At Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, we participate in something known as behavior management training almost every day with our animals. This training helps encourage our cats to partake in a stress-reducing activity by also allowing animal care staff and interns to examine their health. This helps with checkups without having to sedate them; the more sedation an animal goes through, the more stress it causes them to have. There’s never a time that we force the animals to do anything they don’t want to do, this includes the training; it’s all volunteer-based using positive reinforcement through chicken or steak treats.
These guys are very food motivated, so when it comes down to doing something, if there’s food involved, you can almost guarantee they’ll want to participate. Since we are letting them choose, there are times where these cats will not participate at all, which is okay. These cats can act just like house cats when it comes to stubbornness, so you already know how difficult it can be to get a regular domesticated house cat to do something, but then think of a cat that is 300-500 pounds bigger and a lot more aggressive!
When training and rewarding our animals, we use something known as a bridge and reward training method. We look for the desired behavior that we’re wanting and we reward them with a high-pitched whistle, the bridge, and some treats. This reinforces the desired behavior with a sound creating excitement and anticipation of food. If we don’t see that desired behavior done at all or done correctly, we will not blow the whistle and they will not get that treat.
In the training process, we use wiffle balls that have a wooden rod attached to them and use these as “targets.” These targets let the animals know where to point their nose. With the animals pointing their nose to a specific area, we can check their visuals as well as their face. When we want to check their paws we can have them stand up by touching their nose to the ball or using the command “up,” or we can just have them put their paw on the fence when the command “paw” is given. Their paws are then looked at to make sure they look healthy because their paws can get cracked and chapped just like human hands do in the winter. Also, when the “up” command is given they will stand on their back paws and put their front paws on the fence and we’ll be able to check their underneath side for wounds or to see if stitches are healing well.
If they are needing a shot, we say “side.” With this side command, they’ll put their side up to the fence and receive lots of treats until the shot is completed. Our vet on staff will be up here to complete that shot so it’s done correctly. We will also pretend to give them a shot to get them more familiar with that pressure. To imitate this shot, we’ll have a staff member present and they’ll poke their hip with a stick, pencil, or something of that measure.
These are easy ways that we are able to do general wellness and health check-ups on our animals without having to sedate them creating a healthier life for them. Join us at Turpentine Creek and maybe while you are here, you can witness this training going on!
*Getting a treat (below)* *Side Command (below)* *Up Command (below)*