Guest Blog by Ryan Cartlidge
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Guest Blog by Ryan Cartlidge

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Guest Blog

Communication is Key - By Ryan Cartlidge

My name’s Ryan Cartlidge and I am a positive reinforcement animal trainer & behaviour nerd. I feel really grateful that someone who inspires me a great deal (Sabrina Brando) has invited me to write this guest blog, sharing my thoughts on animal welfare and training.

Whilst contemplating what to write about for this post, there was something that really stood out to me in a recent article written by Kaitlyn Wiktor (the Behavior Management Coordinator of the Fort Wayne’s Children’s Zoo, Indiana USA). Kaitlyn shared the top 5 things she learned after attended the AZA’s* Animal Welfare: Evidence Based Management Course (you can see her full article here).

Number 5 on her list was that communication is key. This really resonated/excited me because communication is something I am really passionate about (and I can only imagine that the learning opportunities on offer at this event would have been tremendous).

I feel an important component of effective communication is our word choice. And in my career working with animal behaviour, I’ve found that the words we use to describe our animals can have a significant impact on how we interact and manage them.

Being a behaviour nerd I really enjoy unpacking the function of our animals behavior. And then using this information to help develop behavioral interventions based on the individual needs of the animal in front of us. One of my favorite tools to help us do this is the ABC;

A – Antecedent (what’s happening in a learners environment before it does the following observable behavior)
B – Behavior (an observable behavior from a learner)
C – Consequence (what happens in the learners environment after it does the previous observable behaviour)

For example:

A – Human says sit
B – Dog sits
C – Human offers dog a bite sized piece of chicken.

Antecedents set the occasion for behavior to occur and consequences then provide information about whether the learner should repeat, modify or suppress that behavior in the future. As one of my mentors Dr. Susan Friedman says – “behavior does not happen in a vacuum.” It’s illogical to view the observable behavior without the context of the environment (antecedents & consequences) that it occurs within.

Learning about ABC’s, early in my career, helped me realise the importance of communication in managing behavior and ultimately to animal welfare. Not only in our communication with each other but also our own internal dialogue. I learned that antecedents and consequences make up 2/3’s of any ABC equation. Also that the antecedents and consequences are - for the most part - under our control.

This information helped me frame the way I communicated about behavior to myself. Additionally I became more aware of how others communicated to each other in team environments. Numerous times in my career I have been part of teams where an alternative way of looking at behavior was used. In some situations the whole ABC was seemingly replaced with a single label. Some examples of labels I’ve encountered are stubborn, aggressive, dominant, over-aroused and mischievous.

In certain situations, I feel that the use of labels removes responsibility from us. Specifically the responsibility to provide antecedents and consequences that will help the animal be successful. To demonstrate I will share a story below;

I want to introduce you to a past friend of mine... a goose called security (Australian Magpie goose). Security was one of the earliest animals I ever intentionally trained. He was labelled an aggressive bird as he'd been up to some rather undesirable behaviours around the zoo where I was working at the time. He was a free roaming animal and sometimes would chase visitors, fly towards them, use his beak to stab at their shoes and other behaviours along those lines. Unfortunately one day security was involved in an incident where a baby buggy got knocked over - luckily no one was harmed and the parents were very understanding, but obviously a repeat of that situation was highly undesirable.
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Short of options at the time, Security ended up living in the bird show area where I was working. He lived in an exhibit with a young Broga crane (a very tall bird species from Australia). In this new environment, security carried on with the previously mentioned behaviours. He would fly at keepers heads, stab at their boots and generally speaking made life challenging for the people looking after him (including me). The other challenge was that the crane sharing the space with security was in the process of learning new behaviours so it could eventually participate in an educational program for zoo visitors.

At this time, I was right at the beginning of my journey with regards to behaviour management and positive reinforcement animal training. And at the zoo where we were based, no one had come up with a positive solution to the challenges security was presenting us with. However euthanasia was discussed as one possible outcome due to aggression.

I remember thinking that this really didn't sit right with me. So I went on a mission - learning all I could about behavior management, animal training, positive reinforcement and environmental arrangement - so that we could help set security up for success.

One important element I started learning about was how the use of labels placed upon animals can actually inhibit our ability to successfully intervene with their behaviours. So one of the first things I did was remove the label aggressive from security within my own head. Instead I started examining to the best of my ability what was possibly reinforcing his behaviours (consequences) and under what antecedents they occurred. And I asked a question that I'm not sure if anyone else was asking it at the time. And that question was, yes, we wanted security to stop flying at our heads, and yes, we wanted security to stop stabbing at our boots, but what did we want him to do instead?

Now that question is so important. I'm going to repeat it. Yes, we wanted him to stop doing behaviours we might label as undesirable, but what did we want him doing instead? Immediately after asking that question, something happened. Suddenly more desirable behaviours started to come into my mind.

We watched Security eat and saw what his favourite food item was - corn. We then used corn as positive reinforcement to teach security, some new and more desirable behaviours. In fact, he liked corn so much that he learnt within one week to stand on a painted square piece of wood when we entered his exhibit. Doing that stationing behaviour was incompatible with flying at our heads and stabbing at our boots. We were on our way.

We also examined the space Security was living in and brainstormed how we could possibly work to change that space and set things up for security to be more successful. We then modified his exhibit and once again using positive reinforcement, security learned some new behaviours. He learned to voluntarily place himself within an area of the exhibit where we could keep him separated whilst we trained Reuben.

Once I had acquired new information, completed my ABC’s & removed labels, we could then ask quality questions, teach new behaviors using positive reinforcement and modify his environment to help set him for success.

Security hasn't been the only animal in my career where euthanasia has been discussed alongside a heavy use of labelling and a minimal to non existent use of the ABC’s. I believe the language we use and the way we communicate about behavior can really limit our ability to effectively employ behavioural change interventions. Consequently, I personally resonate with Kaitlyn Wiktor (the author of the blog linked at the start of this blog). Communication is key to animal welfare!

I do encourage you to continually flex your communication muscles, sharpen that saw and build on the skills you already have. In my opinion - if we want positive welfare and animal training outcomes - there is value in additionally focusing on ourselves.

Thank you for inviting me into your training and welfare story by taking the time to read this blog post. I’m excited to hear any thoughts and/or feelings you might have on the ideas expressed within.

Best Regards,
Ryan Cartlidge
Animal Training Academy

* AZA = Association of Zoos and Aquarium.
* FAID = Function Assessment & Intervention design