All of us who have animals in their life are connected to veterinarian technicians. Animals do get medical challenges running through their lives. As animal caretakers we have to try and be pro-active to these situations and scenarios. To be able to check our animals in a voluntary manner we need some basic behaviours to be trained. The animals have to have a good relationship with the trainer and understand control, targets, call overs, follow, tactile etc. for further sampling but this doesn’t have to be the case.

Marine mammals for example, we need those basic behaviours because they are more of their time in the water. When we have those steps ready we can go on with body checks. Those further checks are important to go into training for fluid samples. With marine mammals we do daily body checks where we ask the animals in all type of body positions to be able to have a proper look. When these behaviours such as line ups, mouth open etc have a well-established positive history we can move on to the next steps.

Body Check on a Grey Seal at Kolmårdens Djurpark

Over the years I’ve trained quite some medical behavior’s but there is one standing out for me. The story is about Morgan the deaf Killer Whale (Want to see the presentation we did? Klick HERE). Almost every female killer whale is trained or will be trained for urine collections. The reasoning is that you can easily see if the animal is in a cycle. Training such a behavior comes with challenges, especially when the animal is not able to hear the whistle what we use as a bridge. This is how we did it:

One of the first things we need to know how can we make the animal to urinate and when the animal does it most often. The answer was pretty easy because we observed her urinating every morning. We just needed to get this on a stable time where we were able to capture her urinating easier. The plan was to see how we can take all the excuses away we can control. What meant that we had to measure everything to get her to urinate. Every morning at the same time we gave her an x amount of ice and gelatin. Afterwards we would ask an x amount of behaviours where she had to do some high energy behaviors. After this step we stopped the session for about 3 minutes. We would come back and ask her in a parallel position with her belly up on the surface. From there we would wait till she starts to pee. We always brought a stopwatch with us to count the time between the position and when she would urinate, this way we would know that between the first session and the second we could add some more time if necessary. This all to take away the excuses we can control.

Urine Sampling With Morgan at Loro Parque

Timing is very important in this case of sampling. What we want is that she opens her passage so she urinates. When we see this happening, we bridge because if we bridge when she already urinates she might not understand that the movement of her passage to urinate has to be opened for us to have the behavior. Another huge challenge we had was that she wasn’t able to hear the bridge (whistle). This was not in our favor neither because the bridge came too late all the time for her to understand what we wanted. With doing the same procedure over and over again we did had her to urinate within a particular amount of time. Till Filip one of my colleagues came up with a new day. What if we just do the whole procedure right away at the time we normally train this behavior. We went to a slide out in one of the exhibits and asked her to do a side slide out. After 11 months of training we had to try something. A side slide out means that she goes up on a platform on her side. It seemed like this helped her to put pressure on her bladder. We asked her to come out on her side and within 20 seconds we got her to urinate. Since that moment we had the behavior on signal.

What we’ve learned is that the bridge is very important. We also learned that taking all excuses away we control will help the animal to succeed. Not to forget to have an open mind to try new things when you don’t see any progression.

There are other ways to go. I’ve received some videos from Amy Sarno who works at the Kansan City Zoo. She trained Tigers to urinate on signal. The way she did it? This is how: Observation is one of the most important parts in having this behavior on signal. What you really want to know is when the animal urinated throughout the day. One of the techniques used afterwards is “Capturing or Scanning”. How this works is just reinforcing when they show you the behavior. Over time the behavior will happen more often and you can start adding a signal. The Frisbee used in the video had to be desensitized before they could use it. When the animals were comfortable with the whole scenario they added newspapers and cardboard into the indoor enclosures because they knew they will mark this again what allowed them the chance of capturing indoors and applying reinforcement for it to happen more often. Later on, the Frisbee was added as signal and the animals understood that this meant urinate.

Urine Sample With a Tiger at Downtown Aquarium Denver  – Amy Sarno

Important points to consider from this story is the observation. From knowing this data we can see a similarity each day when the animals urinate. This helps you capturing this behavior. I believe with teaching the animals to drink that the chances of urinating goes up. This will help to get the behavior urinating on signal potentially faster.

There is a big difference with animals who live in the water compared to animals who live on land. There is one thing in common and that is that the same techniques are used after all.

Do you have further questions? Please don’t hesitate to send us an email too


Peter Giljam



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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