Zebra Training: Positive Associations
Creating a connection and establishing communication
It's a bit of a complicated thing, establishing communication with a non-verbal being of a different species, especially one that is untrusting, fearful, and quite possibly dangerous.
I had decided to take the same approach with Stripes as I had taken with the mustangs I had worked with before her, including my own. Her usual feed would serve as reinforcement, but it took me a bit to work out a delivery system. The only bucket I could find was too deep and neither her nor her zebu friend wanted to stick their head in it to eat, blocking their view of me.
Neither trusted me enough to eat out of my hand either and I wasn't thrilled with dumping the food on the ground, worrying that they would consume too much dirt along with the food. I finally tried turning the bucket upside down and using the bottom as a table for the feed.
This worked well enough for delivering food without them eating dirt, but it meant I had to approach them each time I wanted to reinforce a behavior, which was a bit counter productive to my end goal. Every time I approached, Stripes moved away. The zebu was less fearful and stayed by the bucket, so I focused on him, figuring that the more he interacted with me, the easier it would be for Stripes to do the same.
Using a clicker, at first I just marked for the zebu looking at me. When he finished eating the food on the bucket, he would look at me and I would click the clicker and put more food on the bucket. As is almost always the case when training with positive reinforcement though, the zebu didn't stick to just looking at me for long. Soon enough, he started approaching me, so of course I did what we all do when we want to make friends with an animal—held out my hand for him to sniff.
One of the first behaviors most of us teach the animals we work with is to touch a target with their nose. This is such an easy behavior to start with, because it develops out of behaviors that are natural to us both. Human holds out their hand for animal to sniff and animal sniffs their hand. By marking that exact moment and reinforcing the animal, with enough repetitions, a sniff becomes a purposeful touch, the animal's confidence grows, and the fear melts away as the two species learn to talk to each other.
When I went back for session number two, I was a little better prepared and had brought along a few shallow buckets so that I could deliver reinforcement without moving towards Stripes and the zebu. This meant that I was always moving away from them, and they were getting reinforced for always moving towards me.
The buckets worked a treat (pun totally intended) and I was able to get a nice training loop going with them. The zebu would touch my hand, I'd put down a bucket with a bit of food and walk away, the zebu would get a bite of food before Stripes would push him off the bucket, and he'd come over to me to touch my hand again.
Ok, not really fair, right? But it made for multiple repetitions with the zebu in a short amount of time. Building that reinforcement history! Stripes, however, was not giving me much. She was hanging around eating the food, but she wasn't really working for it. She was definitely going to be a challenge!