Thursday, March 26, 2009
For people, a good tooth brushing is needed to take off or prevent buildup on your teeth. When one of our seals gets build-up on its teeth, it also gets a good tooth brushing.
Many years ago the staff noticed that Shelby the harbor seal was starting to get a build-up on her teeth. To take care of this the mammalogists decided that they would train Shelby how to brush her teeth. OK, I’m kidding, actually Shelby was trained to allow staffers to brush her teeth for her although that would have been a neat sight to see—a seal holding a toothbrush! Essentially the husbandry staff became seal dentists.
The first thing they needed to do was to train the seal how to open her mouth on command. This is a basic husbandry behavior that is taught to all our pinnipeds to allow easy inspection of their mouths. For Shelby, she was taught not only to open her mouth but also to hold it open for extended periods to allow the staff to touch her teeth. Using positive reinforcement and taking baby steps in shaping the behavior, the staff first used their fingers to briefly touch her tooth which was then follow by a big fish reward. After she became comfortable with this, they started to briefly touch her tooth with a tooth brush. Again rewarding her for staying calm by giving her a larger than normal amount of fish—a food jackpot for being good. This then lead to briefly brushing one tooth, then two teeth until she was comfortable with having all her teeth brushed during a training session.
Today, Shelby is quite at ease when her teeth get brushed by a staffer. In fact, what worries me most about working this behavior with her is not her sharp teeth but her slimy drool. Shelby has a lot of saliva that comes out of her mouth when she eats. When brushing her teeth, you sometimes get a lot of it on your hands and even your clothes. But, it is a small price to pay for keeping Shelby in good health!
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