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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A visit to Oakland Zoo

We're all going to DIE!!

I was in Oakland a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to visit the zoo with my sister (the one who takes much better photos than I do). The day was sunny and many of the exhibits were spacious and well-planted. Lots of families with kids.

My sister is also braver than I and talked me into taking the tram. Just the right amount of scary, and a nice way to see the place. This is a smallish zoo, but the exhibits are mostly spacious and grassy. Here's some shots.

Blue and Gold Macaw, by Nancy Parker

The males of our native wild turkey have that tuft of feathers, but this may be an exotic species.

Big old eland. I love these guys.

I was surprised to see such a strong statement against circuses with elephants. Sorry if this is too small to read. Circus elephants are chained when they aren't performing and spend their days "on the road." In some cases, the training is very harsh. Not the greatest life. My second zoo mystery, Did Not Survive (due out in July), touches on some of these issues.

Back on the ground, safe and sound.

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Puppy Trains Author!

I've long admired what positive reinforcement (clicker training, behavior modification) can accomplish, and I've tried putting it into practice with the not-so-new-anymore puppy. With the basic principles in mind, I've kept an eye on consequences. When he does what I want, good things usually happen. Take, for example, getting ready for a walk. Once his brain recovers from the ecstasy of anticipation, he can and does "sit" to have the leash put on, which requires no food reward, just leaving the house. First thing in the morning, he must go outside and pee before he is allowed back in the house. (You can imagine why this rule is necessary, especially when it's raining.)

The most fun is "circus dog." After dinner, I bring out the dried liver treats and we go through his tricks. I don't use a clicker, just "good dog" and then a tiny treat. He is totally into it, alert and eager. We rocket through "sit", "down", "speak", "shake hands". At risk of sounding disloyal, I should clarify that this is not a dog that Mensa will be recruiting. "Sit" came easy and so did "down" (meaning to lie down), with separate hand signals. But to go from "down" back up to "sit" was incomprehensible. "Sit" meant put your butt down. If you were in "down" your butt was already down, so what could "sit" possibly mean then? Bafflement. Eventually we clarified that the front end mattered also and that hoisting it up could be part of "sit". Whatever. Humans are so strange... (I suspect he is still foggy on the concept and just trying the most promising positions until I produce the treat.)

An even more challenging task has been for him to climb onto a little foot stool and sit there. It's less than a foot high, but he was initially horrified when I picked him up and set him down on it. Too weird. Unnatural. Possibly dangerous. No way. I'd just taught him that the stool was scary. My screw-up made this a great situation for me to compare to training wild animals, who are far more cautious than domestic ones.

We started over. I didn't pick him up and set him on the stool anymore. Instead, treats appeared on the stool. Hummm, nice. Next, he found that if he put a forefoot on the stool, he got a treat. Well, that wasn't so bad either. Next was two front feet. Then I provided a boost to get the rear end up. There he was, sitting on the stool, and, my, that was worth a LOT of liver treats. And speak and shake hands worked on the stool, who would have thought? Even more treats! Tonight he discovered that he could get his own butt up on the stool, and, woot! woot! what a payoff! Fan-freakin-tastic! The stool rocks!

I am totally chuffed. It's a little dog and a simple-enough task, but I feel a warm kinship with those talented people who convince rhinos to volunteer for blood draws and elephants to stand still for artificial insemination and orangutans to let their baby take a bottle through the mesh. It's all about one step at a time with the right reward. Okay, it's more subtle than that, and I'll be the first to admit I barely qualify as a beginner. But still. This stuff works! And it's fun, fun for me and fun for a bored dog. No scolding, no force, just a sweet deal. With a rowdy game of tug-o-war afterward.

Karen Pryor seems to be good at this. Try her website. Let me know what you think.

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