Tort Reform: On Training a Tortoise in Nose Work
I began training dogs as a teenager almost 40 years ago, and my interest in other species has been expanding as I continue to learn and grow as a professional. I have also worked with cats, goats, pigs, horses, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, chickens, ferrets, and even a tarantula. My latest passion is training my tortoise, Dewberry, and we are currently working on scent detection/nose work.
Training with a tortoise, especially a young tortoise, is fascinating and challenging. They do not eat every day, and they can spend large portions of the day hunkered down, engaged in little to no activity. This means there are often entire days when training is not possible, either because Dewberry is resting or not hungry. (I tried using touch as a reward with my previous tortoise, Darwin, and found that it was challenging to integrate into our training sessions; even though he enjoyed certain kinds of touch at other times, when we trained he seemed to exclusively want food. He actually moved away from touch during training sessions and displayed food-seeking behaviors.)
Because I want Dewberry to be an active and willing participant in our training sessions, and because his biology limits when he will be able to work, the first thing I taught him was a signal that allows him to tell me he wants to train. I place my hand palm up in his habitat, and if he is interested in training, he comes over and crawls onto my hand to be taken to the training area. Since learning this behavior, Dewberry has only declined training twice. These were times when I misjudged his readiness; he was either too cold or not feeling active when I gave the cue.
Dewberry opting in to training when my hand is offered in his habitat
My first tortoise, Darwin, learned how to target, bow, high five, and follow a target stick. I’ve also taught Dewberry several tricks, including to target a bright-yellow ball on an extendable wand.
Dewberry doing target training
I got Dewberry right around the same time I was learning about scent detection with my dog, and I decided to try it with Dew as well. Tortoises have a keen sense of smell, and I love a training challenge!
My first goal was to teach him to offer an alert signal: extending his neck and head into the opening of the scent article, which is a capped PVC pipe with a scented cotton swab in it. In this training session, I was looking for that alert signal, as opposed to just a general interest in the scent article. In the video, he pauses at the opening, and I wait in hopes of getting a distinct alert. That paid off in this session. He eventually extends his neck and head into the pipe. Success!
This training has not been without its difficulties. In addition to the overall challenges of training a tortoise, I had to use trial and error to find a scent article that worked for our purposes. It was because tortoises are prone to bumping into things that I ended up with the capped PVC pipe/cotton swab, which I mounted in the training space for stability. I also had to overcome tortoises’ tendency to get stuck in corners, which is how I ended up with a round training arena.
After all of that was sorted out, the contraption I had built came into contact with some cleaning chemicals, and I worried the residual scent would be confusing. I started over with another PVC pipe setup, but this caused a training setback due to a difference in size of the pipe. I believe that it looked different enough to Dewberry that he was unsure of what to do. This was a sign that his response was at least partially to the visual stimulus, not the odor.
I am now retraining Dewberry to the new scent article. As I become confident that he is offering the correct alert behavior to this scent article, our next step will be to work with two articles, one with scent and one without, so Dewberry learns true discrimination for the scent.
Above all else, this experience has honed my patience! On their best days, tortoises don’t move very fast. This video shows Dewberry passing by the scent article without alerting the first time, then offering the alert on the next:
And in this one, he moves around in the training space for two minutes before even approaching, and then it’s another 90 seconds before he alerts to the article.
The most important aspect of my work with Dewberry is that he is enjoying himself. When I acquired him from a hatchery in Florida, I specifically requested a bold, outgoing tortoise, and he did not disappoint in that department! But despite his temperament, I still take care to limit his stress and maximize his agency during training. His ability to opt in to training via his response to my hand cue is a critical first step. I also look for signs that he might be stressed throughout the training process. Of course, one clear sign of stress in tortoises is “shelling up,” withdrawing their head and limbs into their shell. Dewberry might also rock back and forth, a stereotypic behavior for tortoises, when he feels stressed. Finally, I keep an eye on his breathing rate, which is visible from the movement of his throat. I am always watching Dew for signs of stress and adjusting accordingly.
When people hear that I am training my tortoise to do Nose Work, they sometimes wonder if there is a practical reason, beyond my learning and his enrichment, to do so. Are there real-world applications for a scent detection–trained tortoise? The truth is that there probably are not. Tortoises are long-lived, and their shells clearly provide a level of protection other working animals lack, but those potential assets are outweighed by the drawbacks. As I mentioned, their irregular appetites and energy levels mean unpredictable waxing and waning of their motivation to learn and work. This means the training process is necessarily pretty slow. They need a heat source to maintain their body temperature at a safe level, which limits the location and duration they can work. It would be great if there were some higher purpose to my work with Dewberry, but it’s enough that I love it, and he does too.
Follow Dewberry’s adventures on our Facebook page, Tortoise Training!