Creative Shift Training with a Bear

By Barbara Heidenreich

If you are having challenges training an animal to shift, look at the full course Training Animals to Shift Reliably. It goes into all the “do’s and don’ts” of successful shift training as well as detailed steps. However, this example is not in the course.

What is different about this example is the strategy we use to give the animal information on where to go. In the course I talk about targeting, stationing, recall, and luring. The challenge with this enclosure was that there wasn’t an easy way to present a target where we wanted the animal to go. This meant we needed to use a different strategy to communicate to the bear. We could have worked on training a laser target. However, that might have taken some time. Instead we opted for the following.

You will notice we start the action with a few reps of luring but then quickly switch to free shaping. This means at first the bear follows the apple thrown out the door. What we hope will happen is after a few repetitions the bear will anticipate an apple is going to be thrown outside and will offer movement in the direction of the door. If we see any action towards the door this can be bridged and reinforced. And this is what happens.

As the trainer works out his mechanics, he uses a combination of timing of delivery of reinforcers for when the animal presents the behavior and trying to use a bridging stimulus. Things are a little rocky at first as timing and mechanics get worked out, but gets smoother with repetition.

You will notice some other factors that are important to successful communication. These include the following:

  • No food inside. Food is not offered for returning to the trainer. We want it to be more reinforcing for the animal to go outside at this stage of the training.
  • A high value reinforcer is offered for going outside – This has to do with the Matching Law. If the animal has a choice between doing two behaviors (stay in or go out) it will do the one that earns the best consequences. Right now, all the good things have happened inside for training sessions. We need to teach her even better things will happen for moving outside.
  • The reinforcer is delivered outside (most of the time- there are a few bad tosses here and there) This is feeding for position. The bear is being fed where we want her to be so that she is more inclined to go outside.
  • The trainer tries to hide the food when the bear is inside so that she is not tempted to want to stay near the trainer.
  • This approach takes good observational skills of animal body language and good timing of delivery of reinforcers (and/or bridging stimulus if used)
  • When the session ends, the bear is offered extra food items to enjoy as trainers exit. She is an animal that very much enjoys training sessions, attention from keepers and food. By offering her something while keepers walk away we try to prevent the end of a sessionsignal from becoming something the animal views as aversive.

This was this animal’s first session on the behavior. And in just 8 minutes she was well on her way to understanding. It is very likely in just one or two more sessions this behavior could be under stimulus control.

Side Note: The cue is best presented one time and at the moment one thinks the animal is very likely to present the behavior. This helps teach quick response to the cue is part of the criteria and that the cue is the word being said one time (not several.)



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