Positive Reinforcement Training

May 1st, 2015 by J.B.

We’re really excited to be embarking on a new program here at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Anti-Vivisection Society Sanctuary Fund, we recently began a Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) program with the goal of teaching the chimps to participate in cooperative health monitoring.

Many of you reading this are probably familiar with PRT – it’s the “clicker training” that you see used everywhere from teaching dolphins to do flips to teaching your own dog to come when called. It uses positive rewards (usually food) and a “bridge” (a clicker, whistle, or even the word “good”) to reinforce particular behaviors. PRT is a tool, and like most tools, it can be used for good and for bad. So while it may unfortunately be used to teach animals to perform tricks for people’s amusement, it can also have a positive effect on the welfare of chimpanzees in captivity.

In their many decades in different laboratories across the country, the Cle Elum Seven chimps were darted with chemical anesthetics so that the labs could carry out experiments, treat wounds and illnesses, and perform routine physical exams. In some cases, the chimps were forced into small cages and surrounded by technicians with syringes, each one waiting until the chimp moved close enough to the caging to jab them. It’s hard to imagine how terrifying that must have been. And it happened over and over again – for some, well over a hundred times.

Thankfully, life in the laboratory is behind them now, but sanctuaries also have to collect information on the chimpanzees’ health if we want to provide the best care possible. What if there was a way to gain the same information without anesthetizing them at all? And if they did require anesthetization, what if they could learn to willingly participate in the procedure and avoid the pain and trauma of being darted? That’s where PRT comes in.

PRT has been used successfully in zoos, labs, and sanctuaries to teach chimps to cooperate with a host of health monitoring procedures: presenting different body parts for examination, sitting on a scale to be weighed, urinating into a cup, allowing their temperature to be taken, presenting an arm or leg for injection, and even allowing their blood to be drawn.

For us, the real prize is to get a look at Burrito’s heart function using an ultrasound machine. A few years ago, Burrito started showing symptoms of congestive heart failure, and since then we have successfully treated his symptoms with medication. But we’d like to get an echocardiogram to confirm the diagnosis and monitor the disease’s progression, and we’d like it even more if we could avoid anesthetizing him for it.

The grant from NAVS allowed us to bring in Gail Laule from Active Environments for the first of many visits to help create our PRT program and train our staff. Our work with the chimps began last Tuesday, and it’s amazing how much progress the chimps have made in just a little over a week. We began with simple things, like touching a target (just a pvc tube with some tape on the end), and quickly moved on from there.




There are some challenges, of course. Jamie likes to be in control, and this new program has got her quite confused about who exactly is in charge here. So for now, the bulk of Jamie’s training consists of teaching her to allow us to work with the other chimps without interference. Negra, who suffered so much in her 35 years in the lab, was scared of the sound of the clicker, so she needed to be eased into training with more sensitivity. But while that first day was a bit of a challenge for Negra and her caregivers, imagine how she would feel if we had to dart her someday when she became ill. The beauty of PRT is that you can slowly and safely desensitize the chimps to frightening interventions so that when they are really needed, they can be performed with less stress and trauma.

But there is one chimp in particular that seems to enjoy training even more than the others, and who seems to have a particular aptitude for it. Any guesses?

web Burrito outside OA greenhouse eat wrap dinner_MG_6122

That’s right, Burrito has finally found something that combines his two greatest passions: eating and playing with his caregivers. He is going to ace this program.

All of the chimps are learning to touch a target and to present different body parts for inspection – this is how we might examine and treat wounds, for example, and it also creates the foundation for more complex behaviors. To perform his ultrasound, Burrito will have to hold his chest to the caging for an extended period of time, so our training with him is also focusing heavily on that. Here’s a quick clip to show you how well our star student is doing:

We are so grateful to NAVS for providing the funding for this training, to Gail for getting us off on the right foot, and to all of our supporters who make each day in sanctuary possible for these seven chimps. We are looking forward to sharing our progress with you!

7 Responses to “Positive Reinforcement Training”

  1. Cindy says:

    WOW, that’s amazing, you’ve come a long way in the week since I was there….B’s a star!

  2. Amy M says:

    JB — The picture of Mr B you chose is absolutely hilarious and perfect — what an expression.

    I still think you should send Jamie to veterinary school and put her in charge of the vet clinic.

  3. Dalyce Kowalski says:

    So impressed! He’s come a long way in such a short time. Well done, all of you!

  4. Jackie says:

    The chimps are such wonderful, intelligent beings. I know they will do well. The handsome Mr. B deserves a star! Great job, everybody!

  5. Kathleen says:

    I am so excited to see the chimps learning clicker training! I have seen this done at other sanctuaries and was always curious if you used it. Burrito is a total Rock Star!!! I love to do clicker training with shelter dogs to teach them desirable behaviors like walking on a loose leash, eye contact on walks, clicking for “quiet” behavior while everyone is in their kennel. It is such a fun moment when you see them “get it” for the first time. Some dogs get it right away and LOVE it (Like Mr. B) and some take a while. But once it is figured out, there is no stopping them. And Like Negra, many dogs are frightened of just the sound — but when they realize that “Click” = reward, their fears slowly fade and confidence is slowly built. With a fearful dog the clicking treat can be something extra yummy so maybe sweet Negra needs a big nut bag after every click!! ; )

    This is just the coolest. I am soooo proud of Burrito. He was having such fun presenting his belly. Thanks for this post J.B. — it really made my entire week! (YEAH NAVS!)

    PS : To all of you caregivers, knowing timing that click at the precise instant the behavior is presented can be tricky to master I’ll ask this : Are ya feeling just a little uncoordinated?! ; )

  6. Julie says:

    Wonderful news and Burrito’s shining moment, he really is a star!

  7. Karen and Don says:

    What a great idea! You all seem to be enjoying clicker training, humans and chimps alike. Burrito is awesome!