Thoughts for Behaviour: Training a Group for Individual Reach, How?

Thoughts for Behaviour: Training a Group for Individual Reach, How?

Over the years in my career I had the privilege to learn many new ways of training. My killer whale path took me to different views while going back to pinnipeds gave me completely new thoughts about training those animals. I also learned working animals in groups what is not new the marine mammal world. Sea lions have been trained for stations so we can manage them in a group scenario a lot easier when we are only with 1 trainer present and so are dolphins.

When I worked In Ouwehands Zoo the Netherlands we had a system where we could separate 8 individuals with just 2 trainers. We would give a signal what made 5 females go to one exhibit sitting on their station, the big male would sit on stage and 2 older females would go outside to wait for us. The only thing we had to do is close gates and reinforce the animals. This was done very quickly what helped us in the efficiency of the day.

Photo: Seal training at Ouwehands Zoo, The Netherlands – Credit: Dorine van Appeldoorn

One of the keepers who works at the carnivore department at the same zoo works with the seals. Ouwehands Zoo is housing at the moment 7 harbor seals, most of the time the trainer is all by herself at this part of the section. With a drive of willing to change the life of those animals for a better care she started to train them. Not just the easy individual… no all 7 of them. What gave her a better check on her animals. As you can see in the photo it works out great and till today she is progressing very well.

To work animals in a group there are particular foundation behaviours needed to succeed. I mean you can’t just go for it. In our stables we talk a lot about what we need to succeed. All animals should be comfortable with us what means that we need to become the reinforcement and not the food we bring with us. Through variation we can reach this goal. This is very new for many of the zoo staff but definitely not impossible. With variation and discovering what each individual prefers we can make them understand the connection between us and reinforcement, but don’t get me wrong there is always that individual that is harder then everyone else. How do you work with this individual while the rest progresses faster you might wonder? In a group we focus mainly on the animals who are the challenges. This because we can’t implement a recall signal if one animal doesn’t see us as reinforcing. If we would do this the signal will have a different history for this individual animal. To take all excuses away for each group member, all animals should see us as reinforcing before implementing a recall or call over. You are going as fast as the slowest in the group. It could happen that the others want to progress quicker. This is the moment we could say lets separate them away so we can take the next steps with this progressive group.
This has its pros for the others as well now we can do more practises with the slower individuals. When reaching these goals we have to start to think about what we want next. This depends on the infrastructure, the time we have and the amount of trainers who are present. At the giraffe stable we use 3 – 4 trainers due to the infrastructure while at the ape house we use 2 for separations.

  • Seeing us as Reinforcing
  • Recall or Call over
  • Stations
  • Gating
  • Selections
  • Etc.

The ape house at Kolmårdens Zoo houses 5 white hand gibbons, 21 chimpanzees and 4 lowland gorillas. We have a team of trainers that exists of 4 and on a daily base there are 2 too 3 trainers present. All groups of animals are being conditioned for further steps. Some of them easier as the others. The gibbons have a ruff history and there for it takes us a little bit longer to get them used to us while the gorillas are trained for some time already but their social management and trust is the challenge at their end. The chimpanzees are a great example how group training changed their mindsets for the better. Our first talk about training the chimpanzees in a different way was in April 2016. Back then we had 27 animals but luckily for us 6 of them left to other zoos. This gave us a little bit more space to think about the plan we where going through. Most of the animals would be comfortable with us except the most submissive animal who needed some time. Our group consist of many different ages and their social bond seems extremely strong what is a challenge on the long run. The backstage area wasn’t always that positive for the animals what gave us another challenge. Photo: Claudius, Leader of the group.

After a couple meetings we decided that we wanted to train each individua,l but the biggest challenge was the amount of backstage areas and the people working a day. We have 5 backstage houses there for we decided to have 5 subgroups. How do you decide who goes in which group you might ask yourself? Well, this is where the knowledge and experiences of the keepers came in. After the first couple practises and observing who prefers to be with who the groups were set. We went from a training session with 3 trainers and a length of 40 minutes to 2 trainers and a 1 minute or less separation time. How did we do this?

To find the video see Separating 21 Chimpanzees

With training classes we gave the team a new view on motivational strategies for their animals. They team started to understand how to shape behaviour and motivate the animals to get where they wanted to be. With observational practises and thoughtfull challenges for the keepers they sarted to understand why animals do what they do when we implement reinforcement. As you probably can imagine we had to go slowly what is very important for myself because I have to make sure the people stay highly motivated to make everything work for the animals. We talked after every session why it potentially took so long for some animals and why it went so quick for others. Management wise we can’t change something on a quick pace if the history is very strong of having set routines. Step by step we went into the direction to have more and more success what gave us more time over the day for things. The keepers started to understand very well what “catch them doing it right means” and what this way of thinking has for effect to the animals.

With young experienced trainers and a group of animals this large we are very proud that they reached this goal. This is one of many and I’m confident we will be able to do it! We have a sound signal for separations and a sound signal for the recall. At the moment we are challenging both signals and see if they really understand the signals and the behaviours connected to them. The other next step we are taking is to ask 3 groups to get back to the indoor exhibit so we can re-separate the other 2 groups to work to a point where we have individual separations. This will help us to train each individual for further pro active health care. With all of this we still have the submissive animal not being in a set group. For her we decided that she can pick her group herself as long as she comes to the backstage area. This gives her a higher rate of success and will help her to be more calm within the group.

Similar to our giraffes where we started to train each individual for targets so we can start separations and further individual training.


In our park we keep on progressing with training groups to work towards individual training. Our trainers work on a high pace to reach these grounds. Everybody is doing a great job to give each individual the chance to be trained. The best part is that we can have our first proper health check to them when animals who never came that close to us all of a sudden do.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”


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