Positive Reinforcement Training

Latoya (and Her Stuffed Animals) Raise Their Own Criteria

Jordan Garbarino
Jordan Garbarino July 27, 2020

When doing positive reinforcement training with the chimps, we often reference a set of guidelines written by Karen Pryor called “The Ten Modern Principles of Shaping.” One of these principals states that a trainer should “raise the criteria in small increments” when working with trainees.

What this means in practice is that, as we work towards our chimp trainee learning a new behavior, we ask for small changes and adjustments each time we train until eventually our trainee is doing the correct behavior. In training Latoya, I was ready and prepared to follow this principal – and apparently so was she!

I have trained with Latoya for more than two years now. I initially started working with her because she was a bit of a “stubborn shifter.” (Shifting is the process of asking the chimpanzees to go outside each day so we can clean their bedrooms.)

Latoya was infamous for sitting right in the doorway between her bedroom and her outdoor yard, not allowing staff to close the door between the two spaces. Sometimes, as we offered her fruit or juice to come outside, she would leave just a few toes in the doorway as she stretched out to reach the treat we were offering. Yes – really!

In the past, Latoya would sit in her doorway when it was time to shift outside so her bedroom could be cleaned.

In order to encourage Latoya to shift for us more easily, I created a shifting plan for her that incorporated positive reinforcement training. I already knew Latoya enjoyed training, so it seemed like a good idea to use it to give Latoya more control over how she shifts each day.

Following this plan, I always bring over a portion of her diet (especially if there’s broccoli – her favorite!) and ask Latoya to meet me just outside her bedroom door to train with me. Once she meets me – something we call “stationing” – I gently and slowly close the door. When the session is over, she receives the produce I’ve brought along with her coveted banana.

Since implementing this plan, Latoya now regularly shifts outside and meets me to train while allowing me to close the door. In fact, she’s gotten so good at shifting outside that she recently decided to raise the criteria for herself! LT, as she is also known, has begun to “shift out” her stuffed animals.

Now Latoya does a great job shifting as part of her positive reinforcement training.

For most of the time I’ve known her, Latoya has periodically carried around stuffed animals. I’ve noticed she’s partial to ones that look like a specific small monkey with dangly legs, though she’s not too picky. (One of my favorite stuffed animals I’ve seen Latoya carry around was a large stuffed snake.)

Recently during shifting, Latoya sat in her doorway and looked around for a moment. I asked her to come station like always and instead…she went back inside.

“Oh no,” I thought. She’s not going to shift today. We’ve been doing so well!”

Suddenly, Latoya was back in the doorway, but this time with company: a small dangly sloth wearing a Santa hat. I assured Latoya that her “baby” could come station too, and after a few more seconds, she joined me like normal.

The next day, once again, LT went inside when I called, and retrieved a stuffed animal of her choosing (the Santa sloth was apparently unavailable on this day). She promptly dropped it outside the doorway, and then came to join me to station.

I don’t mind Latoya bringing extra guests to our shift training – I’m just glad she feels comfortable leaving the doorway each day and trusts me to close the door behind her. Thanks for letting me know it was time to raise the criteria, Latoya!

Jordan Garbarino
Jordan Garbarino
Positive Reinforcement Training Program Supervisor