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From Otters to Dogs

By Michelle Jeffries
Otter Photo Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium
Dog Photo Courtesy of John Sullivan

otter in crate

I’ve been very lucky in my career as a marine zoologist and animal trainer. I’ve been able to work with some really cool animals: dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, sea and freshwater otters, even a white shark. All through my career I enjoyed watching animals’ behavior. Now that I own my own Doggie Day Care I’m working with some pretty cool dogs; and yes, I’m still enjoying watching animal behavior. What has intrigued me the most is comparing the behavior and training of marine animals to dog behavior and training.

So how are dogs the same as or different from marine animals? Well, let’s take a fun example, otters and dogs. What a difference! As cute as sea and freshwater otters are, they are not the friendliest animals. Otters are weasels and have a very tough temperament. Otters don’t really care about you: they may like being around you but are not affectionate and don’t like to be touched. Dogs crave attention and love any type of tactile contact with us humans. They show their affection for us with that wagging tail and “smiling” face. They are sensitive to and mirror our emotions. Dogs have been bred and have evolved to respond to, work with and please us; dogs want our approval and love. Also, because of their attachment to us, most dogs rely on humans for their survival. Any wild animal, especially otters, do not seek out human attention for attention’s sake, and rely on instinct for survival.

Despite the differences between wild marine animals and dogs, they all learn in the same way. Animals, including humans, learn from associative learning, mimicry or, when those fail, trial and error. Most importantly, animals learn best from positive reinforcement, shaping behavior through positive means. While “negative reinforcement” may have a quicker effect on behavior, for long-term stability or at least the ability to re-shape behavior, positive reinforcement is vital.

dog in crate

Let’s compare some basic husbandry behaviors that can be done with dogs, otters or other marine animals. Kenneling, a basic and useful behavior for dogs happens to be a very useful behavior for otters. You definitely don’t want to try to pick up a feisty otter and carry it from one place to another, so kenneling is a great behavior. Whether dog or otter, you want to make the behavior positive, and you want to make that kennel a safe or fun space. Using treats to encourage the animal to enter the kennel (biscuits for dogs shrimp for otters) is a good start, and then slowly build up the time the animal spends in the kennel until the kennel becomes somewhere the dog or otter wants to go. Another good behavior for dogs and otters is teaching them to allow you to touch various parts of their body. This is a very important husbandry behavior. You need to be able to palpate the abdomen for sensitivity, check out their ears or eyes or look at that paw for cuts or abrasions.

All animals seem to process learning a new behavior in the same way. Associative learning facilitates the learning process by pairing one thing with another. When a behavior is paired with a positive stimulus like kennel equals shrimp or dog biscuit, the learning process is enhanced. One thing that is important to remember is that the training method and even the reinforcements you use must be relevant for that species and the individual animal. For example what motivates dogs, touching and petting will not work for otters. Individuals within a species, may have their own preferences. Some dogs like food treats while a few actually spit them out; some otters like ice to crunch on while others just drop it. Finding what works for your animal is the key to successful training.

The one concept that is universal in the animal world is that they all want to feel they have control over their environment. The trick is to make them think they are in control while you are really getting them to do what you want. Animals like to have a choice. Do I want to swim into this net or be chased around the pool? Do I want to come in from the yard and get a treat or be left outside alone?

From otters to dogs, they all want choice, something that motivates them, and positive reinforcement.

Michelle Jeffries has a Bachelor of Science in Zoology/Marine Science, specializing in animal behavior. Michelle started her career in 1980 working for the Navy’s marine mammal program. She then moved on to UCSC Long Marine Lab, Brookfield Zoo, Mote Marine Laboratory and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As Associate Curator of Mammals for the Aquarium, she managed the sea otter exhibit and developed the freshwater otter exhibit. Michelle has always enjoyed observing animal behavior and using it to take better care of the animals under her care. Michelle opened Doggie Day Care in Pacific Grove, CA in February of 2008 and continues to enjoy all aspects of animal behavior.


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