Watts, A. 2010. Thinking outside the box in box training. Tech Talk [The Newsletter for Laboratory Animal Science Technicians] 15(2), 3.
At the Oregon National Primate Research Center, we train animals to enter transfer boxes using positive reinforcement training (PRT), a type of training in which the trainer reinforces desired behaviors (such asentering the transfer box) by rewarding the subject when it performs the behavior correctly. For box training, we first rewarded the monkeys when they got near the box. Once they were comfortable being around the box, we rewarded them when they entered the box. During the last phase of training, they were only rewarded for sitting quietly in the box. We are usually able to train animals to enter the transfer box using this method. However, some animals exhibit an aversion to entering the transfer box, particularly if they began to associate the box with some negative stimulus such as a procedure they did not enjoy. We had to come up with alternative training techniques for animals that are not cooperative. We chose three such animals and decided to try a 'trail of games' method of box training. This method removes the animal's fear of the box and replaces it with a fun and rewarding environment around transfer box jumping. First, primates were trained to touch a toy hanging on the cage using PRT. Once they reliably touched the toy on command, they learned new tasks such as standing up or touching the tip of a pen. During these 10-minute training sessions, the transfer box was always in the animal's sight. The animal performed each task numerous times and was given a final praise and food reward for completing the session. The animals enjoyed the stimulation these various games provided and, after a few training sessions, showed no signs of stress toward the transfer box in the room. After 8 to 10 sessions, the box was attached to the cage itself. We continued the training sessions as before, asking the monkeys to perform the same tasks. At first, the animals seemed agitated at having the box on the cage. However, once the sets of training games began, the animals settled into the process and ignored the box. Once the animals were calm around the box, the cage door was opened during game playing to allow access into the box. The animals were rewarded for looking at or touching the box, making exploration of the box a part of the trail of games. Eventually, the animals associated the box with game playing and food rewards. After approximately 16 sessions, the animals would enter and exit the box on command. Using psychological stimulation has proven to be an excellent way to get difficult primates to perform and enjoy box transfers calmly and on cue. All animals included in this training project were box jumping successfully after 16 training sessions. This method provides stimulation for the animals as well as a safer environment for both animal and technician during animal transfers.