Working in the position I have today at Kolmårdens Zoo I visit every department once a week to help with their behavioural challenges. The departments we have are, Kolosseum, Apehouse, South Amerika, Birds of Prey, Carnivore, Hoofstock, Marine World and the Petting Zoo. Quite some departments to talk about many different topics. All departments have their own level of growth in the animal training topic. All with their own ideas and achievements.
At the kolosseum they use more and more choice and control with their elephants. While at the birds of prey department they get creative with recalls and stations. Slowly together we change the way we work with our animals. But there is one thing all departments have in common… communication issues!
Many challenges we have are based on poor communication. If we narrow down the unwanted behaviour an animal shows 9 out of 10 times somebody in the team has been reinforcing it one way or another and didn’t communicate this to the team. Could it be because we are afraid to fail? When our team is trustful to each other you will have stronger behaviour from your animals and probably higher criteria. Where does this whole thing start?
Look, training animals is fairly easy you would say, you reinforce the wanted behaviour and ignore or redirect the unwanted behaviour depending on the strategies you choose. Communicating with an animal is pretty simple especially when a proper plan has been made. I always refer to a plan A and a plan B. Plan A will reflect to how the animals are going to be trained with small approximations to reach the goal. Plan B refers to what the other trainers should or shouldn’t do. This helps the communication and the training. When the behaviour is finished and introduction to other trainers is the next step the problems will come in right away. Explaining each other the criteria and signal for the behaviour comes with some flags. At the start it might all make sense but in practise the behaviour will change. When we don’t talk about the “bad bridges” the behaviour will go downwards. Most of the time its not even the “ bad bridging” that is the issue but how the situation has been handled when we have to problem solve in the moment. There are so many ways to solve a problem.
We have been talking about consequences in previous blogs here at ZooSpensefull. When we understand why the behaviour keeps coming back and what the consequences are “controllable or not” we are able to have a better understanding to the behaviour the animals show us. When talking A B C what is pretty common in the animal training world what refers to A from Antecedent, B from Behaviour and C from Consequence. We can get any situation into the right direction when we would only focus on giving the right consequence to a scenario. When we have the basic thought in a team of ignore unwanted behaviour and reinforce wanted behaviour and we take this very black and white we need less communication between the team because we are all on the same page.
Even though it sounds all so easy, it is actually very challenging. Why would you wonder? Well us people like to go into discussions. We like to talk back, some of us can’t handle criticism while others always want to have the last word. People are complicated that’s what makes communication so much harder. The whole point is that we have to agree to disagree and choose for the animal. Be on the same page.
At our Zoo there are some departments who started to write down the behaviour with its criteria’s. They make videos with the signals and the behaviours that follows what shows the proper criteria. This way they can always fall back to what is right for the animal and the criteria.
Having all this information it will still not solve the scenarios that happen in the moment. That’s where experience comes in where we have to start to guess the outcome of the consequences we give our animals. This will sometimes outweigh what’s best in training compared to the animal’s care.
Communication can help us having less challenges for the animals but also for ourselves at the work floor. Be the one you want to see in others.
Keep up the good work!