For years I’ve always thought choice and control is a cool way to train the animals. Only recently I wondered, what does choice and control even mean? I asked this question to a well respected animal trainer and he gave me an answer to think about. He said it’s an ongoing discussion, but if we, as animal trainers, can’t come to an agreement about what choice and control actually means, how will the animals we train perceive it?

When I look up the meaning of choice, one of the definitions I find is “the right to choose, or the possibility of choosing”. When I look at control, I find the following “the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events”.

Recently K. Ramirez wrote a great blog about this subject that I definitely recommend you read. One of the things he mentions is..

Some trainers believe that choice is an inherent component of positive reinforcement training. While the use of positive reinforcement greatly increases the odds that the trainer is working in a paradigm of choice, it is not guaranteed. If an animal’s lack of compliance means loss of reinforcement, the “choice” is sometimes a false or forced choice.

Combined, choice and control comes down to an animal that is able to do what it wants, when it wants. My question here is: If an animal chooses not to do the behaviour that is asked for, what do we do?

The consequence can be one of several. One consequence can be to ignoring the behaviour. Another is redirection or the use of other consequences to decrease the response of what we consider to be ‘incorrect’. Personally, I don’t believe this is choice and control; because the consequence tells the animal it’s better to do this and if you don’t, then you won’t get anything.

Wouldn’t it be real choice and control if the animal was able to choose what it wanted to do and still get reinforced for any choices it will make at that particular moment? Many of us say, “well, if I show up and start a session with an animal, the animal can choose to participate”. I don’t think this can be considered choice and control, because if the animal doesn’t want to participate, will it still receive the same consequences for not participating?

Let’s look at this from a different angle. In leadership we talk a lot about “letting people own their own problems and their own successes”. This way, the growth of the person becomes more positive. What if we do this with the animals. Let them own their own problems:

Here is an example of a dog tighten its own turnicate. If the animal found this uncomfortable when the trainer was doing it, this lets the animal own their own problem.

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When visiting Hamilton Zoo, one of the trainers showed me this very cool behaviour of a Kea opening its own door of the transport box. This gives the animal the control over a situation it might be afraid of. Again, another example of letting them own their problems.

Recently, we posted a video of an elephant rinsing herself. The reason this behaviour was trained, is because the animal doesn’t want to be rinsed by the trainer. This trainer came up with the idea to let the animal own their problem and started to teach her to do it herself. He started with capturing her throwing sand on herself. When this was getting stronger he replaced the sand with the water and that’s how it started. He therefore solved the problem of the animal not wanting to be rinsed.

Here is another example, within a family group of Gorillas there is one male who is the leader of the group. In our zoo, we always talk about getting animals to be trained individually. Therefore, we thought we should try to separate the male away from the group. This was a lot more challenging then we thought. We tried and it just didn’t work. Until one trainer came up with an idea. What if the animal separates himself away from the group? I thought this was a very cool idea. Again, here the animal is thought to own its problem by choosing to separate himself away from the group.

The animal was always holding the gate and we decided to reinforce this behavior instead of ignoring it. From that moment on, we slowly got him to close the gate and eventually open the gate again. Great timing from the trainer was needed to reach this goal.

We recently posted a video of a chimpanzee, Martin, that we had a hard time motivating. A couple years ago, they had explained me that Martin isn’t very interested in interacting with the trainers. He’s a castrated male, who is funnily enough, the one challenging the leader in the group. Coming from a marine mammal background, I thought putting time into this animal to build a relationship should be the first step.

Due to the amount of chimpanzees, 21 in total, we had a hard time putting a lot of time and effort in to this one particular animal. What we discovered over time was, Martin liked nuts one day and the next day he didn’t want to know. For us, it was very hard to discover what martin actually liked. That’s where we decided to turn it around. What if we let the Martin tell us what he wanted to have as a consequence to a behaviour?

By letting Martin pick which reinforcement he wants at any given time, we see a huge increase in his willingness to interact with trainers. It has been such a success, that we are looking into rolling this out with multiple animals.

As you can see in all the examples, the animals have to solve their own problems. Whether this can be called choice and control is the question. It may be that we just put those words in, because it’s fashionable to say, or makes us feel better about our training. But do we really understand what it means?

We trained a fur seal to make its own choice after an incorrect behaviour. When we asked her for a behaviour, if she didn’t understand she had a choice to gain reinforcement by touching a target in her house. This helped her engagement in the sessions and the control over the session itself. Just another way of solving a problem.

It is only when we listen and adapt to animals that we can give them freedom to choose; a combination of a solid reinforcement history, a strong relationship, and clear communication gives learners the feeling of having choice. – K. Ramirez

I personally find that we quickly drop the words choice and control when training our animals. We should look deeper into letting the animal own their problem and their success afterwards just what great leadership is all about. At the end of the day we form a team with the animals we work with. Teamwork makes the dream work.

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