Do you ever ask yourself the question, Who is training Who?

Did you guys meet my brother yet? Ok, he is a man that means a lot to me and gives me quite some inspiration. In the beginning of December we had a trip after almost a year not seeing each other. Together we planned to go to Kiruna (The most northern city of Sweden) to see the northern lights through a sled dog trip in the forest. It was magical and I want to tell you all please do this once in your life. It took us quite a while but that meant as well that we had a long time to talk together about everything and anything. Real bonding on such a trip.

My brother is a salesman for for T-mobile. He only has this job for maybe 8 months now I would say if not less but he already is in the top 5 salesman from T-mobile in his area. That for a rookie in this business. My brother is a different man and looks at the world through a different perspctive what I admire very much. For his job he sells contracts and devices with gadgets etc. Sometimes hard work and sometimes very easy. We discovered that we have something in common. We have been talking about how in my profession we trai the animals and how we can get them motivated with different techniques. I explained him that every specie is different and that every individual has a very different character. This makes working with animals very challenging. What one animal enjoys might not be for the other. In his job this is very similar, one strategy works for one costumer better then for the other what is very tricky business in his case. He has to figure out a costumer within the first 2 minutes of talking so he can decide which strategy he will be using. Otherwise the costumer gets the full control and my brother will get “trained” instead. Its building trust he told me but you build this in a very short time because sometimes you do not see these people anymore.

As animal trainers we have some pros to this and one of them is that we will see our animals again unless we decide differently. We have something in common and that’s when the roles are turned around. Who gets trained or who has the control? Its common business in animal training. It happens in front of your eyes without you even noticing. I was amazed how killer whales do this when working with them. They could grasp you away from your goal and get to the point where they had you doing what they wanted. I’ve never seen this happening with other animals although elephants come very close.

The trainers at our elephant stable told me that elephants plan ahead. It was interesting to hear because what would they plan ahead? Would they plan how they could get the best reinforcement out of me or not? I once did a recall training with our big Asian Bull, his name is Tonsak. He is a 4000+ kg 19-year-old bull. We have various pens we house him in and time by time he will be in the herd. At one point he was in one of the big pens so I decided to try a recall with him. I wanted a little bit of a challenge there for I tried to sneak up on him but how quiet I can be he discovered me to soon. I had some enrichment with me what was made for elephants. Big feeder boxes, they were not small. Almost impossible to hide. He saw me coming and I couldn’t make a detour. Trying to pretend nothing would happen with my big enrichment devices I sat down while he came to me and just stared. What he was thinking I don’t know but he definitely knew that I was going to give him something. I also brought the recall device with me, a small djembe. If the elephants are as smart as they say they are then he knew what I was up to. I waited and waited to a point where he turned around and walked another way but he stopped after 5 meters. It looked like he was still focussed on me but I wasn’t sure. I decided to give a recall and reinforce with the enrichment devices I brought with me, this was the moment where I confirmed to myself, I just got trained by Tonsak.

We have to pay close attention to the animals we train. We have to pick up on our responses to the animals and our patterns. I mean an animal that stays in control and gets the exact same reinforcement after the exact same time over and over again will become bored sooner then later. When the animal turns away and want to leave because its boring, some of us will decide to call the animal back right away. This breaks the reinforcing pattern and could be higher in reinforcement for the animal because of the variation and the different attention that is given to the animal at that moment. There are plenty more examples but I hope you get what I mean.

Letting animals train us can be done on purpose as well. Working for a couple of years with killer whales I learned how to do this. At this point I was working with Orcas in Spain. They had two magnificent playful animals in their group, Kohanna and Skyla. They loved playing and were engaged quickly in doing so. I passed the windows and they swam with me, I looked at them and stopped. They stopped swimming and stayed with me without me asking to do so. I found some leaves in a nearby garden. I thought what can I do with those leaves. I slid them along the window. They started to open their mouth and make noises. They squirted at it and I moved them right after. They discovered that they can make me move the leaves around. I tried my hardest to be as creative as I can be but it wasn’t an easy task. After 20 minutes playing I had to leave them but what an interesting experience. The animals were with me all the time it was an amazing experience I never forget.

We trainers have to observe and acknowledge quick enough who has the lead in our sessions. This for the progression of learning but also for the safety of ourselves. Animals are very observant as well and they are smarter then we think. If we look at it from the A-B-C standpoint the elephants that left is is the (A) signal, the trainers calling him back is (B) behaviour, the trainers reinforcing him right after is (C) reinforcement. Its not easy to recognise but if you know it you can solve it.

We train our animals on a daily base but for my brother it is very different. He has to figure this out without getting into the what he calls the “incorrect” behaviour, otherwise his costumers start to train him or get the control what potentially means that he can lose his targets. Its not that severe with animal training although it could get dangerous. When animals get the control the wrong way, dominant aggression starts to rule our sessions.

So ask yourself ones in a while who is training who here?

If we become very good at recognizing these behaviors we can have more outside the box training sessions and let the animals train us instead on purpose. Training becomes play all of a sudden and this will strengthen our relationships. At this point we just have to be creative and not fall in patterns. Animals love to play as we all know!

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”


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