Being Trained by Rufio - My Natural Encounters Adventure
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
I am an LGD trainer - so what does that have to do with training a Macaw?! Quite a lot!
I have been chasing my formal education about behavior and training for several years now. I have learned a ton! But NONE of it was about guardian dogs. ALL of what I have learned I have had to adapt to my needs with LGDs. And ALL of the scientific principles and learning theories are applicable to LGDs, as they are to all animals. The motivation that drives behavior for all these animals is different. This is where the training toolbox comes in, and the artistry of training.
In November 2022 I traveled from Oregon to Florida to become a student in a five-day training workshop at the Natural Encounters facility. I have lots of photos, and lots of memories, of my time there so I will have to work at keeping this blog post reasonably short and to the point. We'll see!
Steve Martin, the owner and CEO of Natural Encounters, and his team of training professionals travel worldwide to offer training consultations to zoos, marine mammal facilities, and anywhere they feel they can assist keepers and trainers. They promote positive reinforcement training solutions, often empowering animals in training for husbandry behaviors, as an example. In many cases, animals can learn to voluntarily participate in situations that once necessitated physical restraint and sedation.
Again, this team of professionals assists conservation efforts through education, but the Natural Encounters facility in Florida is also home to extensive breeding populations of rare and endangered birds. These birds are then reintroduced into wild populations to improve genetic diversity.
This is the educational aspect of NEI. They offer many educational opportunities through both online courses and in-person workshops. And this is where my story begins:
The Professional Contemporary Animal Training and Management Workshop is a five-day in-person workshop offered twice a year to a total of 48 students. This workshop is attended by students worldwide; when I was there we had two students from Switzerland. There is a several pages long application process for this workshop, as many more people apply for the workshops than can be accommodated each year. I really pulled out all the stops in my application! I fully expected them to turn me down and was prepared to shamelessly apply twice a year until they gave in and let me come. I was told that among the reasons they accepted me as a student were that I am a specialist in my field, that they had never had an applicant with LGD experience, and that I am a published author and teacher. NEI hopes to train people to go forth and train more people; they deemed me a good investment in that regard.
Every day consisted of a lecture and training session, followed by incredible lunches, and then a lecture and training session in the afternoon. We trained a white-throated raven, and each of us was allowed to pick a macaw as a training partner. The birds are housed in free-flight aviaries, so they stay and participate - or not.
We were split into training teams for the duration of the course. Chris, to the far left, was the team leader. Meg, right in front of him, was a team leader in training. Both these individuals are trainers contracted to Disney World for their free-flight bird show. Among other things, in this show thirty macaws fly low over the heads of visitors to a destination half a mile away, and then fly back to Disney World; five shows a day. Amazing, as was the instructor-to-student ratio of this course. And we were an interesting group! There were only three dog trainers in the course. The woman to my right is Tori. She is the registrar for the Caldwell Zoo in Texas. To her right is Dave. He is a professional bird trainer and magician. I didn't know this until after the course when I did a Google search: www.birdtricks.com. The woman next to Meg is Olivia. She is an elephant trainer and keeper.
Tori is teaching the early stages of the parrot willingly being wrapped in a towel for husbandry behaviors.
Because of Dave's level of skill he was able to spend some training time with this seven-month-old cockatoo.
Olivia had never taught targeting to anything smaller than an elephant so this was a big change for her!
I know very little about the body language of birds, so I needed to observe Rufio, reinforce the behaviors that were valuable to me as a trainer, and then observe Rubio to see if what I had done was experienced as reinforcing by him. He always had the ability to fly away and do something else that might be more fun. I was using pieces of peanuts as treats, but his friends were all around him, and he really didn't need a peanut all that badly. This patient bird only left me before I ended our training session once, out of the nine sessions we had together
Basic behaviors I had to learn were how to ask Rufio to step up onto my hand, and step off, to fly to me, and fly back to his perch. That wasn't as easy as it may sound! I needed to hold my left hand a specific way, and needed to learn the cues for these behaviors. Birds have deep relationships with people who interact with them often. Rubio would willingly do behaviors for the staff that he was slow to do for me - until he tuned me up and I learned how to ask!
We were asked to teach the birds three behaviors over the few days we worked with them. I had no idea what a bird could learn to do! But we accomplished a lot. I taught Rufio my first chained behavior; in our case, it was four behaviors taught individually and then transferred to a cue to perform the sequence. Given my final one cue, Rufio was to walk from the center of the perch to a raised platform, spin in a circle, and finish with a wave. Beautiful.
I also taught him the beginning steps to flying through a circle of arms, or a hoop.
To teach this behavior it was necessary to build a reinforcement history for Rubio - in the air- along the path I wanted him to fly.
On the last day, we were given a tour of the facility. The scope of that would be three blog posts! But here are some highlights:
This bird took a short detour when on the ground to chase the springer spaniel just a bit......
And at the end of the last day...Dan taught this goat to kiss on cue. I loved that the trainers didn't take themselves any too seriously. There was a lot of laughter throughout this course.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed this tour. Long post!