EKG Positive Reinforcement Training

EKG Readings for Heart Health

There is an active positive reinforcement training program for EKG readings for all of the primate residents of Fauna. PRT is a fun and rewarding way to allow the residents to participate in their own health care.

As the residents age, a key way to assess their overall health is to monitor their cardiac function. In humans, we may look at an EKG (electrocardiogram), and we can do the same in chimpanzees. How do we do that? Well, there’s an app for that!

KardiaMobile is a device that was created to capture an EKG reading in 30 seconds through the fingertips. The device connects wirelessly to a phone and the results are presented on your phone screen.

Chimpanzees can be trained to place their fingertips on the device, and a 30-second reading is taken. The results can be saved, stored and emailed. This is a fantastic way that technology can help in improving the residents’ lives and for caregiver and veterinarian peace of mind!

Training a new behavior takes time, and each individual learns at their own pace. A shaping plan can help guide each individual to their goal. We developed a shaping plan for the KardiaMobile device.

Screenshot on mobile phone of an EKG monitor reading
A successful EKG reading from Jethro

Positive Reinforcement Training for EKG

First, we attached the actual device to the bottom of a clipboard which allows the caregiver to safely present the device to the resident, as well as keeping their phone away from the resident. We then made a “practice” clipboard with silver stickers to represent the actual device. This allows us to teach the behavior without the risk of damaging the actual device.

The practice clipboard is then introduced to the resident. Generally, most primates will want to touch something you place before them. Thus, it is quite easy to bridge and reward for touching the clipboard. Next, you guide the resident to touch the actual silver stickers that represent the device. This can be done by using a target stick, gesturing, or your voice to point out what you want them to touch. The chimps quickly realize that touching the silver sticker leads to delicious juice!

The next step is to have the resident touch the silver stickers with both hands, specifically one finger from each hand. This can get a little tricky, and sometimes in operant, you have to take a step back to move forward! After they get the hang of that, you then need the resident to hold their fingers in place for 30 seconds. Again, this is a little tricky, because 30 seconds feels like forever! The key is frequent rewarding. They quickly learn that the juice keeps coming the longer they keep their fingers on the clipboard! Finally, you are ready to switch to the actual device and go for a reading. It resembles the practice clipboard so much; I don’t think any resident really notices the difference. Once in place, you start the app, and KardiaMobile produces an EKG readout.

Everyone Learns Differently!

Tatu and Regis were extremely quick to learn and both had successful EKG readings within 5 to 10 operant sessions. They flew through all of the steps! Jethro was the next graduate and he took several months to get to the final step. Rachel and Maya are very close to completing the training and getting a reading! Some residents will take longer — which is perfectly fine. PRT is all about pairing something positive with a previous experience, and that is what builds trust and learning.

—Guest post by Sharon Bauer, Veterinary Technician Assistant


Many chimpanzees suffer from heart disease and for many, like Toby, Petra, Blackie, and Spock, this is fatal. The high prevalence of heart disease, 68% in one study, is largely a mystery. It may be explained by the recent discovery of a tiny os cordis bone in the heart of some chimpanzees. Our program of care takes the prevalence of heart disease into consideration thus we target specific aspects of health care in our PRT program. It also is proactive in that we can possibly identify and treat heart disease early.

Please consider helping to fund the supplies and care that keep residents healthy!

Buy Medical Supplies like KardiaMobile