Dr. Grey Stafford: Advancements in Animal Training

Kyle and Stafford

To see my first interview with Dr. Grey Stafford, please click here. In this interview, Stafford discusses some of the advancements in animal training. As committed animal care professionals, it is our job to constantly improve the lives of the animals in our care. From training butterflies to fly from point A to point B, to teaching dolphins to decide when to start or end a session, these advancements in the world of positive reinforcement based animal training are making things better for trainers and more importantly, animals.

Dr. Stafford is the current president of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association and author of the book, Zoomility: Keeper Tales of Training with Positive Reinforcement.

Kyle: Hi everyone my name is Kyle Kittleson and we are back with Dr. Grey Stafford, for our second video and our four video series with the new president of IMATA and in the animal care welfare specialist for the last twenty-seven years. Dr. Stafford, thank you for being here so much.

Today’s topic is about the advancement in animal training. It’s always changing. What can you tell us about some of the new advancements coming on the scene?

Dr. Stafford: Well one of the things I enjoyed about our IMATA conference, last week, was listening to all these diverse opinions and trainers from around the world. And there were a lot of different topics that are, you know –  it’s fun to be in this field for 27 years and still learn new things.

My good friend, Ken Ramirez, formerly of Shedd Aquarium, and with clicker training now, he was telling us about how he was training butterflies to fly from point A to Point B. A very simple behavior, but something that’s never really probably been done with butterflies before. Certainly not thousands of at one time.

A lot of the new advancements, not only in the training environment, but also in the physiology – the basic habitat for marine mammals. For example, we’re looking at the effects of water temperature and how that can improve skin condition in bottlenose dolphins at some of our facilities. You know dolphins in the Atlantic can be found in any variety of temperature from 50 degrees Fahrenheit up into the 90s, but probably for that species there’s probably an optimal temperature range that works best for them. And IMATA trainers and veterinarians of course are at the forefront of trying to find out what that optimal range is. So, that’s a new development.

And then one of my favorites, personally close to home, is from a good friend of mine named, Nicole West. She is one of the trainers at Dolphin Quest Oahu – which is an amazing facility. They have a unique animal there that I worked with for many years. He had a tendency to get a little frustrated in his programs. What they came up with was a way for him to signal when he was ready to end the session. And as a result of providing him this simple tool – First of all he doesn’t need it as often because he has that choice now – when he wants to participate and when he wants to and that interaction. And they found for this particular individual that it’s been very successful for him and it’s improved his welfare, his life. And that’s cool because it’s not just about preserving entire species. It’s about taking care of the individuals too. And it’s neat to see trainers doing that each and every day.

Kyle: Yeah absolutely. And I love this, again, this idea that the animals are in control and they have the choice to participate, to end it, to start it. I think that’s awesome. And for those animal trainers who are out there working in the field, don’t get into that mundane space of “I show up to work, I take care of the animals, I do my job,” – always be looking to improve it, because if you can come in like Ms West did, and do something amazing, it is going to not only improve that one animal’s life but hopefully it can be shared across the community and improve tons of animals.

Dr. Stafford:  You’re absolutely right.

And it’s exciting and it’s, you know, working with these animals is a privilege. I’ve been doing it a long time and I don’t lose sight of the fact that I’ve been very fortunate to work with hundreds of species, thousands of individuals, and each one of them is special and deserves nothing but our best.

Kyle: Fantastic. Dr. Stafford thank you so much. Next week we’re going to be talking about killer whales at SeaWorld and all of the discussion that surrounds that topic.

And then in the following week we’re going to be talking about what IMATA can do and what we can do as the animal welfare community to really show the public the good that accredited zoos and aquariums do across the country. Subscribe and stay with us. Thanks.

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