Posts Tagged ‘clicker training’

Internship Week 4: Operant Conditioning

by | August 7th, 2012

Intern Stephanie Lo

I grip a small plastic box in the palm of my hand. I press down on its metal tab. Click! Immediately, a crisp snapping sound fills the air.


Many zoo keepers use clicker training to shape an animal's behavior.

As part of the Oakland Zoo intern program, we attend weekly classes and behind-the-scenes tours. This week’s class was an “Introduction to Operant Conditioning,” which highlighted how zoo keepers use clicker training to shape animal behavior. The crisp click is a trademark of clicker training, which I learned more about during the intern class.


Much like a college intro to psychology course, the class began by describing experiments done by Pavlov. Pavlov would ring a bell (conditioned stimulus) directly before giving food (unconditioned stimulus) to the dog, which caused the dog to salivate (unconditioned response). Eventually, the dogs would salivate when he rang the bell. We also learned about Throndike’s Law of Effect and how consequences influence how likely a behavior will be repeated. In addition, the class taught us how to distinguish between negative/positive reinforcement and negative/positive punishment. Although using punishment might produce faster results, clicker training is a method of positive reinforcement used to shape an animal’s behavior.


Joseph (left), one of the Nubian goats, participated in this week's intern class demonstration.

To practice the skills learned in the class, we walked out towards the goat and sheep yard to clicker train the goats with zoo keeper Liz. The click, which acts as a marker, is immediately followed by a food treat, which is the reinforcement. This way, the animals know the exact moment for which he or she is being rewarded. Using a technique called “shaping,” Liz worked with us to teach a goat to spin while standing on a short wooden table. First, she would reward the goat for a left head turn and then for a shift in body weight, building up towards a complete spin. Only the domestic animals, like goats, are trained to do tricks; the other zoo animals are only trained to do behaviors that help with animal husbandry tasks or veterinary needs. For example, some of the zoo animals are trained to hold still while getting x-ray, injections or blood drawn.


Photo credit: Lisa Clifton-Bumpass

During this week, three of the other interns and I got the opportunity to work with volunteer Lisa on pig training. After harnessing up the pigs, we practiced commands such as taking a step left, right, forward, backwards or standing still. It was extremely important to mark the behavior with the clicker before moving to drop the food reward. In addition, when feeding the reward, I placed it in a spot that reinforces the behavior. For instance, if I wanted a “back up,” I would not place the food reward so the pig had to take a step forward to eat it.

Zoo keeper Liz training one of the pigs to rest her head on a crate for eye cleaning.


The handler gave each of the commands to the pig through the harness, making sure the commands were clear. Sometimes we would use contrasting commands, like giving a “left step” cue after practicing several “right steps.” Through clicker training, many of the zoo animals do not need to be put under anesthesia or physically restrained for simple procedures, like giving vaccinations, trimming a goat’s hooves or cleaning a pig’s eyes.

Internship Week 2: Candy wrappers, clicker training and ring-tailed lemurs

by | July 26th, 2012

Intern Stephanie Lo

After becoming familiar with the daily routine during my first week, String 7 Zookeeper Liz allowed me and the other interns to do many of the animal feedings and exhibit cleanings on our own.  In addition to the daily pellets, the meals of the domestic pigs and rabbits consist of specific amounts of fresh produce and greens.

The Oakland Zoo‘s Veterinary Care Center, the commissary and the string’s zookeeper work together to ensure each zoo animal has an appropriate diet. Sometimes, I help prepare the diets of the lemurs, pigs and rabbits by selecting produce from the commissary’s walk-in refrigerator and cutting up the correct amounts for each animal. Although slicing pieces of sweet potato or cantaloupe isn’t a physically demanding portion of my job, it is extremely important to pay attention to detail because each animal has unique nutritional needs. There is even a scale located in the Children’s Zoo kitchen to help us measure out grams, if necessary.

Blue-eyed lemurs Eugene and Anthony interacting with enrichment. The "candy wrappers" are made from newspapers filled with their food.

Each primate night house contains a calendar to mark each day’s enrichment. One of the lemur enrichments I did this week was configure pieces of newspaper into “candy wrappers” that contained their meal. The other interns and I wrapped chunks of cut produce into sheets of newspaper. At first, the lemurs did not approach the newspapers, but then a Ring Tailed Lemur picked one up and began opening it. Other forms of enrichment include piles of straw with scents mixed in and wooden bird toys hung with fruit in them. Besides stimulating their senses, the daily enrichment encourages the lemurs to forage for their food, much like they would in their natural environment.

Ring Tailed Lemur foraging for food in the enrichment item.

One of the most interesting opportunities this week was watching Liz do clicker training with the Ring Tailed Lemurs. During the individual training sessions, some of the lemurs acted more relaxed than others, allowing the zookeeper to trailer the training to the lemur. The goal of much of the training revolves around veterinary and husbandry purposes, such as having the lemur sit quietly on a mat while the keeper holds a stethoscope to its chest.  The zookeeper also worked on having the lemur sit still while waving a pretend chip scanner over its back, which could be done to identify an unknown or escaped lemur. One of the new commands Liz began was “stand.” She used a small target ball on the end of the stick, and she first rewarded the lemurs for showing interest in the target and then worked her way up to having them touch it with their hands. It was amazing to be able to observe how quickly some of the lemurs caught onto new commands and how sensitive they were to the trainer’s body posture.

Read more about what I have learned regarding operant conditioning and the use of clicker training during my upcoming Week 4 blog post.

One of the Ring Tailed Lemurs eating food from an enrichment item. The plastic container has holes for the produce to fall out.