Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sparky's Learning!

When she isn't performing Sparky VI is learning all kinds of new behaviors. Sometimes that means learning something completely new, sometimes it means building off of something she already knows and making it a little more complex, and other times it means reminding her of a behavior she already knows!

Yes, believe it or not, sea lions can forget things too! For example, Sparky VI knows how to balance a ball on her nose both on the land and in the water. At one point in her life, she also knew how to hold it on her nose while she came out of the water and onto the stage, which is quite a leap if you've seen the show! However, about a year ago she either forgot the behavior or something has prevented her from being able to perform it for over a year.

As trainers it is our job to determine why she isn't performing the behavior anymore and figure out if and how we can get her doing the ball balance again. The first thing we needed to assess was if she was still physically capable of doing the behavior. When I was 12 I could do a back-flip, but it would be unfair to expect me to do that now since I haven't done one in years and I am completely out of practice! We had to find out if the behavior have become uncomfortable to do for some reason. Did she pull a muscle? Has her muscle tone or sense of balance changed recently? As trainers sometimes we can pick up on very subtle behavioral cues which would indicate the animal might have a medical issue that would need the vets attention. We tested her balance and strength and determined none of these to be an issue. She was performing all of her most challenging behaviors without any hesitation! We also checked her weight to see if she had gained any additional poundage that would make it difficult to perform the behavior. Our pinnipeds are weight each week and she was well within her normal range, which is 130-140 lbs. Luckily there did not seem to me a medical or physical reason for why she would not come out of the water with the ball on her nose.

Hmmm, so if she appears to be physically capable then why would she not do it? Well, it could be a number of things: she could have forgetten, maybe she just doesn't want to, or maybe she messed up one time and now she is not sure she can do it! Either way to get the behavior back, patience it key. I needed to make every step towards the final behavior very rewarding which means she gets lots of fish and attention. If she forgot and isn't sure she can do it anymore then taking small steps towards the final behavior will hopefully remind her what we would like her to do. So that is what we have been doing all summer. I asked her to hold the ball steadily on her nose in the water, and gave her lots of fish! Then I asked her to come on deck and if she swam quickly towards me, I gave her lots of fish! Next I expected her to try and come out of the water, even if she couldn't keep the back on her nose, I would give her lots of fish, an A for effort! Well that seemed to fix it! Now she tries everytime to keep the ball on her nose and come out of the water. Sometimes she does it perfectly and she practically gets her whole bucket of fish! Other times she drops it, but I still feed her so the behavior stays fun and interesting for her. Afterall, one of the major reasons we train aniamls is to keep the animals mentally stimulated. In addition, this behavior is developing her muscle strength and tone and increasing her agility. Hopefully by next summer she will be keeping the ball on her nose and moving all around the stage and water easily!

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