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First steps in training

Hello! My name is Megan, and I am one of the newest keepers on the Ambassador Animals Team. Today, I am going to talk to you about one of the newest behaviors that we are training with our Saanen goats. Something you may not know is that to be able to train any animals here at Zoo Atlanta, there are different levels of training that we animal care team members have to progress through before we can train new behaviors or do training sessions on our own. To move up through these levels, our requirements include taking classes, passing tests over the material we learned in these classes, and observing training sessions of our coworkers. As a brand-new Level One trainer, I am able to assist in training sessions with some higher-level trainers. This is something I have been doing with one of our other team members and a behavior she has been training called “station.”

Station training is a behavior that can be implemented with many animal species, but it can be especially important in animals that live in groups. The goal of this behavior is to have an individual animal go to his or her own “station” and stand next to it until they have an all-clear to move. In our case, our goal is to train our three Saanen goats—Wembley, Tobias, and Bogart—to each go to his own station while they are with the rest of the herd. They are the biggest and some of the most dominant animals in our petting zoo herd. And I do mean they are big … Saanen males can stand up to 32 inches at the withers and weigh over 160 pounds! We work with the petting zoo animals free-contact, meaning there are no barriers between us and the animals. As I’m sure you can imagine, if we want to work individually with any of the other less dominant goats or sheep in the herd, these boys can make that a bit difficult. Because of their dominance, they always want to be right in the middle of things, and the less dominant animals do not want to cross paths with the Saanens. However, if each had his own station that was more out of the way, it would make it much easier for us to make a path for whichever goat or sheep were trying to work with to get from point A to point B.

As I mentioned, each Saanen has his own station. Because there are three of them, it is important for them to have stations that are easy to distinguish from one another to make it less confusing, so they are each a different shape and color. Wembley’s station is a yellow circle; Tobias’s station is a blue square; and Bogart’s station is a red triangle. Because they are all different, the first step to training this behavior was for each goat to learn which individual station was his and to go to that one by himself. Then, they learn to distinguish which station is his from just one of the other ones. Finally, we can add in all three stations for the goat to distinguish between. Throughout this process, we are moving the stations around and mixing them up so that we are sure that they know their actual stations rather than their just learning to come to us or to a certain spot. Once we are confident that they have mastered discriminating which station is theirs, we can bring two Saanens into the same space together and work on each of them going to his own station. This is the most recent step we have reached. All three goats know their stations, so we have begun to bring Wembley and Bogart in together to station at the same time. Eventually, we will add Tobias into the mix to all station at once.

My job through this process is as a secondary trainer. Essentially, this means that I am not the one cueing the goats, but I can help by holding or moving the stations. This entire process has been incredibly fun for me to take a part in because I have been able to really see the goats’ minds at work. They are incredibly smart! I have also been able to learn a few things along the way to aid in my journey to becoming a better trainer myself. So the next time you come to the Zoo, be sure to swing by the petting zoo to meet our big guys, and you might even get to see one of these training sessions in action!
Megan Hightower
Keeper I, Ambassador Animals

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