Winter Training Progress

The weather in southeastern Wisconsin has been appallingly cold the last few days – high temperatures in the teens, with wind chills well below zero.  Despite the lovely snow cover and crisp, clear winter light, I’ve had to abort my last two photography day trips: my camera froze up on an evening location scout for the upcoming Geminid meteor shower and I froze up trying to follow up on recent reports of a snowy owl influx into Wisconsin.  With less time spent on photography, I’ve spent more time in the workshop, building furniture and more complex boxes for inventory in spring and summer art shows.  I’ve also had more time to work on training my animals.

Zeke leaping through snow

At almost two years old, Zeke, my Shetland sheepdog, has mostly grown out of his puppy distractibility.  His basic commands (sit, down, stay, come, leave it, and a loose off-leash heel) have been solid for months, allowing me to focus on photography and not dog behavior when he joins me on photography trips.  Recently, we’ve mostly been working on more precise off-leash heeling and quick, consistent response to cues in the presence of dogs, people, and other distractions.  Here’s a sample of his progress:

I’ve also started him on agility jumps and weave poles; we may never pursue competition agility, but he loves the activity for its own sake.

I’ve also been working with my African grey parrot, Ari.  She knows dozens of behaviors, from husbandry needs like unrestrained claw clips and wing exams to speaking and whistling on command, recall (flying to me when called), and targeting to a finger or target stick.  However, response to cues is imperfect – she often offers an alternate behavior if she thinks my request is too much work.  Professional bird trainers typically keep their trainees about 5% to 10% under free-feeding weight to increase motivation in response to food, but I don’t think this is justified for a middle-aged pet.  Instead, I’ve been working on three behaviors (target, lift a foot, and wing flip) with short sessions and high value reinforcers (walnuts) to improve stimulus control.  We’re not there yet, but progress has been good:

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