Recently I came back from a trip to Australia and New Zealand both for presentations and workshops. I had a blast! Sharing experiences and training techniques is one of my passions. To change the welfare of animals in the zoo became my focus a while ago and especially after I started to work more with terrestrial animals.

In the dog training world, baiting is used very often, people trying to get their dog in various positions by using a piece of food in their hand. Falconry is a similar culture where baiting is used 9 out of 10 times. When I was in New Zealand somebody asked me “Peter, you explain in your presentations that Baiting or Luring isn’t your cup of tea, why don’t you like it?” It isn’t about liking it, because it is a valid training technique, however, it has some downsides in my opinion.

Baiting:  A training technique in which the deliberate movement or placement of food is used to maneuver an animal to a desired location.

I’m always looking into better ways, and not just on short term but mostly on long term goals. If we tell the animal to do a behaviour and show the reinforcement right away, we lose part of the power of the reinforcement.

Let’s say one day I ask you to drive me home from work. After about 15 mins of convincing, you finally say yes. When we get to my place I give you 50 euros. The day after I ask you again, this time it only takes me 5 mins to convince you. We get to my place and I give you 20 euros. The day after you say yes directly and when we arrive at my house I give you 100 euros. The 4th day rolls around and the first thing you ask me when I get to work is if you can drive me home. This time I say thank you and I don’t give anything. Would you still give me a ride  home? Most likely yes! The reason…the unpredictable reinforcement that is given to you.

What if I did this whole scenario again but instead I showed you the money I have? Every time I ask for a ride, I will show you how much I will give you first. What are you most likely going to do is ask yourself if it’s worth it for that amount of money. Maybe you had a hard day at work…rough time with family…all the will make you wonder if the money is good enough.

I believe animals do the same.

When you show them what you have, there is a chance that the animal makes a different decision due to what they will receive. But if the reinforcement is a surprise and the only thing the animal knows is that it is a good surprise, then they will most likely reach the criteria you asked for.

This is not necessarily the biggest reason why baiting isn’t my cup of tea. I’m a believer that animals always do something right. If we train new behaviours, 9 out of 10 times there is something the animal does correctly, we just have to look for it. Timing is another big one here, because if our timing is good, we are able to catch the tiny behaviours or approximations we are looking for.

When the owl is sent to the other trainer, the trainer waits until the animal has responded to the signal before she adds the reinforcement. We discovered that this technique changed a lot in the behavioural learning for the birds. This way, we can implement a variable reinforcement schedule that helps the motivation of the birds, especially in free flight.

When the animal starts to discover that they should do a behaviour for reinforcement, making further approximations is a lot easier. To get to this point does take a while, therefore, using baiting might be faster.

But when you decide to use baiting, the challenge is to have an animal that doesn’t become so fixated on the food that is presented. We should step away from the baiting as quickly as we can, so the animal starts the learning process by connecting behaviour to consequence. If we stay too long with the baiting strategy, we might get animals who will become more frustrated and less calm.

To come back to the question this person asked me; I added to my answer that I’m not a big fan of using baiting but that is in my training style. I also want people to have their own style of training. Baiting is a valid strategy to use. The only thing I will ask is how did the trainer apply this and how did the animal progress in training. Did it work? Perfect!

In this video you see that the trainer is baiting just a little bit with the blue jar. He is training it away slowly to get the behaviour more stable and understandable for the animal.

Recently, I concluded that I actually use baiting a lot more than I previously thought I would. I reviewed some videos and one of the biggest examples is the video with the Alpine Ibex. The food gets dumped in their food tray and the animal starts to eat. We then add a collar and just keep on adding reinforcement in the moments we think are best.

It’s just another way of baiting.

The training we have done with the fallow deer is another one. For one animal it is a behaviour being reinforced but for the other it just sees food and keeps on coming closer. It’s a tricky business, but if I have the choice, I would prefer not to and now you know why.

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