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Thinking Beyond the Cue: Ken Ramirez Takes Animal Training to a New Level

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Can an animal think beyond specific cues and generalize to a broader concept? Can you teach a dog to copy a behavior that another dog just performed? Can you teach the difference between big and little? Left and right? When we think of animal training, we don't often think beyond teaching certain cues. ClickerExpo faculty member Ken Ramirez offers a chance to think beyond the cue and rethink what dogs are capable of—when the right training method is used.

Ken Ramirez and his dog sitting outside Shedd Aquarium

A 35-year veteran of animal care and training, Ken Ramirez is currently the executive vice president of animal collections and training at Chicago's world-famous Shedd Aquarium. At Shedd, Ken oversees animal care and training for over 32,000 animals, including whales and dolphins, sharks and turtles, sea horses and jellies, and many more. Through his work with marine mammals and other species, Ken has learned that the behaviors we are used to seeing marine mammals perform, such as mimicking one another, dogs are capable of learning, too. In honor of National Dog Training Month, Ken shares his thoughts on how you can use this information to take your dog's learning to a whole new level—and to expand your own ability as a trainer in new directions as well.

What have you learned from marine mammal training that is transferrable to the dog-training world?

Oh, so much! I am not sure where to begin. The science of training is the same, no matter the species. But I think because my professional career really took off while working with large exotic animals, particularly marine mammals, I was able to see the power of positive reinforcement very early. Perhaps even more importantly, I was exposed to training that completely eliminated the use of punishers and coercion. I worked for many years with a variety of species in an entirely positive reinforcement world—and the power of that system was really engrained into me. It became second nature. By the time I came back to the dog world, there were no doubts in my mind that positive reinforcement was the only way to train.

I sometimes find that dog trainers put lots of limitations on themselves and on their dogs—believing that dogs can't do certain things. My experience with exotic animals taught me that we are only limited by our own imaginations and our own internal barriers and beliefs.

January is National Train Your Dog Month. What is the one thing you want people to understand about dog training?

 

Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.

My message would be simple: training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely.

 

You have directed many training programs and instructed many students. What are the key ingredients for a successful training program?

I believe that a good training program must have trainers who are guided by experienced supervisors. Other elements that are critical for a good training program include:

  • Education—a good understanding of the science and the theory
  • Skills—opportunities to practice skills on an ongoing basis
  • Evaluation—regular evaluation of knowledge and skill sets
  • Ethics—animal welfare of paramount importance and in the forefront of all decision-making
  • Professional Development—ongoing opportunities for learning new skills and theory

What should pet owners look for when choosing a dog trainer?

I believe pet owners should look for a positive reinforcement trainer. One of the best ways to find a skilled positive reinforcement trainer is to look for a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP). But the right trainer is more than just a specific skill set and choice of training tools. Choosing a trainer is also about finding a good communicator, someone who works well with your dog and your family.

What are some of the significant changes you have seen in the dog-training world since you first began training 35 years ago? What do you think has been the impetus behind these changes?

One of the most significant changes has been the growth of positive reinforcement in the dog training world. Positive reinforcement training is huge today. I think Karen Pryor certainly deserves credit for bringing it to the mainstream and for making it easier to access and understand. The availability of modern technology such as the Internet and, specifically, YouTube, has made it so much easier to share training techniques and to spread those techniques across the globe quickly. This is a huge change. I think that the public awareness of dog training, shelters, and animal abuse is far higher than it was 35 years ago. That increase in awareness has prompted many changes in the dog training world.

You often say that animals are capable of doing far more than we give them credit for. Tell us more about that.

 

When we limit ourselves or our dogs, we also limit our view of what is possible.

Throughout my career I have been surprised by how we are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible. When we limit ourselves or our dogs, we also limit our view of what is possible. Of course, there are limits to what we can train. But sometimes we don't give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.

 

At ClickerExpo you have been teaching courses on concept training, including modifier cues, matching to sample, and mimicry. What led to your interest in these areas?

These dogs are learning to mimic one another, much like dolphins are able to do.

These dogs are learning to mimic one another,
much like dolphins are able to do.

My interest in concept training dates back nearly 40 years to my work with guide dogs. As I witnessed dogs learning the concept of intelligent disobedience, the idea that they would ignore a cue given by their handler if it put the handler at risk, I became hooked on training. When I began working with dolphins and whales, many of those animals utilized concepts with ease. So when I returned to the dog training world, it was natural for me to try with dogs some of the concepts I had become comfortable training with other animals. I enjoy unlocking the capabilities of the animal mind!

At ClickerExpo 2012, you will be talking about adduction, the art of combining learned cues to create new behaviors. Why did you choose that subject and how does it fall into the category of concept training?

Since I joined the ClickerExpo faculty I have taught a seminar on concept training. Of all the topics I reference in my courses, adduction is the one that attendees ask about the most. I decided to offer the ClickerExpo 2012 seminar based on the high interest in the topic.

Basic adduction is not necessarily conceptual. Many behaviors we train combine multiple behaviors together to form a new behavior, but that does not mean the animal has learned the concept of adduction. However, when an animal learns to combine two or more behaviors, perhaps even behaviors that have never been combined previously, that accomplishment is a true example of concept training.

When is concept training particularly useful?

There are many areas where concept training is very useful. Modifier cues are quite useful in search and rescue dog work, or in agility competition training, for example. Adduction is a basic tool used in most training. If a dog can learn the actual concept of adduction, that makes training new tasks faster in almost any setting. There are some conceptual training tools that are not very useful for the majority of trainers because the tools are very specialized. Examples of these specialized tools include matching to sample training or mimicry work.

Is any dog capable of learning different concepts? What needs to be in place before a dog is ready to learn?

In my opinion, yes, every dog is capable of learning concepts! However, you do have to wait for the right time in a dog's learning. Just as you would not ask a 3-year-old child to learn algebra (a child that age does not have the foundational math skills to learn something so complex), you would not teach young dogs concepts until they have the foundational skills to understand them. If I had to the basic or necessary foundational skills, they would be:

  • Well-versed at clicker training (understand a marker signal)
  • If you keep training fun, and make each step easy to achieve, then you can build your dog up to concept training.
  • Possess a solid behavioral repertoire that mixes basic obedience with exercise behaviors
  • Understand the idea of free shaping
  • Introduced to creative games that teach thinking and problem-solving
  • Understand and appreciate non-food reinforcers
  • Introduced to and able to perform behavior chains

Even then, the secrets to the success of any training plan are appropriate approximations and responding to your animal's needs. If you keep training fun, and make each step easy to achieve, then you can build your dog up to concept training.

What is the key to successful concept training?

They keys to concept training are building the right foundation and gradually adding to that foundation. Those steps make it easy for the dog to understand what is being asked. When trained with thoughtful care, with concepts that are gradually introduced, and with the proper foundation established, concept training can be great fun for both dog and trainer.

You have taught many dogs, as well as other species of animals in your 30+ year career. What have they taught you?

Everything! All that I know, everything I have ever done, all my skills, have been taught to me by the animals I have worked with throughout my career. Book knowledge is great, but without the animals it is only theory. Skills and techniques are taught to us by our animals! I owe all that I know to them.

Thank you, Ken, for continuing to share what you've learned. We look forward to seeing you at ClickerExpo!

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About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.