Experiencing Natural Encounters, Inc. as a Professional Animal Trainer
I applied to the Natural Encounters Inc. (NEI) professional animal training course in April. I spent the rest of the year eagerly anticipating the course. I figured January was a great time to head to Florida, especially since I’m from cold Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I had seen my colleagues take the course and they had nothing but praise for it. And since all I heard was “It’s incredible! It will change your life!” this course had really set the bar high for itself.
In truth I didn’t quite know what I was in for. I was expecting five days of intense training. I was expecting top-notch lectures from Dr. Susan Friedman and Steve Martin. I was expecting to have my mind blown, and work with macaws. I saw pictures on social media of some goats, but didn’t know why. That was all I knew.
I would like to share how I spent my time there, as well as my resonating experiences with the application of learning science, in practice.
I arrived at the Orlando Airport and was picked up by Erik from NEI in a large truck, along with other attendees. He drove us the hour from the airport to the hotel. After a quick walk and a quick shower, I was off to the very first Meet And Greet with Dr. Friedman, Steve Martin, and the rest of the group. Over wine and snacks, we went around introducing ourselves, talking to other attendees about animal training. We immediately dove into engrossing conversations. These are some interesting people! The group was eventually corralled and divided into teams for the coming week. We were assigned our training animals, a macaw each, a group corvid and a group goat. “This is going to be a ride,” I thought.
When I got back to my room, I collapsed on the floor in huge sobs. I was a puddle of gasping joy — I couldn’t believe where I was. At the ranch. With amazing animal trainers, like I had never dreamed in my wildest dreams!
Day 1: Training
The morning started early. The NEI van left the hotel at 7:30am. Once at the NEI ranch, we had a quick tour of the facilities. The place is huge. There are over 150 macaws, many corvids, birds of prey, cranes, toucans, goats, and dogs, all on 37 acres of Florida greenery: a welcome change from Canada in January.
The class convened at 8am and we had two hours of inspiring lecture from Dr. Friedman on “The Significance of Science.” I could absolutely listen to her all day. Every time I’m blessed with the opportunity to absorb one of her lectures, I take it. And I learn something new and profound every time. Then Steve Martin did a demo of the protected contact feed and “invisible string” theory with a baby blue throat macaw. They breed them there; there are over 65 in this aviary, which is amazing considering the wild population numbers less than 300. Afterwards, we met up with our training teams. We went to our assigned macaws and practiced the protected contact feed and invisible string behaviours. It was so good to apply what I had learned immediately. I enjoyed using the invisible string and will take that gem with me!
We also went to work with our corvid. We had one raven for our group of four trainers. Each day we attempted to hone our skills while teaching the bird to do a specific behaviour. Today was a “turn away from the trainer” behaviour. It went well, and we even reinforced a series of offered hops as well!
After lunch was a two-hour lecture from Steve about the power of prompts. What’s a prompt? What’s a cue? What are each for and how do you use them? So fascinating to put a microscope onto the terms and really define them. I see so much more clearly now! In this group of behaviour professionals, I felt right at home.
We went out to train our goat and apply the prompt versus cue information to our next training goal: training the goat to put her front two feet on a spool and roll it forward. The trainer was having all kinds of difficulties, and the lead was so gentle and helpful. She was guided and encouraged towards her training goals, while focusing on her skills and mechanics and less on whether we actually achieved the completed goal behaviour. The process is the important part. I learned so much from watching that trainer work!
Then we had another wonderful demo from Steve and the baby blue throat macaw. This bird had just fledged; she had had no interaction from a human until yesterday. Steve taught her to spin on the perch, and he put the behaviour on cue in a matter of minutes. Watching the art of experienced training at work is magnificent and awe inspiring. We were speechless.
We then went to our macaws and trained them. Trying to duplicate the seamless training we had just witnessed… My macaw was so lovely to me, and he learned quickly. I was able to adjust my hand position and really connect with him. He was a great student and was helpful to my learning. He got it in the end! We took about 15 minutes to put a spin on cue, and even started to develop a stimulus control.
I then watched each of the other trainers in my group as they had their turns with their macaws. Each trainer had different challenges, and each trainer learned so much. I learned by watching them. We were caught marking our colleagues for their successes! It’s a part of how we train, and it was how we applied the knowledge to all learners, even our human colleagues. Everyone did so well, and we were all able to get our behaviour on cue. I’m so happy to have been part of this group!
After was a debrief. This review of the day included wine and cheese! We sat and talked about successes and challenges, learning points, questions, and applications. There may have been more, but I could barely keep my brain inside my head. I felt exploded.
Each of the five days went similarly. Hours of lecture followed by application. Working with the animals with which we were assigned. Performance, feedback, revision.
The lectures were on familiar topics like ABCs, motivating operations, complex behaviour chains (fly through hoop, land on perch, turn around, fly through hoop, land, reinforce), negative reinforcement and how to apply it (with a crow and a towel), What is punishment, what is an aversive, and so on.
We dealt with real-life motivation changes. Our macaws became satiated with receiving pelleted foods as their reinforcers, then after we switched to nuts, they also became satiated with them. After five days of training, most of our macaws had very short attention spans for training, even though their weights remained virtually the same each morning. We were able to use other motivators like model/rival teaching, as well as having a conspecific (companion) nearby to increase drive to train. The delicate balance of willingness to train, choice, freedom, and diet were all taken into consideration. The highest standards of welfare!
Practicing delivering just one treat at a time
Every day was an opportunity for practicing our own skills. From learning the technique of palming foods, to using the bait bag, to delivering a reinforcer to that big macaw beak, I felt like I was continuously refining all of my skills.
Steve Martin’s Trainer Game was one evening I won’t forget. This is a variation of the clicker game where one human is the learner and the other is the trainer and a goal behaviour is taught. This one was done in pairs (sets of four, two learner/trainer pairs). While one learner/trainer team was working on the goal behaviour, the other pair could watch. After the time limit, the second learner/teacher pair would continue the same goal behaviour. This was my first time experiencing and using modeling as a learning tool in such an intimate way. I found this game extremely helpful, especially in understanding the complexities of communicating in these training relationships!
Art of training
Every day, our van from the hotel left early in the morning, and we all stumbled into the ranch in the same haze. Eager for more, but brain-bucket-full, we listened to Dr. Friedman talk about applications of the learning science we had been using all week. With emphasis on problem solving, appropriate interventions, and the “art of training” we started to synthesize the information into our souls.
During the course, the lessons were taught in such a way that they became part of my thoughts. I couldn’t even look at a plate of lunch without seeing antecedent arrangements or think about cues. I was conscious of pulling my phone out of my pocket, because that’s a cue for Hendrix the Lab to leap into action and try to steal food: the most salient cue he could find for “do it now!”
We became a team while training our goat. One day, we all tag-teamed training the harnessing behaviour. I really saw how fading the lure hand was essential to getting the goat to focus on the item in front of them, not just the food. This made the harness the cue to “do it now” rather than our learner simply following the lure hand and accidentally falling into a harness. It was super cool to see the goat thinking through each option and opportunity. I really see how mechanics and timing are essential. And observation! Wild.
Off to the banquet
At the end of our course we had a banquet. It was an emotional experience. We all sat and ate a great meal together and celebrated our successes. We went around the room discussing our high point of the seminar. We all have so many, so picking one was truly difficult. I said my high point was the macaws; they were so empowered and had such high degree of welfare. It was truly inspiring to work with these animals that were kept this way. I never have had an experience with a macaw like that. There were plenty of moments where the lightbulb went on, or a particular behaviour clicked.
But by far the highest point was the people. The team leads, the speakers, the students, how we all worked together and supported each other. How we were led to experiences and reinforced. How our team leads met us where we were at, rather than pushing. How I’ve made friends for life, in our team leads, in our group mates, and in the speakers. I feel like we had an incredible group of people. All learners were treated with respect and met where they were at to expand in their own time. I’m so proud of these people and I’m thankful to be among them.
During the course I experienced the incredible generosity of the entire NEI family. I saw people who were freely giving with their reinforcers for all the behaviours they wanted to see more of, from the human learners and the non-human learners alike. I saw the staff set us human students up for success, at the same time as their animals. I saw the team leads engage and encourage, and uphold all the values they espouse as positive reinforcement trainers. I felt like the course was as much Robin training as it was macaw training. NEI was a magical place. It was like someone went into my dreams and plucked out all the best bits, but this is absolutely the real deal.
Robin Horemans is the owner and head trainer at the Calgary Bird School, providing foundational training for pet parrots and their owners. She is the co-chair of the IAABC Parrot Division, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and has a background in ABA. She enjoys teaching science-based LIMA training methods in person, online, and around the world.