For those of you who don't know, husbandry behaviors in the marine mammal training field are synonymous with medical management behaviors*. You know, the really fun things everyone looks forward to such as: blood draws, injections, x-rays, and pedicures**.
|Blood approx with UF vets!|
No seriously, who really enjoys going to the doctor? I HATE IT. Why? Oh, let me count the ways.
First, there is the doctor. No offense to doctors, but you guys are sometimes ridiculously robotic. I'm not judging you. I might be off-putting too if I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on my education, crammed an unbelievably impressive amount of (relevant) information about the human body into my brain, spent countless hours practicing medicine with ungodly hours and then spent 98% of my paycheck on malpractice insurance.
But from a dumb non-doctor like me, going to the doctor is like meeting a stranger for the first time and then saying, "Can you look at me naked and then inflict pain somewhere embarrassing?"
I haven't had a consistent doctor in years. Maybe I've visited a few times, but it's over 10 years since I've lived in one place for longer than a couple of years. I've been lucky enough that I don't have to see a doctor regularly enough to really build a relationship with them.
Or is that lucky?
The fact of the matter is that most humans do not have a rapport with their doctor. Even if they do, you probably aren't BFFs with them. You go to their office, exchange small-talk if you're lucky, you get naked, you get some pills or a test taken, you have money removed, and you go home. I don't know anyone who's like, "Yeah, I had a great weekend! I went to my amazing gynecologist and then we went to lunch and then played Silent Hill for 7 hours straight."
|Be my friend.|
What's another reason I hate the doctor? Because it is expensive. The end.
Another reason? The medical tests are uncomfortable. Even the stethoscope is lame, because it's freezing and I always feel like I'm an inadequate at taking deep enough breaths and plus I get so dizzy.
I don't like needles. I can deal, but I don't look forward to it by any means. They hurt, and they cost money. I know they're helping me in most cases, which is priceless blah blah blah. I don't think I need to go into more graphic medical tests commonly done on women.
|How can you be so happy?!|
Now think about your pet at home going to the vet. What's that experience like for you? More importantly, what's that like for your pet? Is it just the most fun you've ever had? No? Well D'UH.
Your pet has to deal with all of the stuff I just mentioned except they DON'T SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE. You can't have a conversation like:
You: Hey Fido, you're pooping lots of blood, so we're going to take you to the vet to save your life.
Fido: You know, I was wondering about that. I don't feel very well and I'd like to get better.
You: The vet is going to stick you with needles and probably put things up your butt. But it's to help you
Fido: I really appreciate the heads up.
What really happens is you stuff your terrified animal into a crate, they get poked and prodded by something THEY don't know and the entire time they hear:
Vet: Blah blah blah blah blah
You: Blah blah blah blah blah
Another pet in the distance: GET THAT THERMOMETER AWAY FROM ME OH DEAR GOD NOOOOOOOOOO
What about the dolphins, and sea lions and penguins and all those dudes you see in zoos and aquariums? What is their vet experience like?
Well, for marine mammal facilities, we try our best to communicate to the animals what is going on. How do we do that? Through husbandry training. We take medical tests and procedures and turn them from HOLY SH&% to That Ain't So Bad, to (if you're a really good trainer) I Love This Thing!
The reason why husbandry behaviors are trained, versus cramming an animal into a crate or anesthetizing them (side note: I wouldn't mind whatsoever being knocked out for all future medical and dental visits), are countless. But here are a few reasons why they are popular with marine mammals:
1) The animals are gigantic. You try stuffing 390lb sea lion into your car (without letting him drive) for a vet visit.
|I wouldn't mind having her hang out with me in my car.|
2) The animals are gigantic. You try holding a 500lb dolphin for a medical procedure.
|Unless you have an SUV like this, but then you've unfriended the planet|
3) The animals live in the water. Humans are ridiculously miserable in the water compared to marine mammals. How exactly do you think you're going to get that dolphin to the vet?
4) Medical behaviors are uncomfortable and/or scary, and cause stress. Stress skews baseline medical tests results, that's a fact.
|This….looks like it's a stressful way to relieve stress.|
5) It's just kinder. If you have a method of communicating to your animal that they can trust you, that the little bit of discomfort is okay and doesn't mean something awful, that maybe it means they feel better, or that it means they avoid a really stressful experience, why wouldn't you do your very best to make that happen?
|(and eat donuts)|
6) Many non-domesticated animals mask symptoms of illness until they are really sick. It's a survival thing, but it's a scary thing for animal caregivers, the animals themselves (I'd imagine), and vets. So knowing what's normal for each individual animal, as well as being able to detect any problems before they are actually problems is so important I'm sure you don't need further explanation.
Some people mistakenly believe that training equates to food deprivation. I don't believe in food deprivation, and I don't believe that food should be the only reinforcer. When possible, food shouldn't always be the main reinforcer. There should be lots and lots of reinforcers so you can provide variety, and plus no one likes to withhold food from an animal (if you do, go get a job at a bank or something).
So how do you train husbandry behaviors with marine mammals (well, or any animal)? Here's a few tips (with human examples to help).
|Relationship is critical! And also awesome.|
Have a solid and good relationship with the animal
That animal better trust you before you go sticking needles in skin or placing an ultrasound transducer that looks crazy and sounds terrifying at first near their body.
Make sure you take it slow
Don't go from having a dolphin lay his or her flukes in your lap to sticking a needle into a blood vessel.
Make sure the animal is calm for each step before you move to the next one
If the animal is tense while you're trying to get them to relax by an x-ray machine, you are going to freak them out more if you decide to move the machine closer. Wait until the animal tells you they can deal before you change a variable.
Make. The. Behavior. Reinforcing.
If your animal LOVES fish, then use fish. If your animal plays with footballs like it's their job, use footballs. If your animal is into rubs and fish, use those things. Don't skimp. Make each milestone step a huge deal. Husbandry behaviors aren't "exciting" like the big jumps or the cool cognitive puzzles, but you better make a blood draw a ton of fun or you won't get a solidly-trained, confident and relaxed animal.
Make the behavior routine
Don't just ask for a seal's flipper when it's time to trim his or her nails. Ask for the flipper all the time. Have the nail clippers out there. Go through the motions. Show them that it's not always going to happen. Ain't no big thang.
How do you equate this to human beings? I say, why DON'T we do this with people? Humor me and let's go through the aforementioned steps as if they were applied to us.
…has a solid and good relationship with the patient
You see your doctor regularly in a context that has nothing to do with medical care. Your doctor treats you to movies, sends you cupcakes at work, listens to your problems.
|om nom nom nom nom|
…takes it slow
You can expect a timely appointment, but there is no rushing around. The doctor listens calmly to everything you're saying and explains using laymen's terms what's going on and what will happen in your visit. And gives you a cupcake. Then they wipe your arm with alcohol to prep for the first needle stick, and they give you a cupcake in your other hand for being good. And then they feel for the blood vessel, and give you another cupcake for being so calm. And then they get ready to stick you with the needle and say "Are you ready?" and they give you another cupcake for being so calm. And then they stick you with the needle, which you can't even feel at this point because all of those cupcakes have put you into a diabetic coma.
But you know what I'm getting at.
… makes the behaviors fun/reinforcing
Ding ding ding! You may have to pay for your medical care, but you are still handsomely rewarded for your calm behavior for all medical tests and procedures. NO, stickers and lollipops are NOT adequate reinforcement for a tetanus shot, are you effing kidding me? The reinforcers I'm talking about involve you leaving your OB/GYN with a $500 gift card and a box of donuts. Your dentist gives you a $100 bill right after they scrape your teeth with that evil hook thingy. Your dermatologist gives you a 3-day vacation to a mountain resort.
|&*(@ lollipops!!!!!!!!!!!! I want more!|
It doesn't make the pain or discomfort go away, but it sure makes you look forward to going to see your medical care professional!
If I ever run for president and/or Grand Master Of the Universe (Planet Earth division), I'd make this my platform and I'm pretty sure I'd win every vote.
Some of the steps we use for animals I didn't include in my human plan. Why? Because those steps are important only if you can't explain the reasons why you're doing the things you're doing. As a human, you know going to the doctor is ultimately for your own benefit (how else will you lighten that load in your wallet?). The animals probably don't know that. All they know is they're scared and uncomfortable, so you have to have a way to tell them it's okay, that everything will be okay and they can trust you.
A solid husbandry training program can result in animals voluntarily doing things like:
blood samples toothbrushing
chuff samples gum treatments
blowhole cultures nail treatments
gastric samples application of eye meds
fecal samples eye pressure
temperatures wide area excisions
x-rays biopsies and fine needle aspirations
assisted birth minor surgeries
phlebotomies palpation of any body part
It should go without saying, but some of those things (like excisions and surgeries) are obviously done using local anesthesia.
That's just a small list of things that are actually trained at many marine mammal facilities with many of their animals.
The last part of this topic that I should include is the question I've addressed in several of my blogs now: What happens when the animal says no?
Well, unless it is a medical emergency, the same thing that happens if a dolphin doesn't want to jump happens if they refuse to do a medical behavior. Nothing. Especially with husbandry behaviors, while we don't want to reinforce the refusal (that sends obvious mixed messages), we certainly don't want to force the issue for a number of reasons…but mainly because it doesn't take much to break down a husbandry behavior.
For example, if you're at the doctor's office and you refuse to give a blood sample because you are just terrified (and you're sick of friggin' cupcakes), if your doctor says "FINE I WON'T GIVE YOU CUPCAKES", you'll just say, "FINE! I HATE CUPCAKES AND I HATE YOUUUU."
|I could never hate you.|
But if your doctor says, "Hmm, okay, well, what would you do this behavior for?"
"Look doc," you say. "I'm just sick of being stuck and I really am sick of cupcakes."
"Why don't we start from the beginning steps and I'll give you $10 for each approximation leading up to the stick, and then once I get the blood sample you get $150?"
"Take as much blood as you need," you reply.
When an animal refuses a behavior, you figure out what's going on. In husbandry behaviors, it's usually a motivation/desensitization problem. And it's your job to work WITH the animal, not against them, to help them find the behavior reinforcing again. It's for their benefit (not your ego), and that's all there is to it.
From stingrays to elephants, trainers have forged incredible relationships with the animals under their care. They've used this relationship to create and maintain unbelievable husbandry behavior programs that prolong not just the duration of life, but the quality of life as well. There is no substitute.
So come on, human doctors. Get some gift certificates and start training your patients for medical management! We demand it!
* Husbandry behaviors are technically NOT the same as medical behaviors, but that's just a semantics discussion I'd rather deal with another time, like never.
** Pedicures are sometimes scarier than dental visits
|Dental tools? NO? THOSE TOOLS OF FOOT TORTURE.|