Problem Solving, its sometimes easier than you think.

One of the last courses I give in our training program for the trainers is about problem solving. Its an important task for the trainer to see particular problems and how we can solve them. I mention in my classes “you know what, its easy when an animal does everything perfectly well for you but the problems start when they don’t”. Some of us say I when an animal knows the behaviour they know it. I personally think that a behaviour is never really finished. We are maintaining behaviours all the time with various tools in our toolbox. There are a lot of different ways to solve a problem but to go back to the first step we all have to recognise the same problem. When the communication is on a high level there might not even be a problem in the first place.

In the very last course of winter season 2016 – 2017 we talk about shaping plans. Shaping plans are an important aspect in potential problem solving. If the animal is being trained through a shaping plan to reach the goal the trainer wants, we are actually training a very stable history on this particular behaviour. If a behaviour has such a history its easy to solve the problem that arises because we just take a step back in the shaping approximations the animal knows from the history of this particular behaviour. Problem solving happens all the time also in our Zoo. Even though trainers make a shaping plan it doesn’t always mean problem solving is simple.

What could happen is that we forget how we trained a particular behaviour and there for as a try to solve the problem the trainer accidently trains something completely new without them knowing it. One of our bird trainers is training a Eurasian Eagle Owl called Buddah. A beautiful young male who is very willing to be trained. We started with a basic “start of session position” what Buddah understood pretty quickly. We added a bridge and he started to pick up on that very fast as well. When those strategies were established we wanted to fly the animal from station to station and have him on our arm as another station. The trainer made great progress with successive approximations. So next steps were taken. Duration this time and we tried with various intervals of reinforcement to train the animal to stay longer on the arm. Buddah would not know when he would get reinforced and stayed well on the arm or on a particular station. One day the behaviour started to regress and Buddah didn’t want to stay on her arm for longer then 2 seconds. This could’ve been because of complacently of the trainer or timing of the bridge and reinforcement that could be a bit off or even that the animal got in eat.

The trainer asked me and the supervisor of the department to come and watch a session. She asked Buddah on her arm and reinforced her right away with a bridge followed with a piece of chicken.  Buddah decided to fly away from the hand right after. He ate his reinforcement and came back after swallowing his piece. This happened for another 3 to 4 times after that. I asked her what are she was trying to do to fix the problem? She said well I’m using smaller pieces or reinforcement to see if he stays but he does the same thing all the time. I asked her something controversial, Did you ever ask Buddah to come to your arm and when he comes you bridge and send him away again? Her response was that she never did this before and she didn’t 100% understood why. So I explained if the animal wants to leave we can use this as reinforce. If we are quick and variable enough we can extend the time on the arm with building the trust of the animal. This is just another option I mentioned. You condition Buddah to trust the trainer that he will be send at any time. After this question, I asked her how did you train this behaviour? She explained me the previous process of the history she build with Buddah. As response I said Well what about going a step back instead? I explained that she knew better then me how she trained Buddah this behaviour. She is a very good trainer and has great timing. With going a step back she had Buddah back on track in no time.

Problem solving is a lot easier with experience. You do not get this within a day, a week or a month it takes time before you are good at problem solving. When we get more and more experience with problem solving we start to be better in pro-active behavioural management. I’m a person that tries to challenge all the techniques, this works well at times but there are times this doesn’t work at all. With problem solving I try the same thing. Trying new ideas that challenges the thought process gives us as trainers new experiences if they work or not.

Solving a problem is not always as easy as just going a step backwards in your training plan. There are many strategies we can choose from for different scenarios. To start we have to put the reason for the problem into perspective, there is a very easy way how to do this.

With proper observation we can make a list of why a problem behaviour potentially exists. Making a list with the problems on one side and the potential solutions on the other side gives us an idea of what could work. With that picture on paper we have a better idea where the problem potentially could come from. When we understand this part we point out a solution on each given problem. Now we have a list with an idea how we can solve each part of the problem behaviour. Its never a 100% guarantee but with experience and practise we can come very close to it to guessing where the problem might come from.

Problem solving is part of the care we give to our animals. Over time we get better and better at it. There are many different ways to solve a problem but they all have a couple things in common, observation is needed and we will never be 100% right now we do not know what the animals are thinking.

Open your mind, discover, learn and solve!

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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