Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Week at The Karen Pryor National Training Center

The view of Mt Rainier from the house
From May 7 to May 12, I was very fortunate to spend a week learning from world-class trainer and teacher, Ken Ramirez, at the new Karen Pryor National Training Center in Graham, Washington. I was one of 18 participants in the course called Dive Deep: an Advanced Training Course. The week was packed with information on topics which included non-food reinforcement, Aggression Treatment and Context, and Simplifying Complex Training Tools. But there was more. Much more.

Ken said that he struggled for a while trying to figure out what would be in an "advanced course" that people repeatedly suggested he should offer. He said "advanced training is just the basics done well". Everything he covered did require that the basics be understood and done well. His consultations and training for scent detection, recognizing quantity, conservation training, and more built on basic clear cues and criteria, as well as being very sensitive to his learners' emotional cues in return. And that includes human learners.

The Training Center's occupants are goats, alpacas, donkeys, and of course a couple dogs. The Dive Deep course was weighted heavily on classroom presentations but we also had a few brief training sessions with these animals daily. Focusing on the basics, we trained under the supervision of Ken or one of two other experienced trainers. We shared plans before going to the animals and then wrote brief reports of the session afterward.
working with the very sensitive alpacas to get them comfortable with touch

Participants in this course included trainers of dogs, horses, and zoo animals. Trainers focused on husbandry, human education, sport, and helping pet owners. The questions which were asked during talks and discussions that were held during meals revealed yet more views with which to look at these training topics.

One of traits which makes Ken a phenomenal presenter is his storytelling ability. With decades of experiences to draw on, training species from butterflies to killer whales, he has a story to illustrate every topic he covers. He masterfully crafts his tales so that they are entertaining as well as educational.  His humility is remarkable and each day I learned new things about his explorations into animal behavior.

Alexandra Kurland frequently refers to our continued education in animal behavior as peeling back another layer of the onion. This is apt as there is always more to discover and more to peel back. You never quite reach the middle but instead, realize how much more there is inside. But at the conclusion of that week at The Ranch, I felt like I needed a different analogy. I didn't just see another layer, I saw...3D.  It was as if I'd been looking at layers and layers of two dimensional pictures and someone had shown me an MRI. The scan allowed me to see the depth of field and how the different organs overlapped and interacted. We'd probe deep into one topic as he helped us examine it (always inviting questions and discussion) and then we'd look at the same topic from a different angle.  And then we'd look at that angle with a different topic!

We heard how the basics were used in different fields, different sports, different species. We learned how the concepts were applied for different purposes. Ken believes that training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  His primary reasons for training are for physical exercise, mental stimulation, cooperative behavior, and animal welfare. He advised us to keep it as a shared process, with the animals as willing participants.

My decision to attend this course was because I always wanted to attend all of Ken's talks at Clicker Expo and would force myself to skip some of his in order to enjoy many of the other wonderful presenters.  The opportunity to have a full week of Ken was too good to pass up. And after that full week, I will continue to pursue opportunities to learn from him in the future.

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