"Thanks again to Ryan Holder for letting us watch during his training sessions. He has amazing talent, handling skills, patience and true respect and love for his cats!" //Ken Sopalek
Ken and Jan Sopalek were invited to attend tiger practice when the Kelly Miller Circus was playing Dalton, Massachusetts. I had not planned on doing anything special, just running trough the normal routine and focusing on a few specific exercises with my 13 month old.
When practicing the leap frog sequence, the baby tiger wasn't doing what she was supposed to and somehow ended up standing with her front feet on the back of my two year old. In scenarios like these where the tiger does not respond or perform correctly to the given cue, the animal is not punished but rather corrected. Whether in practice or the show, the animal is either corrected to perform the appropriate behavior in the same sequence or the action is restarted so the animal can perform correctly the first time. Once the tiger performs correctly, we move on to the next behavior.
From the young tiger's error came a new behavior to train. In a separate sequence, I began teaching both the 13 month old tiger and the two year old tiger to stand with their front legs on the back of another tiger. This is a trick I first saw trainer Alex Lacey ( now with the Ringling Blue unit ) perform with a male lion as the base and a tiger on either side, effectively forming a prop-less "pyramid."
It was a process to choose which of my five older tigers would perform well as a base and which would do well as a top cat. The beginning training process for the top cat involved bating the tiger up onto the back of the base tiger. For the two year old, this was somewhat difficult as I have already trained her to stand on the arena with her front feet. After several attempts, she figured out how to correctly respond to my cues.
In the following picture taken by Jan Sopalek, I learned that my six year old will not do well as a base. She does not like the pressure on her back. Similarly, she will not lay as a base for the Garden Wall.
The Sopaleks enjoyed watching this unexpected training process begin. I was fortunate enough for them to be on hand to take a few pictures to share. Often, I video practice so I can later watch from a third-person scenario how the tigers responded to my cues and body positioning. It is an invaluable resource I learned from my original teacher. However, in an spur of the moment process like happened in Dalton, I am not always able to do so. The Sopaleks had a better appreciation for the patience that is required when training with exotic animals.
Kelly Miller Circus