What Makes the Animal, the Animal?
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What Makes the Animal, the Animal?

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Our personality is build up by the experiences we get throughout our life. People who are extremely confident became this way because of the experiences they had previously I their life. People who are very insecure have the same thing. Everything comes down to the history of our life we went through. We all have our own story what shaped each and one of us. If I look at myself, I’ve been traveling for a while, worked in 5 different countries, made great friends, had hard times, did some amazing adventures on the way and asked myself many questions, I can keep on going but all these experiences made me who I am today. But what about animals?

When I’m walking through Kolmårdens Zoo I’m trying to find out why animals do what they do. Why do they respond the way they do to each other or other species? Of course, some of it is instinctive but at the other hand if an animal gets beaten up by his relatives it will start to be a more submissive animal. This animal will take this experience through his whole life. The animal is shaped by its experiences. This is the same when animals are born in our care and we kind off start right away interacting with these animals. The youngsters are learning so much in their first couple of years of existence this could help us training the animals in the future when the interaction is done well. With knowing this we have to be careful what kind of influence we create towards green or young animals.

Animal shelters for example, animals who are potentially abused, mistreated or just taken away because there was no time for them. Those animals have a history what makes them who they are today. From very engaging animals to curled up in a corner. All behaviours have a reason for them being there.

Let’s say the animal doesn’t have a history with the connection to us at all what I think is the best scenario. This way we can shape them a lot easier without struggling through a learned process from previous trainers. It’s for me very important to know what the history was from the animal we work with. The reason is very simple, this can put your training on a higher success rate. When we know what the animal has as personality and what the animal likes and dislikes with the reasons for it we can give the animal a higher success rate then when we do not have a clue and just start to try things out. We could actually make the animal worse become more insecure and being more aggressive.

I remember somebody telling me that when he just had a puppy. He said to me Peter the dog I have with his behaviour today is due to an experience it had in the past. Somebody made my dog having an extreme insecurity. He described the interaction what happened when the dog was very young. He passed another person with his dog, without paying attention this dog jumped on top of the puppy. The puppy took this as a traumatic experience. The worst part is that the first years of an animal are educational classes by experiences the animal needs later in its life, if there are many negative experiences you will most likely have an animal who might be very anxious for the rest of his life.

Fighting a history can take a long time especially when its based-on trust. Remember the gibbons in my previous blogs? We are 1,5 years later starting with their individual training. At this point they start to be more comfortable than ever before. Even though they are still hesitant at times what might just be because of the trust they have in us or we train them by accident to be this way what is a high possibility as well.

What about the behavioural history?

I find it important to know how particular behaviours are trained and finished. If we do not know, it will be harder to go back in steps especially when we have to start guessing how it might have been trained. What if we don’t know? You know what, sometimes its just better to train the behaviour from the start and put a new sD to it. This way we make a whole new history on the same behaviour we can control in the future. Changing an sD is a very easy step to make anyway.

I believe we shouldn’t focus on the behavioural goal but how we are going to train the behaviour. When we focus on this part we build a strong history on the behaviour we want to train. I remember having to add a history to a behaviour that was captured years ago. Quite the challenge but the way I went for it was not just step 1 good, step 2 good and so on. My strategy is most of the time step 1, step 2, step 1, step 3, etc. This gives a repetition to the steps what makes them remember the steps better to reach the goal afterwards. Over time it will be easier for me afterwards to retrain the behaviour when it was been lost for whatever reason. With planning my reinforcement instead of what I’m going to train success is easy made and learning becomes even more fun for the animal. This reflects in the confidence of the animal back to the trainer even though their history might have been very hard.

As you can see the history is important. If you have animals who are reinforced more than punished by their actions you will get opportunistic animals while the experience of the animals’ actions is more negative you might get pessimistic animals.

Never underestimate the history of an animal’s behaviour.

Cover Photo: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”

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