A Week to Remember: ABI’s 2018 Animal Training Retreat

A Week to Remember: ABI’s 2018 Animal Training Retreat

Avian Behavior International held its first ever animal training retreat at the beginning of February, and boy, was it an incredible week!  Guests came from all over to hone their skills and learn brand new ones, working with our farm animals (miniature donkeys and mini goats), chickens, parrots, hornbill, toucan, and raptors. We even had a few sessions training reptiles, which provided valuable information on the importance of mechanics and how understanding ethology can impact our training session.

Our goal was for these five days to be a retreat in the truest sense of the meaning. We wanted it to be an immersive experience, filled with support and guidance, and for it to be a safe place to explore new techniques, ask questions, and challenge oneself. Watching this goal come to life was one of the most powerful experiences in my career. With guests of wide ranging experience, from animal training professionals to enthusiasts to animal lovers and keepers with little training experience at all, it was incredibly inspiring to watch their light bulb moments, their brainstorming sessions, and their trials and triumphs unfold all within just a few short days.

With part of the day dedicated to presentation, we covered a broad overview of scientific principles and learning theory, as well as the practical application of using these principles in observable, measurable ways in the work or home setting. Most days, over half of the day was dedicated to hands on training and demonstration.

Because we had so many different kinds of animals here to work with, one of the neat concepts that we were able to employ was how each animal type learns the same training concept, and how an animal’s ethology will inform the trainer to get the behavior most efficiently. Whether our specialty is hoofstock, birds, dogs, or other species, working across taxa can help us fine tune our observation skills and give us new ideas with how to train and what to train our species of choice.

The really fun part for lead trainers Chris Shank of Cockatoo Downs, Cari Clements Inserra of the San Diego Zoo, myself, and assisting trainer Kathryne Thorpe was being able to provide guidance where needed, but allowing the guests to be the drivers of the sessions. We saw complicated sessions, teaching the hoofstock some abstract concepts like walking away from the trainer until coming back when called. Targeting sessions, teaching the donkeys voluntary hoof trimming, turning circles on cue and stationing. Guests taught birds and donkeys to retrieve items. There was lots of chicken training of all kinds, which is always rewarding. Chickens are eager learners, virtual bottomless pits, and offer quick feedback and help us work on mechanics and other subtle aspects of a successful relationship. Both chickens and an African Crowned Crane learned the beginnings of color discrimination, in which they would peck a coordinating color when a certain color marker was presented. And in addition to step up training with the parrots that allowed the lead trainers to draw the lens closer in on building sensitivity to body language working with animals and how our  movements influence theirs, there were many sessions with the guests that wanted to challenge themselves to work with animals that they had anxiety about due to previous encounters or simply wanted to build their skillset with more difficult animals. One trainer even target trained one of our baby education American Alligators, an animal which had previously not been worked with at all.

Each session helps us not only build our own skills, but teaches us a little more about ourselves and what we want our goals to be. That is the beauty of training: it is a dynamic conversation not only between us and the animal, but with ourselves as well. It does take a lot of reflection and humility. We have the power to change, to progress, to evolve, but in order to do so, we must identify where we are going, where we want to be, and how we have arrived to the point we are at.

I could not have asked for a more amazing team of trainers and staff to have made this beautiful retreat happen. Creating a space to grow means surrounding yourself with people you want to grow with and learn from. With Chris, Cari, and Kathryne, I truly could hardly contain my excitement for the opportunities that awaited all of the guests! These are people that I look up to and turn to when I have questions. And, even better, when asked if we would do it again, before I could even answer, all of the other trainers chimed in an enthusiastic “YES!”

Here is a little video of some of the training sessions we managed to capture: Retreat video