Just like human colleges, The Monkey College is challenging and fun. Located in our Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation Center in Boston, The Monkey College pairs highly skilled trainers with monkeys to develop them into competent, reliable service animals.
Every monkey moves at his or her own pace through a series of classrooms, learning more sophisticated tasks at each level. Working one-on-one, the trainer uses a laser pointer and simple words to direct the monkey’s behavior. Praise, affection, and small food rewards reinforce new skills. Training is customized to each monkey’s personality and abilities. At every stage, trainers make sure the monkeys have fun while they learn.
Three Levels of Training
Over the course of three to five years at The Monkey College, monkey helpers progress with a single trainer through three distinct levels of training. At each level the tasks become more complex and the training environment becomes increasingly home-like to prepare these service animals for life in their recipient’s home. When they graduate they can accomplish many tasks, are comfortable working with household items like refrigerators, CD players, and televisions, and are familiar with manual and electric wheelchairs.
Training begins in a small, uncluttered room called The Cubicle. With no distractions, monkeys start “learning how to learn.” The first step in our monkeys’ schooling is called “bell training,” in which a monkey learns to associate the sound of a bell with positive reinforcement. In bell training, a trainer waits until her monkey student looks in her direction and then produces a lick of peanut butter while ringing a bell and saying “Good girl/boy!” The monkey learns to associate the sound of the bell with the praise and a healthy treat. The bell becomes an instant indicator that the monkey is getting a reward. It is critical to the training that trainers react within a split second of the correct behavior so the monkeys learn exactly which behavior they are being praised for.
The bell is used in The Cubicle and in the next level of training, called The B-Room. It is then phased out and replaced by only verbal praise and peanut butter. Eventually treats are eliminated and monkeys respond simply to verbal praise.
In the Cubicle, the monkeys also learn “discrimination.” When teaching this task, trainers reward a monkey for simply touching a laser light point. The trainer then points the light at a single wooden block, so the monkey will pick up the block. They work together until the monkey can confidently choose the correct block out of seven identical ones. Discrimination can be applied to any number of tasks so that a future recipient can ask a monkey helper to choose a single light switch, DVD, drink bottle, remote control, or other item out of several items.
The Travis Roy Training Room (The B-Room)
As they advance into the Travis Roy Training Room, or the B-Room, the monkeys learn more complex tasks and how to manipulate more objects. They are also first introduced to a wheelchair in this room. Here is where they learn to respond to commands such as “sun,” which means “please flip on the light switch.” The challenge for new learners is to resist the temptation to flip it on and off repeatedly.
Monkey students learn to accomplish multi-step processes such as placing a water bottle in a holder, unscrewing the top, and placing a drinking straw into the bottle. Monkeys enjoy this series of steps because of all the different maneuvers and manipulations they must do to complete it.
The Melvin R. Seiden Training Room (The Apartment)
The final stage of training for our special service animals takes place in The Melvin R. Seiden Training Room, or the Apartment, a home-like training room. The monkeys learn more advanced skills such as how to open food containers and how to accomplish tasks that even some humans find challenging: using different forms of technology such as CD players, DVD players, and MP3 players.
During their college years, Helping Hands monkey helpers live in comfortable enclosures just like they’ll eventually have at their recipient’s home. They are potty trained to return to this space whenever necessary. In these cozy dens, they also keep their toys, blankets, food and water. When they are not training or playing, this is where they relax and sleep.
Visiting Monkey College
Our monkeys and trainers work hard when they are in Monkey College, and frequent visitors would be distracting. But we do hold quarterly Behind-The-Scenes tours for people who are interested in learning more about what we do. To stay updated on tour dates and The Monkey College, be sure to sign up for our monthly eNewsletter.