Combinations, Chains and Intelligence… What About the Others?

I Like to talk about motivation, it has a very broad spectrum what I like very much. Sky is the limit I always say. As you guys probably all have seen the blog from Kayce Cover about training various animals the same way she has a strategy what I actually really like. Telling the animal what you want in a very simple way of communication. See her blog:

Training multiple species; Always the Same, Except When it is Different… But we can go even further from there.

1,5 weeks ago I was in ZooMarine Portugal for a visit to organize a conference in 2018. Great people and just a great park with endless possibilities in training the animals. We know with marine mammals we can achieve a lot and that’s what they do up there. The bird show was a surprise for me too especially now Im looking more into ways of developing training programs with animals where we can add some extra challenges. I mean it was not particularly a big surprise but from a training perspective it was. The head trainer has a great perspective to train animals the way we do with marine mammals and apply this with his birds and he achieves some amazing goals with some amazing exotic animals. I asked if I could talk with him and see his area. After talking with him for a while some ideas started to pop up. When sitting down at the Macaw show what is part of his area I shared an idea with him because I thought he is the perfect guy to share this idea with. I asked him did you ever heard of abstract learning?

What it basically means is that you give the animal a couple signals in a row (free chain of behaviours) and then tell the animal to preform what we asked for. These behaviors can be compatible to each other or incompatible. The chain you ask from the animal changes all the time from asking 2, 3, 4 or more then 5 behaviours. For the motivational perspective this is a great tool what can be use as variation in many different scenarios. This concept is not a new thing I mean in the marine mammal world its been used for  quite a while now with great successes, but what about the other species in the animal kingdom? There are plenty of other smart animals that could do the same, Elephants, Macaws, Parrots, or even Himalayan Mountain goats (Takins) I mean what do we know about those animals? So why not implement this idea with those animals if its not done already? I mean we don’t know if a bison is able to do these kind of things. If we know the intelligence of animals in a better perspective we start to understand them more and want to protect them for better reasons.

When I had the privilege to work with killer whales we did this all the time, asking a behavior to combine with another behavior. It was great fun really. Not just to see if they would figure it out but also from the motivation perspective. We had a very well thought through sD management based on the animals at seaworld. A squirt is a squirt a bow is a bow so when you want a squirt bow you ask the squirt sD and then the bow sD right after one another and the animal would do what you gave the signals for. Here at Kolmården we kind of do the first steps of combining with our elephants as well. We ask them for example to simple back up and then ask them to put their trunk up. The dolphins do to what’s not new but the best part is that it lifts up their motivation rocket high at times. Using this within the training session is just a great way to see your animals grow.

Starting such a way of training is fun to do and it becomes challenging after you asked them to combine 3 behaviours. The thing I want to point out is start easy. Let the animals discover with you that they are able to combine behaviours. The whole idea is to make it a concept and not a new trained behavior. What I mean is that you should change the behaviours you combine all the time. This so the animal starts to understand the idea of doing multiple behaviors at the same time without making it become a set chain of behaviours. When we started this idea with one of the Killer whales at Loro Parque we had to help her by prompting her to combine the behaviours. We would get the squirt in her head by asking this a couple times and then ask the squirt bow. Another trainer would be on a bow position and asked the squirt again before she came out of the water. At Loro Parque we used to have the high energy behavior last within the chain of behaviours. Its funny to think about it because I discovered this after reading an artivel from dolphin research center who explained that when having the high energy behavior somewhere in the middle of the chain the animals had a harder time preforming the chain we asked for then when you put the high energy sD at the end of the chain.

At the IMATA conference back in Boston, Dolphin Adventure in Puerto Vallarta had an amazing presentation about combining behaviours the animal could do simultaneously and behaviours who where topographically impossible to do together. Very well trained animals.

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To get back to Kayce Cover her guest blog, she explain to animals that she has a word for everything all the time so the animal knows what to expect but not. With using these words and the meaning for the animal together you have a similar type of combining behaviours but in a very different matter. Now can you imagine working your animals and you ask for the concept of abstract learning? He I want you to do 1. Fly to the show area, 2. Be on this station, 3. Spread your wings, 4. Wave with your Left leg. And Go! Wouldn’t that be great?

Just for the understanding for you we don’t bridge every behavior. What will happen with the chain I explained above is that the animal will probably open her wings and wave with the feet at the same time because it is compatible to each other. With these compatible behaviours we can also get behaviours back what was impossible previously. For example if the behavior was a mouth open and wave at the same time and the animal lost this behavior we could actually ask for the chain of mouth open and wave, if the concept is trained well enough you would have this behavior you lost back right away.

Why don’t we try to discover these training concepts with other animals and see how far we can get? Lets work our animals a way that we can ask multiple behaviours and let them do it. This so we challenge their mental stimulation and we find out more things about their intelligence? To be honest what do we know about the animals we work with?

Lets Rock and Roll!

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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