10 October 2008

Shedd Aquarium Rescues Dogs & Teaches Them To Fetch Like...Dolphins.

Trainers at Chicago's Shed Aquarium were left with no animals to supervise after the Shedd's Oceanarium pavilion closed for refurbishing this year, sending the facility's whales, dolphins, sea otters and sea lions out of town. So the staff decided to create a show for six dogs they found in area animal rescue centers, demonstrating how marine mammal training techniques can be equally effective in training house pets.

Dogs are stars of "Pet Training the Shedd Way" Video. "Pet Training the Shedd Way" opens Friday and will continue at least until early summer 2009, when the Oceanarium reopens. "We wanted to do something that was fun and high energy," said Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's animal training chief. "We also want people to consider adopting their next pet from an animal shelter. The 20-minute program is designed to show how good training techniques can transform even the sorriest of mutts into refined, polite, playful and lovable pets.

Three dogs in the show had been left at area dog pounds because owners could no longer afford to keep them. A city dog catcher found Widget, a 7-month-old West Highland white terrier mix, wandering in Chicago with no collar. Olivia, a year-old dog who is mostly German shepherd, was found beaten and fearful of humans. And a strapping 70-pound, year-old American bulldog mix named Nico was found tied to a stake in a building, emaciated and filthy.

In their new lives as performers, the dogs do tricks, play with handlers and demonstrate new talents like ferreting out contraband. To teach them, the Shedd used training methods it helped pioneer. "A lot of animal training used to be based on coercion, force and punishment . . . with owners establishing themselves as the alpha members of the group, yanking on leashes and tightening collars to dispense discipline," Ramirez said. "You can't put collars and leashes on marine mammals like whales and dolphins, so trainers had to develop a new training regimen, positive reinforcement."

Soon Ramirez and fellow trainers began to demonstrate the marine mammal training regimen, getting the dogs to demonstrate everything from standard commands such as "sit" and "lie down" to more complex behaviors, such as learning to climb into travel cages or dance to salsa music with a trainer.

Taking a starring role was Nico, who nearly starved to death but is now buff and leading-man handsome. He showed how he has learned to serve as a detection dog by sniffing a variety of carrying cases and locating contraband.

Ramirez said he would like the show to be a permanent aquarium offering, but that might not possible. "If it does close next summer, the dogs will be adopted," he said. "Just about everybody who works here is angling to adopt one of them."

[Source: Chicago Tribune]