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Saturday, January 9, 2021

Encouraging Voluntary Interaction with Snakes: Part One

 

Voluntary Handling with Snakes: First Steps


Bruce the Eastern Indigo, at 4 months old, being curious 

All vertebrate animals are capable of learning through operant conditioning and other types of associative learning. The pivot towards and preference for utilizing primarily positive reinforcement to shape behavior with both zoo and pet animals has dramatically increased welfare for captive animals. Snakes and other ectotherms have often been overlooked and thought to not benefit from this type of learning. The work of countless private and professional caretakers over the last half a decade have proven this misconception to be not only false but potentially damaging to overall welfare and also to the animal and caretaker relationship. 

As a constant part of the environment, our animals inhabit and must navigate as captive animals, we should try to minimize unnecessary fear and stress in interacting with us. Animals in captive care, as living things who have bodies that function should utilize the full behavioral repertoire of their wild counterparts so that they remain mentally and physically fit and healthy. 



Utilizing aversive stimuli as the first resort in training is counterproductive to these goals. Punishment reduces behavior. Animals trained through punishment will offer less novel behavior and less quantity of behavior overall. By adopting a training plan that utilizes less aversive methods and introduces positive reinforcement for both preferred and natural behavior, we can better accomplish improved welfare and a better relationship with the animals in our care.

One of the areas of captive care that we have an opportunity to improve is allowing snakes more choice and control in being handled. By increasing the opportunity for choice, aversive stimuli may not be completely removed from our interactions, but the animal has agency in determining how closely and for how long they interact with things that cause them fear. For the purposes of what we will discuss today, handling includes moving animals out of their habitat permanently or temporarily for a variety of purposes from cleaning and health checks to just wanting to spend time with them and hold them. The extent to which different animals will tolerate and find handling reinforcing is influenced by a variety of factors, including their personal learning history. We should keep this in mind as we move through the steps outlined below.

Let’s begin.

Step 1: Stop Handling

The first thing that we can do to start getting more voluntary behavior from the snakes in our care probably feels both obvious and counterintuitive. If something we are doing is aversive to another living thing, of course, the fastest way to remove the aversive is to stop doing it. This seems wrong because if we have any history in the reptile hobby in any capacity, the narrative has always been the opposite. The widely accepted advice is to keep holding them until they tolerate it.  We frequently use words like habituate, tame, tolerate, desensitize, build trust, etc. 

I would invite you that when we are confident in our understanding of the way that associative learning works, we do not need to depend on habituation occurring as a passive process. We can consciously and ethically implement an operant training plan. The first step in this plan is to create a good environment for learning – this means creating a safe space. If the animal is not currently moving towards you in a calm inquisitive manner when you invite handling, this may mean ceasing handling completely for a time, until you start to see signs that the animal finds handling reinforcing. I encourage you not to become discouraged if you need to do this. While many go into this stage with a heavy heart, most snakes seem to readily start making progress within 2-3 weeks. Even snakes labeled as extremely shy or aggressive by their caretakers have shown dramatic change. 

I know the fear. I know what we have been told. If you stop handling, the negative behavior will become worse or they might not tolerate handling at all anymore. I know what we have been told. I can tell you with certainty after working with snakes in zoos, my own snakes, and coaching many many private pet owners and professional animal keepers and trainers, I cannot give you a single example of it making the behavior worse.  The behavior has a function. If your snake is hiding, striking, biting, flinching, tensing, hissing, huffing, running away, etc. These behaviors have function for them. These are largely avoidance behaviors motivated by the pressures we have introduced. If we remove the context for those behaviors, the behavior will not increase. What you will accomplish though is reducing overall stress, introducing the habitat as a place of nearly absolute safety, reducing rehearsing of the behavior you do not want, minimizing flooding, minimizing aversives, and minimizing unintentionally shutting down or discouraging behavior you do want.


Step 2: Watch

Whether overtly aversive due to a lack of learning history or a negative history, or somewhat aversive due to lack of clear communication and lack of agency, taking a break from handling should lead to some new or even just increased quantity of behavior. This is where you take the role of learner. What behaviors are they doing? In what context? What objects do they interact with? When are they more active? Are they not doing anything? What does not doing anything look like? What does the snake’s natural behavior look like in the habitat? This information will be valuable to you as you continue to move through the steps. You can continue to return to this step at any time for more information on how to move forward.

Step 3: Introduce Novel Stimuli

So, you have reduced handling to what is medically necessary or stopped it altogether. You have had a bit of a reset and have spent some time really watching your snake and seeing what they gravitate to and when. You are ready to move forward. Great! Now, we will start to introduce some new things. 

The items can be natural or non-natural. It can be as simple as trading out a water dish for a new one or adding a branch. Add one small thing in an area of the habitat where preferred or necessary resources are not. That work you did when observing will help you here. Do not add anything that might be swallowed. Remember if you are adding scents, a little goes an exceedingly long way.

Now, watch again. Is there any direct interest in the object? Is there any increase in overall behavior? Rinse. Repeat. As you continue, allow what you learn from each set up to inform the next. Think about what behaviors you would like to motivate and allow that to inform what you introduce to the habitat. 



Starting to build an enrichment program in this way is accomplishing several things. 1.) You are learning what things your snake naturally gravitates to. You will be able to use these things to motivate and reinforce behavior going forward. 2.) You are increasing the amount and diversity of behavior that your snake is offering. It is generally easier to shape behavior that is occurring than to start from a snake that is stationary and not moving. 3.) You are increasing your snake’s learning history with moving, making choices, and seeking out reinforcement on largely their own terms. You are teaching them that they have agency and can make decisions. Their own problem solving and what they do or do not do has significance. Their curiosity can lead to reinforcing things. If your snake has largely been handled on your terms and had other aspects of husbandry highly managed, this is an important skill to learn. 

Go slowly. Add things gradually and with intention. Continue watching.

Step 4: Reinforce What You Get

At this point, you should be seeing an increase in behavior. If you are not seeing new behaviors, you should at least be seeing an increase in the quantity of time that your snake is active. If you are not seeing this, my first recommendation would be to try to observe at different times of the day or set up a camera. Assuming any medical or husbandry issues have been ruled out, I then look at things like seasonal behavior changes and shed cycles. Once all of these things have been looked at, there are still things that we can do. We will discuss more troubleshooting in a future post.

Assuming that you are in fact getting more behavior, now you can start to look for the behaviors that you want to see more of and introduce things to motivate and reinforce those behaviors. What an individual snake finds reinforcing may vary. One example of this might be something like opening the door of the habitat. For one snake, opening the door of the habitat could reinforce moving towards you. For another snake, this could be aversive. It is important that we watch for if the behavior we want is increasing or decreasing based on what we do.  Regarding the door example, often this is the first important piece of training that you will do. This is especially true if your snake has a negative learning history with handling or things happening without consent when the door opens. 

When first starting out, I like to offer interesting things inside of the habitat and then close the door and stay somewhat close by. How close I stay will depend on the snake’s level of comfort. Then, I will move to putting interesting things inside the habitat and leaving the door open, and walking away a bit. Only do this if you can do it safely. Then I move to placing interesting things inside the habitat and leaving the door open and not walking away and staying close to the habitat. Ideally, I am moving to a point where I become another interesting novel thing for them to explore.

Another behavior that you might want to reinforce is coming out of hiding or peeking out of their hide when you come in the room. One way to do this is to have a small box or basket of items that you intend to use for the enrichment and nonfood reinforcers. When you see behaviors that we might label as curious, you can offer a new item from your collection of things into the habitat. These items can be things like snippings of plants, rocks, tubes, something you have rubbed a food item on, sprinkled herbs, fresh water, a mirror, boxes, fluffy things that are too big to eat, different substrates, etc.

If you are not getting any behavior that you would describe as curious or orienting towards you, you can still reward general activity and exploratory behavior. Leaving something interesting and not scary in the habitat, even if your snake was active and left to hide when you arrived can still reinforce that you bring interesting and non-threatening things and help them habituate to you in a positive way.

Conclusion

It is simply not possible to discuss everything on this topic in one post, so let us end here for today. Problem-solving and troubleshooting, as well as what to do once you are ready to start taking them out of the habitat will be covered in future posts. Following these first initial steps should not only get your snake acting with more agency and help you support that behavior but grow your overall communication and understanding of them and their needs. This will continue to be helpful if you choose to take on more complex training tasks with them. 

It should go without saying that this is not the only strategy or method that can be used. I have however found it to be very low stress for both snake and handler and very successful. I have also opted for the purposes of this post to not go into the bits and bobs of why traditional handling and non-choice based handling can be aversive and how flooding and force work. These are very valid discussions to have, but discussions for another post.

Utilizing positive reinforcement in snake training will continually build your observation skills, patience, and creativity. While the concepts are the same as with any species, the mechanics can have a learning curve. The rewards are worth it for you, your snake, and your relationship! I hope this introduction has been helpful. You are doing a great job! Happy training!

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You can go here to learn more about reading snake body language. You can go here to join the Reptelligence Facebook community learning group. You can go here to support Reptelligence by buying cool reptile and reptile training themed merch. If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more content like this you can click here to directly support this work. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Choice and Control in Training Ectotherms -- IAABC Journal Article Spring 2018

Research into the ethological needs and cognitive abilities of companion animals like dogs has increased exponentially in recent years, leading to a greater understanding of what they need to have good welfare and how we can meet those needs. There is still a great lack of knowledge and understanding of the needs of the reptiles we keep in our homes and zoos, however; they are too often dismissed as more like objects than animals. I’m trying to change that viewpoint. I’ve been working with reptiles and creating resources for their caregivers, focusing on the concepts of choice and control.
In this article, I’ll talk about how we can improve the lives of reptiles by thinking about what matters to them: giving them opportunity and motivation to perform natural behaviors, helping them feel safe around human caregivers, and reducing their stress by training them to cooperate in their own care.
Read the full article here: IAABC Journal Spring 2018 Article

The one thing I’d like to be able to communicate to every reptile owner and keeper is that reptiles can learn; they have preferences, make decisions, and can be trained! Even if that isn’t enough to inspire all of us to start a training program, maybe there is some small change you can make as a pet guardian to give the animal under your care a little more choice and control in their life.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Snake Training Podcast from Animal Training Academy

Carrie Kish, Director of Reptelligence was recently interviewed by Ryan Cartlidge of Animal Training Academy

Listen to the podcast here:
https://www.animaltrainingacademy.com/podcast/training-tidbits/carrie-kish/



PODCAST OUTLINE provided courtesy of Animal Training Academy

• 00:00 Introductions. 

• 4:35 - Carrie tells us about what Reptelligence is and the importance of training and enriching reptiles/snakes.

• 7:40 Carrie talks about how the information at Reptelligence compares to more traditional ways of management reptiles and snakes. 

• 11:48 Carrie talks about the importance of sharing reptile training and behavior with zoo visitors • 16:40 Here Carrie takes us through some of the research she is aware of with regards to snake training. 

• 26:10 Carrie shares four important steps to training your snake. 

• 34:50 Carrie talks about reptile/snake body language and where you can go to learn more about this. 

• 45:14 Here Carrie talks to the importance of giving reptiles exercise and what we still have to learn about this. 

• 47:21 Here Carrie discusses her process of crate training snakes and why she prioritized doing this with the animals in her care. 

• 53:20 Story time; Carrie shares two of her favourite stories from working with Animals so far. 

• 58:10 Carrie shares with us what she would like to see happen in the reptile/snake training world over the next 5-10 years.

Get Moving Monday!


Go enrich your reptiles lives today!  

Be safe. Be kind. Get your reptiles out of the box. And, have a fantastic week!


































Saturday, March 10, 2018

Understanding Snake Body Language: An Introduction


I have been asked recently to create a resource for understanding snake body language for the purposes of embarking on an operant conditioning training plan. I will do so in this blog today. But first, a few disclaimers. 

The following will be the observations of both myself and those I've worked closely with in training snakes, including the fantastically skilled reptile trainer and just amazing human being Kate Silveira.

This will not be all inclusive, as it is a work in progress and every individual is different. By the same token, it is not set in stone and may change as more research comes forward. That said, it has currently held true for a significant number of diverse species, from a variety of backgrounds, in a variety of environments, so I feel quite confident in releasing this working copy of what I look for when I am handling and training snakes. Without further introduction, here we go.

Examples of RELAXED body language: 

This is where we want to live when training and handling, the majority of the time.

Loose-NOT LIMP-body. The snake is not rigid, but you can feel and see that they are carrying their own weight and moving with ease. 

Slow, fluid, deliberate movements. If they are making very quick or jerking movements, you are likely heading towards over-stimulation. While this might not yet be a stress response, you will want to make sure that the environment is appropriate for the activity, and that safety measures are in place, including for the animal. 

Consistent tongue flicking at an even rate. If tongue flicking stops, there is other relaxed body language present. In general, there is not a speed that is "too fast", but be sure to take in the picture of the whole animal. 

Orients towards stimuli in a fluid manner. If movements are very quick or exaggerated when orienting to something new, you may be moving towards over-stimulation or a stressed animal.

Examples of MODERATE OR ACUTE STRESS signals:

All stress is not bad. There is scientific data to suggest that a certain amount of eustress is healthy.  If you see these behaviors though, you will want to slow down, take in the whole picture that the animal is giving, identify and note antecedents, and be ready to slow or stop the session. You want to be mindful of how long these behaviors are present and how quickly the animal is able to go back to a relaxed state.

Tense, tight or stiff body. Tightly wrapping an object that is not prey or tightly squeezing into hide. Parts of the snake may be stiff and ungiving if handling or the snake be wrapping tightly to an object or the handler.

Hyperactivity.

Hyper-fixating.

Lack of tongue flicking. Usually in conjunction with other signs of stress. This does not in and of itself indicate a stressed animal. 

Freezing. This is exactly what it sounds like and you've likely seen it in a snake, other species, or even in yourself. Tongue flicking is usually the first behavior to return, and show you that the animal is relaxing.

Highly reactive to touch or movement.-Often in conjunction with other stress signals, including hyper-fixating.

Raising head high or arching in upper third of body, in conjunction with any other signs of stress. Snakes may raise their head to explore. That is not necessarily a sign of stress. This will look more like the first third of the body is coiled back or up and other stress signs will likely be present including freezing and or hyper-fixating. This can have a lessor to more intense presentation.  You will want to take some pressure off and wait for the animals to show signs of a more relaxed state.

Signs of SEVERE STRESS or OVER-STIMULATION:

Stop. Get the animal into a safe place and allow them time to relax. Depending on the individual, they may require several days or longer to recover and be ready to train again.  Animals with a longer reinforcement history and larger trust bank, may be ready much sooner, but keep in mind that there is little data concerning stress hormones in snakes and it may be beneficial to give them some time off anyway to allow them to fully physically recover.  Until we know more, I personally, will error on the side of caution. That said, these behaviors should not be occurring, with a mindfully developed, science based, training plan. But, sometimes circumstances can happen out of our control. And, so here are the signs that something highly threatening or scary has occurred and the animal needs to be returned asap to wherever they feel most safe.

Urinating or defecating in conjunction with other stress signals. This will look functionally different than an animal that just needs to relieve themselves. Multiple other signs of stress will be evident. The animal will likely be moving quickly. Stool may be looser than normal. Sometimes the animal may partially prolapse due to straining.

Musting. The snake will release a substance that smells terrible. To those who have not experienced it before, it may loose like diarrhea, urates, or strong urine or all three. This is a defensive behavior, and one you should not see. The animal has been pushed too far. If the animal is doing this seemingly instantly when you approach, you will need to look closely at how you can better arrange antecedents.

Tail wagging. You may see this when an animal is aroused and not stressed, if for example engaged in an activity where food is present. This does indicate high arousal, so the handler will want to be aware that the environment and the animal are safe. When seen outside the confines of a feeding activity, it is almost 100 percent of the time a defensive action of a highly stressed snake.

Repeated erratic attempts to move away. If handling, the snake will be moving very quickly, and you will likely feel parts of the body go very squishy, especially where hands are contacting the body. Other parts of the animal will likely feel very tense. If in habitat, the animal may climb up walls, pace at super speed, and cling to anything it can. This behavior may quickly escalate to striking, musting and or urinating and defecating.

Heavy breathing. Huge, deep, bellowed breaths. While the snake may occassionally have short bursts of heavier breathing than normal when exerting mental or physical energy, it should not be to this extent. 

Going completely limp or feigning death. Some species and individuals are more likely to do this than others.

Striking at anything or anyone in the environment that is not prey.  Erratic behavior and the snake may or may not make contact with anything or anyone.  Remember aggression is expensive and the animal is exerting a lot of unnecessary energy. This is a defensive behavior, and you can assume if not rehearsed, the animal feels highly threatened. If it is rehearsed, you will want to mindfully consider how you may change antecedents and reinforcment history to train an incompatible behavior or handle this behavior change in an equally low stress manner.  Angry is not a helpful label in this situation.

Anorexia. This is typically a symptom of chronic stress, but can also occur due to an acute highly stressful event.

Questions? Comments? Points of discussion?  Please comment below.
Happy Training Everyone!



Best,

Carrie Kish
Director/Co-founder
Reptelligence
reptileintelligence.com