Habituation to human presence and transport box training - An explorative study on the possibilities of habituation and positive reinforcement training in Dunkin Hartley guinea pigs
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Dunkin Hartley guinea pigs are widely used as laboratory animals. At Utrecht University these guinea pigs participate during practical lessons in which Veterinary Medicine students learn how to handle and determine the sex of the animals. The guinea pigs are housed in a floor housing system (+/- 3m2 of floor space) that includes enrichment. While providing the animals with more space and opportunities to fulfill their behavioral needs, this type of housing can complicate catching the guinea pigs, for example when they need to be transported to the location of the practical lessons (the ‘practical room’), or to perform regular health checks. Catching the guinea pigs can result in anti-predator reactions due to the prey animal nature of the guinea pigs. In bigger housing systems there will be more space for the guinea pigs to flee. In the case this leads to having to chase the animals in order to catch them, this could lead to stress. In this study we developed and tested a habituation and trainings protocol which could be used to avoid these stressful situations. The animals were habituated to human presence and movement and trained to walk into a transport box voluntarily with positive reinforcement training. Over the course of the habituation period we found a significant increase in behaviors in which the animals made contact with a human, also we found a significant decrease for hiding behavior. The mean fear level of the guinea pigs (which includes the length of the flight, flight initiation distance and flight probability) decreased over the habituation to movement sessions and the approach time of the animals decreased as well. The training was focused on teaching the animals to voluntarily enter a transport box, and undergo transportation. The training protocol was split into 17 different levels, building up from walking into the box into full transport (a 2 minute walk) to the practical room. The levels were created to habituate the animals to the box and give them a positive association with transport, which was accomplished by little steps like moving the box door, closing the door, lifting the box etc. Desired behaviors within each level were rewarded with ESVE drops, a food reward for which the guinea pigs were highly motivated. All guineapigs showed a significant progression in their training level over time and all animals reached the level in which they were transported towards the practical room, indicating that training had been successful.