Training Wyatt, the cougar, to “offer paw” using operant condition with positive reinforcement for my senior project. This behavior is what is known as a husbandry behavior, meanings it assists with animal husbandry. This particular behavior can be useful for carrying out procedures such as nail trimming and paw examinations without the need to physically restrain an animal (unfortunately Wyatt was declawed as a cub by his previous owners before being confiscated and brought to the zoo). This reduces stress, cost, and time of the procedure.It also provides mental enrichment and improves animal/keeper relationships. Other husbandry behaviors include standing on a scale, holding for injections, or entering a crate.
To teach this behavior to Wyatt, I began by using the shaping shortcut of “targeting,” meaning I reinforced him every time he touched the target with his paw. Once this was accomplished, I slowly phased out the use of the target until he would offer his paw freely on cue, allowing me to hold and manipulate his paw in my hands. Lastly, I began asking him to lie down during the behavior, so that he was more relaxed and would hold the behavior for extended periods of time. The behavior took about ten weeks, at 3 training sessions per week, to complete.