tell time.” The most famous graduate of the R2 Fish School is Albert Einstein, a goldfish, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for the fish with the most tricks. Fish that successfully complete the training course receive a diploma.

Cats
Among the many training-related products sold on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website is a cat training kit that will help you teach your cat to come when called, play without scratching, and perform cute tricks. Are you sold? Clicker training, which Pryor popularized during her many years as a dolphin trainer, can also be used to toilet train your cat. Pryor launched the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior in 2007.

Alpacas and Llamas
According to her website, Cathy Spalding has been “actively involved with llamas and alpacas” since 1985. During that time, she has organized a Llama and Alpaca Symposium in Kansas City and authored a behavioral textbook, Llama Talk, which details llama behavioral cues. The resource is used by a number of schools, including the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell. Spalding teaches behavior and training clinics and offers private sessions. If you’ve ever wanted to train your pet llama to jump through a hoop or ring a bell, this is the blog for you.

Pigs

Priscilla Valentine claims her Potbellied Pig Behavior and Training Manual is the first and only book completely devoted to the behavior and training of pigs, and we’re inclined to believe her. Valentine’s pigs have performed at state fairs and other events throughout the country, and garnered numerous awards, including the Potbellied Pig Trick Champion title. Priscilla, who trains her pigs with her husband Steve, says she became fascinated with the animals after she was given a rubber pig as a toy when she was 3.

The Valentines’ most famous pig, Nellie, became a national sensation in 1991 after starring in “Jurassic Pork,” which won the couple $10,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos. The Valentines’ training manual features tips for addressing problematic behaviors such as rooting and nipping, and includes a 10-step program for reducing aggressiveness in house pigs.

Middle School Student Discovers Megalodon Tooth Fossil on Spring Break

iStock.com/Mark Kostich
iStock.com/Mark Kostich

A few million years ago, the megalodon was the most formidable shark in the sea, with jaws spanning up to 11 feet wide and a stronger bite than a T. Rex. Today the only things left of the supersized sharks are fossils, and a middle school student recently discovered one on a trip to the beach, WECT reports.

Avery Fauth was spending spring break with her family at North Topsail Beach in North Carolina when she noticed something buried in the sand. She dug it up and uncovered a shark tooth the length of her palm. She immediately knew she had found something special, and screamed to get her family's attention.

Her father recognized the megalodon tooth: He had been searching for one for 25 years and had even taught his three daughters to scour the sand for shark teeth whenever they went to the beach. Avery and her sisters found a few more shark teeth that day from great whites, but her megalodon fossil was by far the most impressive treasure from the outing.

Megalodons dominated seas for 20 million years before suddenly dying out 3 million years ago. They grew between 43 and 82 feet long and had teeth that were up to 7.5 inches long—over twice the size of a great white's teeth. They're thought to be the largest sharks that ever lived.

Megalodon teeth have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica, but they're still a rare find. Avery Fauth plans to keep her fossil in a special box at home.

[h/t WECT]

Watch the Denver Zoo’s New Baby Sloth Cuddle Up With Its Mom

Denver Zoo
Denver Zoo

If you’re a sucker for itty, bitty, furry animals, then you’ll want to drop whatever it is you’re doing and check out this video of the Denver Zoo’s newest resident. Uploaded by The Denver Post, the video shows a week-old sloth clinging to its mother, and it’s almost too cute to handle.

The healthy baby, whose name and sex have not yet been determined, was born on April 11 to its proud sloth parents: 23-year-old Charlotte Greenie and 28-year-old Elliot. It also has an older sister, named Baby Ruth, who was born in January of last year. Dad and Baby Ruth are “temporarily off-exhibit” to give mom and her newborn baby the chance to rest and bond in their habitat—an indoor aviary that's part of the zoo's Bird World exhibit.

The baby belongs to one of six species of sloth called the Linne's two-toed sloth, which is native to the rainforests of South America and are not currently considered threatened. Unlike their distant relatives the three-toed sloths, two-toed sloths are mostly nocturnal creatures. They also tend to move faster than their three-clawed counterparts, although fast is putting it generously.

Like many things sloths do, the baby was slow to arrive. Zoo officials predicted that Charlotte would give birth as early as January, but the expected due date may have been a miscalculation.

“Sloth due dates are notoriously challenging to predict because sloths are primarily active at night and we rarely observe their breeding,” the zoo said in a statement. “Our animal care team closely monitored Charlotte for months to ensure that she and the baby were healthy and gaining the appropriate amount of weight.”

The baby is expected to cling to its mother for at least six months. Zoo officials say the best time to visit mom and baby is in the late afternoon, when Charlotte is more likely to be active.

[h/t The Denver Post]

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