Recently I read a book by one of our previous guest bloggers Gabrielle Harris, entitled Touching Animal Souls. In her book Gabrielle discusses a topic, that in my opinion, is not understood well enough. Gabrielle writes – the amount of energy you apply in your training sessions is what you will get back. This got me thinking.

Lyra at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to for a few days to coach Kolmården’s marine mammal team in their animal training. One of the trainers won the dolphin lottery, because he had the privilege to work with a wonderful, energetic, strong and beautiful individual named Lyra. The reason I like her so much is because she is very different to other dolphins I have worked with in the past. Not only does she bring the best out of you as a trainer, she can also be a challenge, in that she is not very easily pleased. She is an animal that prefers variety over a fish, after every correct response.

For younger, less experienced or new trainers who do not know her very well yet, she is a challenging character to build trust with; but when you are accepted into her inner circle, she teaches you a great life lesson. To always be open to new situations and not judge too quickly. One of my coaching days with the marine mammal team, I watched one of the younger trainers work with her. Lyra seemed a bit off and played with her fish while the trainer tried to seek her attention to progress in his training session. He didn’t have a strong relationship yet, but was well on his way to building one. Lyra looked at him and preformed a behaviour but after receiving reinforcement swam off, again. The trainer is a young Swedish man in his early 20’s who has a great attitude but limited experience working with dolphins. A simple case of the inexperience that comes with age. Lyra seemed to pick up on this pretty quickly. I observed them for a while, their session went more downhill than up and I believe this was because of the communication between the two.

When there is an understanding between both human and animal, relationship building and clear communication is happening between both of them.

We have all had a session or experience working with an animal such as Lyra. She needs guidance and a fun outcome for both her and her trainer. Finding the guidance she needs is quite the challenge and comes from keen observation, but at the end it does come down to what you get is what you give.

Understanding motivation is a key factor in animal training, especially in Lyra’s case, the motivation that she needed wasn’t given from the trainer in that situation and therefore she lost interest. The trainer didn’t pick up on what she needed and became more insecure about the correct responses to give. Giving the right consequences to animals is important, this does not always have to be food; it can be your posture, they way you move and how clear your communication is towards the animal. Lyra is a typical case of an animal that responds to a trainers behaviour.

The Intelligent Kea

I met my first Kea recently on a zoo consultancy trip to New Zealand. Such charismatic animals and one of the smartest parrot species, even beating out some primates in intelligence tests. A friend of mine and I were discussing motivation and he told me about how the motivation for the birds had changed after he changed the way the birds were trained. The training that had been done previously with the four Kea was mostly limited to target training. However, more often than not, when entering the enclosure the birds were slow even reluctant to come down to meet the keepers to participate in the sessions. He thought that perhaps the training wasn’t stimulating or engaging enough for these clever birds; so he came up with a variety of ‘training games’ to do with the Kea. Suddenly the birds were engaged, focused on the trainer and having to think about the behaviours that are being asked of them. Not just ‘target, reward, target, reward’. The response they get is directly effected by what they give.

The Reflection of a Training Programme

Another great story comes from a team I’ve had the privilege to work with for the past 2.5 years now. They have the largest animals by weight in the zoo. I’m of course talking about elephants. The elephant keepers take care of 5 individuals ranging in age from 5 years to 50+ years. A sometimes complicated herd of animals, who need a good training programme.

The youngest of the elephants is 5 year old Namsai, the first Asian elephant born here in Sweden. A young bull with tiny tusks, he has a great learning ability and a creative mindset, all challenges for the trainers to connect with. Over time we have gone from a free contact system, where we went in with the animals, to a protective contact system. For the trainers some huge challenges came along and this was reflected in the experienced choices they made in sessions.

Going from working free contact to protective contact can be a challenging transition. When working free contact with elephants, interaction between trainer and elephant was them not being asked what to do but told. In protective contact when the elephant doesn’t want to participate or preform an asked behaviour, we now have to try various motivation techniques to try and get them to respond to our signal. Some trainers had a hard time adapting to this new way of working and training but since the change over they have all come very far. After the change over the keepers saw a drastic increase in the frustration level of Namsai. His behaviour was blamed on him being a hormonal teenager. An unfair label that we stamped on him without looking further into potential other reasons for his behaviour.

Namsai being trained for a fun behaviour.

We found out that the communication from the team wasn’t black and white and this explained the response from Namsai. It looked like he had to figure out who he was working with in each session and discover the trainer’s own signals and criteria, which is not fair to Namsai.

The team reviewed their own training systems and discovered that they were far off from being black and white in their communication to Namsai. They took their training programme back to get back on track and to give the animals what they got and this is how they got Namsai back on track. The training programme works very well when it is used properly. When the trainers are black and white in their communication with the animals it’s very rewarding experience to work together with such magnificent animals.

We trainers bring an atmosphere with us and the animals pick up on it. The energy we have, reflects in the success you see with the animals. I have written many blogs about the impact your energy and attitude has on the success of your animals here on Zoospensefull, and I find it to be a very interesting topic.

Confident trainers will get animals to the goal a lot faster than trainers who are not confident in their choices. Animals will respond to the actions of the trainer. When an animal goes away without warning it might be that the trainer has not given the animal the correct information in a way that is understandable for that individual. When this part of communication becomes grey, the relationship will be affected directly and so will the learning curve of that animal.

Animals teach you many lessons along the way. What will help us become better trainers is to understand who we have in front of us and what strategy of learning is best for that individual. If we know this, we are more likely to be confident in our choices.

You give the right energy and confidence to the animals, you will get it back.

You get what you give!

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Categories: Trainer Talk


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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