The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is home to a pack of five African Painted dogs, consisting of our matriarch, Xena, 9, her mate, Dojo, 9, and their three offspring Tex, Back Slash and Spot, who are four years old. All of the Zoo’s painted dogs are involved in a behavioral training program here at the Zoo that allows caretakers to train new behaviors through positive reinforcement. Training works to mentally stimulate the pack, as well as present them with the opportunity to participate in their own healthcare. African Painted Dogs are highly social and intelligent animals and will often learn new behaviors quickly. Recently, all five dogs received their annual rabies and canine distemper vaccines via voluntary hand injection for the first time.
There are four primary trainers within the Zoo’s carnivore team who help to train the pack members new behaviors. Caretakers found that the biggest benefit to training a voluntary injection was reducing the stress the dogs may have experienced while receiving their yearly vaccines by hand injection through the habitat mesh. The first step in the training process involved encouraging the dogs to get close enough to the habitat mesh to display their hips so that their trainers would eventually be able to inject the vaccine into their hip safely. The team accomplished this by training the dogs for a “line up,” behavior where they had a stock tank parallel with the mesh, creating a dog-sized chute between the two. Trainers asked each dog to enter the space between the mesh and stock tank. Once they did so, the dogs were asked to “lay down”, a behavior the dogs were already trained.
Each dog trains at a different pace and caretakers found more success training when each dog had access to their preferred dog companion. Xena and Dojo will typically train together, and their three pups will train together. After one to two months of training, the dogs learned and became comfortable with the “line up” behavior. Once the dogs gained comfortability, trainers focused on a new “injection” behavior. The goal of this behavior was for the dogs to stay in a relaxed, laying down position, while allowing a hand injection in the hip. Trainers started by lightly poking their hip with a bamboo skewer and slowly building up pressure until eventually the dogs were comfortable with an actual needle. While the training process was different for each dog, it took about two to three months to successfully train the behavior. With the success of these behaviors, carnivore caretakers are continuing to identify new training opportunities for the dogs to ensure they are mentally stimulated and enriched each day.
The Zoo’s pack of African painted dogs moved to Lion Overlook on September 10, where they will reside until their brand-new habitat is constructed. Guests have the opportunity to see the Zoo’s painted dogs and African lions on a rotational basis. Being able to stay in the Lion Overlook building as well as alternate habitats with the African lions is very enriching for the painted dogs and the lions. There is a lot of environmental and sensory enrichment involved by not only being able to see, hear and smell new animals, but also being able to experience a new habitat space. The Zoo’s new African painted dog habitat will also be home to cheetahs and is slated to open in summer 2021.
- Mandi Townzen, carnivore caretaker
Photo: Mandi Townzen