05 Oct Target Training a Toucan and other Grab-and-Bite Animals
Target training is referred to often as a basic behavior, the first one we teach when we are working with an animal. It can be particularly helpful when working with animals that are particularly sensitive, reticent to engage, shy about taking food from us, or even displaying aggressive behavior. We can teach the animal to interact with the target in so many different ways, not just touching its nose, beak, or tongue to it, but a foot, the top of the head, or hip.
The truth is, target training is actually fairly complex and we can set ourselves and the animal in front of us up for frustration if we overlook some of our animals’ natural tendencies when training this behavior. Nowhere is this more prevalent then in the questions we receive in target training toucans. The toucan’s bill is designed to pluck, pull, and snatch items from far away. When a target comes into the mix, the tendency to grab and shake can be quite strong.
By allowing this grabbing and shaking to become part of the topography of the behavior, we could very easily be instilling in our bird some habits we do not want, especially when it comes to grabbing at other things unfamiliar to them, like our hands, fingers and arms. The toucan beak is actually quite strong and serrated, so even if they don’t bite like parrots do to crack nuts, they can deliver a bit of damage. When we shape the way they explore unfamiliar stimuli or even the way that they interact with their world in general, we can either wear deep grooves into desirable patterns or undesirable patterns.
This YouTube video is a quick tutorial on how we shaped our toco toucan, Chiquita, to interact with the target the way that we desired. At first, we didn’t even reinforce for touching the target, but rather simply reaching for it. From there, we can reinforce gentle touches and boops. But the main idea is that she is exploring it gently, with a closed beak, and not reaching for it and grabbing it. This is the way that we want her exploring her space and new people, items and such in general. By reinforcing this paradigm early on, we keep the energy quotient of each interaction low and give her a strong foundation for staying calm and not biting at things to get the desired outcome. Check it out!