Thoughts for Behaviour: Training Social Animals

Thoughts for Behaviour: Training Social Animals

Training Social Animals

You might agree with me that we as humans are very complicated animals. What could be easy, we make extraordinary difficult. Shouldn’t we just be eating, breeding and surviving? Sounds simple right? I do think it is that simple, but we as humans just do complicated things to survive I mean who grows its own vegetables sprays it with toxic stuff and then eats it and complains about the diseases they can get? Or who cuts trees down to make paper money to pay people planting new trees?

We are social animals like many other animals on this planet. I’ve been working with a huge amount of different social structures since I started my career, to tell you just some of them, Killer Whales, Dolphins, Chimpanzees, Takins, Bush dogs, Lions, Elephants etc. and not to forget humans. All of which have a completely different type of structure it seems like. Very interesting to look at.

I search for at a lot of training videos on social media, its very cool to see those videos so everybody keep up the good work and keep them coming. Although, I’m wondering if they had to do some separations or gating’s to get the animals on their own to be trained. This is what we  at Kolmardens Zoo try to focus on from the start what is sometimes easy but can be very challenging as well. For example, Bush Dogs are very calm animals. For everybody who do not know what they are. They are small dog type animals who live in the forest of Brazil. They live in groups and there for must have a social bond between them. When we ask them to come to use they are very relaxed and don’t really fight for the food each and one of them gets. What makes me wonder, did we or train it well or they are just like this. At the moment I’m reading a book “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are” by Frans de Waal and in his book there are a couple cool researches explained. One of them is about the cooperation in feeding of chimpanzees. We all know Chimpanzees are very social towards each other and this is part of their survival mechanism. They added tubes against the bars of the exhibit what had a purpose similar to a termite or ant hill. They added as many tubes as the amount of animals. First the animals had to find out how it worked what didn’t take very long, after this the researchers started to take one tube away every day. To my surprise the animals started to share the other tubes and waited for their turn to eat, a very cooperative social feeding structure. I was surprised reading this coming from working with animals who would fight for the last piece of reinforcement.

With Killer Whales for example you have to be extraordinary careful who will give the last fish in the group. Even If you would be at the other side of the pool the animals know exactly who got the last hand full of fish and will attack the submissive one if it was him. Its very sensitive and if a trainer doesn’t know about this yet. The blame could be you that an animal gets attacked. Similar with Gorillas but it seems like with them its best to reinforce the dominant male first and last. It is actually going further then the feeding patterns we have to think off. Let’s say we ask the animals to come to us but 1 or 2 animals in the group do not respond to the signal. We can say these 2 are incorrect and the other correct so I reinforce them, but think about this for a second, we might reinforce the correct animals to keep the other 2 away. This will happen in strong social structures more often then when you have solitary individuals like tigers or snow leopards. A similar thing could happen in separations when we ask a whole group to separate and some animals stay behind, it might be that other animals tell them to stay and not come with the group. This is where it’s becoming challenging for the trainers because now we have to start narrowing down the problem and find out which animal has the lead in those decisions. (This doesn’t only have to be the dominant animal all the time).

One of the details I found important was when training sea lions to work together in a show setting to train them when fish is dropped on the ground you leave it. Teaching the animals to cooperate instead of fighting for food is important in case of teamwork. This had such an effect on the calmness of the animals that they would be more successful on the long run.

The other day I passed by the rhino exhibit where we train the animals to come to us but Banyari our male is not so successful with it. Our group has 4 rhinos, 1 male and 3 females, when we give a signal to come to us the females are first and the male is last or doesn’t come at all. What happens most of the time when a call over is given the 3 females come first and get to the reinforcement, the male stays behind and comes later or not. When the male comes, he will be chased away and his chance of reinforcement is gone. The big problem is that over time he will associate this negative experience with the signal we give him what will bring this behaviour down even further or without addressing it we would extinguish this behaviour all along. We had to think about a possible solution, we ask the females to come first and gate them away. This gives the male more chance to succeed and on top of that we can build his trust back up again what is necessary for the rate of success. Then we ask the male to come. If we would do this the opposite way there will be a chance that the male still feels pressured by the females because they are behind him. This could have a mayor effect on the behaviour we are looking for and the trust we want to build up. Therefor the females first and then the male. Eventually we work to the point where we can have them all on 1 signal again. What is important that when we have them in the back area that most reinforcement comes when they are together again. This will teach them that when we accept each other we get more.

Over the years, I’ve seen function able groups and les function able groups. This was all depending on how black and white the team’s communication would be to one another. When the team would be very tight in communication the animals would actually help us with what we want from them. When the animals understand “hé, if we do this together we have a chance of reinforcement” they will try to work together what helps the social management in the group. One story came from precision behaviour a consultancy company owned by Angie and Thad Lacinak. They had trained a group of baboons to separate individuals by asking the male to do so. This needed some sort of social management from the animals but also perfect timed reinforcement with good observation from the trainers.

Some animals are easier than others, red pandas for example. We all think they are the cutest thing in the world till they start climbing on your leg. Their sharp nails go right through your leg. Anyway, they are still cute! We have 3 in our park and we are to the point where we train them to be sitting on a station. We ask them to come there put all their reinforcement on the station when they are there except the animal we will be training. This works very easy and simple. This doesn’t seem to bother any one of them. Very calm and easy, without fast eating so they could steel from each other.

At our bird department, we try to train for a different strategy more used in the marine mammal field. Harris hawks are animals working together in groups. We have 8 in total but separated in subgroups. One likes on more than another so we carefully picked who should be with who and slowly changing the cooperation’s. When we come into the exhibit the birds have to go to their station and then waiting who will be trained. By selection we will ask one bird at the time to come to us. In the show, there is a part where the small groups fly together and go to different stations flying over the audience and fly back home. With the right timing of reinforcement, we have a well-established group of hawks that accepts each other to eat on for them a safe position.

Social management is important but difficult, we never know exactly what the problems will be. We carefully have to select animals who would not be the problem and start to work our way to the potential problems. There for we need good observation but as well proper understanding of the species and the social structures they work in. All groups are different in their own way. I’ve been in contact quite a lot with Ryan Cartlidge, for you who doesn’t know him, he’s a passionate animal trainer from New Zealand who is the owner of the Animal Training Academy. He does these interesting podcasts about some exciting topics. I listened to a couple of them and 1 was standing out for me. Very interesting to listen too. Check it out right here: Podcast with Bianca Papadoloupos – Training groups of animals. Great podcast where Bianca Papadoloupos touches a couple important aspects of social group training. One of them is stationing and structure. Being black and white is one of the key factors, for example, we give the giraffes a start of session signal and they all separate to the stations where they have to be, this allows us to have the first separation with 3 sub groups what gives us a higher chance of individual training from the start. Same as for our Chimpanzees as you might remember.

Discovering each individual in your groups, observe who has which position in the group, and who interacts with who is a very important start to work with social groups of animals. This will have an impact on your reinforcement schedules. When proper observation is done our success rate in training the animals is a lot higher.


Good Luck!


Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”






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