The old assumption that animals acted exclusively by instinct, while man had a monopoly of reason, is, we think, maintained by few people nowadays who have any knowledge at all about animals. We can only wonder that so absurd a theory could have been held for so long a time as it was, when on all sides the evidence if animals’ power of reasoning is crushing. ~Ernest Bell
I am beyond excited to share this post with you! Huge breakthroughs have been happening for tortoises and turtles behind the scenes for decades, but most of the world has no idea what we have accomplished and learned from these complicated reptiles. Thankfully, a new study has proven what reptile trainers, zoo, aquarium and nature center educators, and reptile enthusiasts all over the world already knew; turtles and tortoises are not simple, mindless creatures.
Thanks to scientists who are thinking outside the box, and who are willing to share their results, the world will finally know that turtles and tortoises are capable of decision making and complex cognitive behavior. Yes, you read that correctly; tortoises and turtles make deliberate decisions, and use complex thinking to solve problems, and to gain rewards for themselves.
The title of this post is actually true! Tortoises have officially entered the world of touch-screen technology! Scientists recently discovered that tortoises are capable of learning how to use an electronic device in exchange for strawberries! The tortoises not only mastered the task in exchange for strawberries, but the animals also transferred their knowledge to a real-life setting.
The Tortoise Test Subjects
The tortoises they chose as test subjects for this experiment were Red-footed tortoises. Like most turtles and tortoises, they are very inquisitive and very eager to eat tasty treats. “This makes them very good test subjects”, Anna Wilkinson, of the University of Lincoln, England explained.
These tortoises lack a hippocampus. This is an area of the brain associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation. The researchers believe that red-footed tortoises may rely on an area in their brain called the medial cortex. This is the same area associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision making in humans.
Red-footed tortoises are inquisitive and eager to eat treats, making them good test subjects. ~Wilkinson
“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”
Learning How Tortoises Learn
First the researchers needed to understand how tortoises learn, so they tested how the reptiles relied on cues to navigate the area. To do this, they gave the tortoises treats when the reptiles looked at, approached, and then pecked on the screen. All four red-footed tortoises learned how to use touch screens fairly quickly.
“It’s comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it. I’ve trained dogs to use a touch screen and I’d say the tortoises are faster.” ~ Wilkinson
Wilkinson explains that turtles’ and tortoises’ speedy learning is due to the fact that “tortoise hatchlings don’t receive parental care, so they have to learn how to make decisions about food and shelter for themselves from the moment they hatch.”
The Main Experiment
The tortoises attempted to bite a red triangle in the center of the touch screen. When two blue circles flashed, the tortoises had to consistently peck at either the circle on the right, or the one on the left to get a tasty strawberry.
The results: All four of the tortoises mastered the tortoise touch-screen task! However two of the tortoises eventually stopped cooperating; Wilkinson explains that it’s possibly because these two were too small to reach the screen. Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, continued to try and applied their knowledge to a real-life situation.
You can watch part of the experiment below.
Tortoise With A Touchscreen Tests Testudine Perception Video
The video below is a test of spatial cognition. This Red-footed tortoise was presented with shapes in varying positions, and she was rewarded with strawberries when she touched the targets.
Learning Applied to Real Life
In the next part of the experiment, the remaining two tortoises applied their knowledge to a real-life situation. The researchers placed the tortoises in an arena with two blue, empty food bowls that were similar to the blue circles on the touch screen. The tortoises walked over to the bowl on the same side as the red circles that they were trained to bite at on the screen.
The researchers then trained the tortoises to go to the opposite blue bowl in the arena to see how flexible they were with learning. When they were reintroduced to the touch screens three months later, the tortoises immediately began biting at the same side of the screen as before.
“The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”
What Does This All Mean?
The experiment reinforces other findings that tortoises are intelligent creatures. ~Professor Vonk, psychology department, Oakland University, Michigan
These new findings will help researchers compare the perceptual and cognitive abilities of tortoises to other animals that can perform the same tasks.
“Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.” -Dr Wilkinson
“If you are taking on a reptile, you must consider their need for cognitive enrichment.” ~ Wilkinson
“Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive. I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.” ~ Anna Wilkinson, senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln, England
Story Source: Materials provided by University of Lincoln
Julia Mueller-Paul, Anna Wilkinson, Ulrike Aust, Michael Steurer, Geoffrey Hall, Ludwig Huber. Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria). Behavioural Processes, 2014; 106: 187 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.06.003
Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity. It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time.
While working for a decade as an Enrichment Coordinator for various animal sections at the Audubon Zoo, I learned that physical and mental stimulation is vital to every species on the plant. Squid, poison dart frogs, mice, tortoises, spiders, jaguars, sheep, dogs, parrots, ferrets, anteaters, cats, and pigs all need daily mental and physical stimulation! Think of any animal, and I assure you that it needs daily stimulation.
Life is very stale and very boring without enrichment. Imagine sitting on the couch in your home. There are no windows. You cannot leave the house. No one ever visits you. You have no radio, T.V. iPhone, or internet. You have to eat and drink the same thing every day. What do you think would eventually happen to your mind and body after a day, then a week, then a month? This kind of mental stagnation is incredibly harmful to all living creatures. In fact, it’s downright deadly.
All animals need enrichment, which is a fairly simple but important concept. Enrichment improves or enhances the environment for an individual animal and stimulates the animal to investigate and interact with their surroundings more. At the Audubon Zoo, I would enrich an animal’s environment by making changes to structures in their enclosures, present novel objects and scents for them to investigate, change how we presented food to them, and much more.
We encouraged them to forage, hunt, and handle their food in ways that are natural to them in the wild. (The Shape of Enrichment has a great sample article of this kind of enrichment.) These tools were used on a regular basis at our zoo to alleviate boredom. Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors. Giving animals more choices prevents boredom!
Coordinating Enrichment for Exotics
As an Enrichment Coordinator, it was my job to ensure that every animal in a particular section had species-appropriate enrichment provided for them every day. This could be anything from planting geographically appropriate plant species to encourage a critically endangered female Blue Iguana to forage on her native country’s plants to prepare her body for breeding season, to providing a Boomer Ball for our Miniature Donkey in the Children’s Zoo to keep her from becoming bored and harassing the goats, sheep, or visitors!
The video below is an excellent example of how we could use a Boomer Ball in a captive zoo environment. This demonstrates the fun and importance of mental and physical enrichment, with a focus on Choice, Change, and Complexity.
Otters Playing with Boomer Balls at the Philadelphia Zoo
Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors
What Captive Otters Can Teach Us About Our Pets
Right about now you might be asking, “So what does an otter playing with a ball, underwater, at a zoo, have to do with my pet at home?” Well, that otter is a perfect example of what I encourage all of my clients to do with their pets, in their homes, every day: mentally and physically challenge them! Every one of you has the ability to have this much fun with your pets at home! I am going to explain how you can do this, why enrichment is so important for your pets, and how it improves your life as well.
How Enrichment Helps
Environmental enrichment, when used properly, can positively address many behavioral issues. This can be anything from “rowdiness,” cognitive dysfunction, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and behaviors that result from the all too common problem in homes: boredom and/or frustration.
In addition to treating behavioral disorders, environmental enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.
What is Enrichment?
Enrichment can be defined as:
A process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioral biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare . (Association of Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] Behavior Scientific Advisory Group 1999, excerpted from Disney’s Animal Programs).
Behavioral enrichment is defined as “the environmental enhancement of the lives of animals in a managed setting by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior.”
Simply put, enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.
More simply put: Add a little creativity, fun, and stimulation to an animal’s life!
Environmental enrichment for pets (also called behavioral enrichment) is a means to enhance a companion animal’s surroundings. It serves to enhance their life through means in which the animal is presented with novelty in his/her environment. The animal is given opportunities to learn. And the animal is encouraged to engage in natural, instinctive, species-specific behaviors.
Why Enrichment Is Important
Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs.
Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn. This directly relates to your pets at home! Bored animals are easily frustrated, and frustration can lead to destruction. You can avoid boredom and destruction by enriching your pets! Enrichment is one of the keys to enhancing your pet’s life. It is also one of the easiest tools to implement on a daily basis.
Enrichment at Home Serves To:
Curb boredom and restlessness of an animal
Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion
Types of Enrichment
Enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories. All of these can be used at home with your pets:
The Key to Successful (and appropriate!) Enrichment
As I mentioned earlier, enrichment is something that can, and should be, incorporated into your animal companion’s life every day. The image above is a great example of how easy it is to do! However, the key to successful (and appropriate) enrichment for an individual animal is doing a bit of research. Your homework is to understand your pet’s natural history. This means that you need to learn about the history of their species, or background and history of their breed.
For example, did you know?
The Italian Greyhound was bred to hunt rabbits.
The Dachshund was used to hunt badgers.
The main reason cats were bred and kept around homes was originally for hunting vermin.
The Bengal cat breed originally came from crossing domestic cats with wild Asian leopard cats.
Although cats are carnivores, they still have an occasional craving for live green plants.
All of this matters!
The breeding history and the natural history of animals affects our pet’s today – even if only on a small level at times. Your domestic house cat still has a strong predatory instinct, so she needs to hunt every day. Your cockatoo may live in a metal enclosure in your house, but he/she still has the innate need to chew, fly, and forage. Your couch potato dog might have a lineage that was bred to swim and retrieve. We must provide opportunities for animals to do things that are in their DNA. We can provide simulated hunting, chewing, foraging, and seeking in our homes. This is what enrichment provides. It’s important that we take the time to put the pieces of their breed /species puzzle together.
What would my _____ be doing if they were living in the wild??
What does this breed of cat do really well, naturally?
What does this breed of dog do on his/her own that might be a peek into their genes?
What was this breed of dog, cat, horse, etc. originally bred for?
What behaviors does this species do naturally in the wild?
What kinds of food are found in their country of origin?
Exploring the breed- and species-specific background for each animal in your home is where we should begin thinking about how to provide appropriate enrichment for them.
The video below is an example of how hedgehogs naturally behave in the wild when they have the opportunity to make their own choices. Why does this matter? Well, if a hedgehog owner knows how hedgehogs naturally behave, then they can then provide this kind of stimulating environment for their hedgehog in the home! The same concept is true for your dog, cat, parrot, or turtle! When we learn about how our animals would behave naturally in the wild, we then have the tools to help them thrive and live long, healthy, happy lives with us in our homes!
Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors
How You Can Provide Enrichment at Home!
Most people have limited resources available to enrich the lives of their animal companions, which results in a huge lack of appropriate enrichment with most household pets, especially exotic animals. Making a few changes to their daily routines can greatly enhance the life and longevity of your animal companion! They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal.
You don’t have to be rich to enrich your pet’s life!
One thing I learned very quickly while working at the zoo was that funds were limited. If you wanted to do a lot of enrichment, you had to get creative and do it yourself. This now carries over into our home, and also when I am working with a family that has a very limited budget. I teach my clients that anyone can make enrichment toys out of almost anything, and in the process you get to recycle in a super fun way!
Every night we give our dog Hocus Pocus (and the cats) some sort of enrichment challenge to do. Below is a video demonstrating a very easy one for her, but the point is to not just “give a dog a bone”. Make them work for it! Dogs are natural foragers, so allow your dog to utilize his/her natural instincts! Be as creative as you want to be! This kind of enrichment provides mental and physical stimulation, and in the process they learn that being alone is a Very Good Thing. Bonus: it gives you time to do whatever you need to get done while they are having fun!
Here’s another suggestion: The old school (“traditional”) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors. Enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors! The video below is a great example of providing simple mental and physical enrichment for a very smart and energetic dog.
Below are a few more examples of simple, easy enrichment that we use in our home on a daily basis. Each of these are examples of natural behaviors that the animal would do in the wild if they were given choices. Click the links to see each short video:
Results from a study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more. These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward. The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.
Now let that really sink in for a moment …. What does that tell you?
In the video below, Chopin, the Moluccan cockatoo, is being challenged mentally and physically to utilize his natural foraging and problem solving skills to retrieve a high-value nut from a puzzle feeder. We used this kind of enrichment for Chopin to reduce aggression, frustration, and boredom.
I encourage everyone to learn what their animal enjoys doing. Discover their natural behaviors. Learn the history of the breed, and the natural history of the species. Once you understand these things, you can challenge the animal to move out of their stale comfort zone and step into the space of Who The Animal Really Is. Enrichment allows us to bring out the inner “House Panther” in a lazy cat. Enrichment transforms destructive dogs into mentally healthy canine companions. It changes frustrated parrots into relaxed, feathered friends.
Daily enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming, but the more creative you get, the more fun your animals will have! Make it a FUN challenge for you and them!
TIP: Be there with them as they discover their new toy. Encourage them every time they make a small success! Don’t just leave them alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder. You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.” You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress! The same is true for our animal companions. Encourage them. Praise them when they make small progress, and even when they are just trying to figure it out!
What kind of enrichment do you provide for your animals? Please share in the comments below!
The only difference between your abilities and others is the ability to put yourself in their shoes and actually try. ― Leonardo Ruiz
The world is full of crazy people doing crazy cool things, so it takes a lot to impress me these days, but a young girl from the Czech Republic has trained her cat, Suki, to do agility. So have many others. Yes, you read that right: Cats are now doing agility. The sport no longer belongs to just dogs.
If you haven’t heard about dog agility, then you are missing out on some pretty amazing dog and handler skills. My dog Hocus Pocus and I absolutely love to do agility together! Nothing has strengthened our bond more. We are not experts by any means, but we do have a blast, and I discovered that she is incredibly skilled at this sport. Dog agility competitions are so much fun! Dogs soar through the complex obstacle courses with determination and speed. Now, just imagine a cat doing that.
Well, they can and they DO! Most people (even the most loving cat guardians) don’t realize that cats are easily trainable. If you have a cat that is willing to follow a dancing feather toy, or favorite food treat anywhere, then you have the tools to begin cat agility!
The videos below show cat agility in action. It’s amazing not only because cats are doing agility – quite well I must say – but it’s so inspiring to clearly see the bond that the cat and the person share together. This makes my heart sing, because it’s what I strive to teach young people; that they are capable of doing this and more with their feline companion!
Watch the 16 month young Suki’s agility in action, and performing cat “tricks” with her person! What a team!
Suki the cat at 8 months young and her person run the homemade agility course together:
Young people are practicing and perfecting cat agility in their homes all around the world. This young man has taught his cat, Cashmere, to rebound off of walls, all through the use of clicker training! Check out Cashmere and Puff!
Feline agility competitions have rapidly grown in popularity all around the world. The Cat Fancy Association started agility competitions in 2004, and other clubs have “jumped” at agility courses! The International Cat Agility Tournament is another example. The first agility competition was held in Portland, Oregon as part of the Oregon Cats show. It was titled, “Let the Cats Entertain You”. Forty-five cats entered. Some were pedigreed and some were moggies! They ranged from kittens to adults!
With the insight and right tools, you can train your feline friend to do all of this! Once you begin training your cat, you will interact in ways you never thought possible. It’s really quite easy, and it’s FUN for both you and your feline friend! Clicker training is how you can do it!
If you can dream it, you can do it. ― Helen Keller
Rainy days and Mondays don’t have to get them down! There is always something that we can do as pet guardians to help our animals when they are bored, frightened, or frustrated.
There is a very popular homemade game that dog guardians have been playing with their dogs for years, and now you get to play along too!
Here is what you need to do: Get a 6 muffin tin and put their favorite treat or food in each cup. Place tennis balls in about half the cups. Once the animal sniffs out the uncovered treats, s/he usually figures out that removing the tennis balls reveals more tasty goodies. This game uses at least two of an animal’s senses – sight and smell – and it’s mentally challenging!
Watch these dogs learn how the game works in the videos below.
NOTE: This game was created for dogs of all ages (puppies, adult dogs, and even geriatric dogs!), but it can be modified for ferrets, horses, cats, pigs and parrots!
Once the animal gets the idea and is performing well at the game, you can start hiding treats under only some of the tennis balls, and use a 12 muffin or 24 muffin tin. Increase the difficulty to keep their brains working!
A bonus to this homemade game is that it’s also great for helping shy animals to increase their confidence. It can also help distract an animal to focus on something exciting and fun when you leave the house, or if they are afraid of storms, or new guests in your home. It is also a great tool for shelter animals in kennels. This is a great tool to help alleviate boredom. This game also helps them to practicing their hunting or foraging skills, while increasing the bond between you and your animal companion!
Game Tip: If your pet is shy, confused, or uninterested, be sure to encourage him/her as they approach the tin. Make it a huge success each time they discover the hidden treat! Be their biggest fan when they succeed!
Safety Tip: If your animal starts to toss the tin around, you can try a nonslip mat or attach the muffin tin to a large piece of plywood to anchor it.
Toy Dog Tip: If you have a very small dog, use tiny tennis balls or golf balls.
Kitty Tip: Most cats will play the game for their regular food, and even fresh catnip! Use ping pong balls or golf balls.
Parrot Tip: Use walnuts, pecans, or other assorted nuts that they rarely have access to. They will quickly learn to love this game!
Ferret Tip: Use their regular diet, or for a special treat use cooked egg whites, cooked yolks, or dried muscle/organ meat.
Smart Cookie Tip: If your pet’s intelligence level is anything like our critters’, this game will be over fairly quickly. One way to extend the game is to ask your pet to “wait” while you hide the tray in another room, then have him/her “Find It!”.
What kind of boredom buster games do you play with your animals at home? Please share with us!
Today is the “opening day” of a brand new, fun competition and you are invited!
Who: You! Your friends! Your family! Your colleagues! Your coworkers! And of course, your animal companions (pets)!
What: The International Day of Celebration for Force Free Training & Pet Care
When: Friday, January 17, 2014 – Saturday, March 15, 2014
Where: In your own home, in the backyard, at the beach, in the mountains, in the forest, in the wetlands, in your neighborhood, at the pool, or at the park! Anywhere you can think of! This is an International Virtual Educational Event, so they possibilities are endless!
Why: The community of force-free pet professionals and animal guardians recognize, value, and celebrate the positive effects and power of force-free animal training and pet care! We want to share that knowledge with the world and teach others that Force-Free is the way to be!
All profits from this event go to the Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Fund for PPG’s advocacy goals in 2014:
The Pet Professional Guild, the Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals (The PPG or The Guild), is a nonprofit member organization headquartered in Bonifay FL, USA. The PPG represents over 1600 members around the world. The mission of PPG World Services is “Global News & Views on Force-Free Pet Care” and will serve as an advocacy forum for force-free dog training and pet care issues. The key advocacy goal of the PPG is to facilitate an ongoing conversation with pet owners, pet care professionals and industry stakeholders aimed at moving the pet industry forward toward better informed practices, training methods, equipment use and pet care philosophies. The Guild’s message will strive to build widespread collaboration and acceptance of force-free methods and philosophies consistent with its guiding principles.
If you are wondering what all of this means, here it is very simply; Force-Free is defined as:
No shock, No pain, No choke, No fear, No physical force, No physical molding, No compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.
Animals can be trained without fear, force, or intimidation. That includes ALL pets, ALL animals, ALL species, ALL the time! Training can and should be FUN for everyone!
Participation in this global event is simple. All you have to do is participate in any 30 minute Force-Free Fun Activity with your pet! Take a walk or a jog, swim or hike, bike or skate, train and teach, but the idea is to spend 30 minutes of Force-Free Fun with your animal companion! This can be anything and anywhere that you decide. Where do they love to go? What do they enjoy doing? What’s your favorite place to be with them? Do it when and where it’s convenient for you!
Note: If you don’t have time to complete your chosen event all at once, you can split it up over several days.
Participants are encouraged to submit photos showing what they did for their fun, chosen event. The photos will be judged on these three criteria:
How much force-free fun the human and pet are having together (this one is strongly encouraged!) Fun is the key!
What’s In It For You!
Each participant will receive:
A special competitor medal for your companion animal!
A certificate to show off that you rocked the contest!
Register today to help celebrate and educate others about this important event. Through education and celebration, we can help others learn the value and importance of force-free training and animal companion care methods. Education and inspiration starts with you! Won’t you join the fun, Force-Free revolution with us?
Note: The registration deadline is March 3rd. So be sure to add your name to the fun, force-free list today!
We welcome and encourage you to check out the pet owner resource section of The Pet Professional Guild website! You will find tons of helpful resources! You can also listen to a few of the PPG’s free podcasts on iTunes here.
If you are still wondering why our Pet Professional Guild has proclaimed An International Day of Celebration for Force Free Training and Pet Care, check out this video and our news release here!