Often some of the challenges zookeepers face is being able to separate and gate animals. You might think separation and gating are the same but they’re not. Separation is when you separate animals but you can do this in the same area and you can do this with multiple animals. Gating is when you close a physical gate between two exhibits/environments. Separation can be a step in between the acceptance of a gate.

We will go through some challenges you might face when gating animals and how you may be able to solve some of those challenges.

1. The animal doesn’t want to gate or let you out of the exhibit because it doesn’t want the training session to end.
2. Another big challenge we see with highly social animals or group animals, is that the animals do not want to gate away from each other.
3. An animal doesn’t want to enter an area due to the negative or overly positive experiences that happened to the animals there.
4. Finally, the animal doesn’t trust you.

Especially within the zoo world, we find that those 4 the biggest obstacles when gating animals. These also seem to be a challenge in the domestic pet world as well.

Let’s start with challenge number one. Typically while working with marine mammals, in this case pinnepeds, this issue comes in more often than you think. The predictability of the trainer that tells the animal the session will be ending soon.

The amount of food that is given, the time of the session, the way the trainer acts, these are all part of the predictability that a gating is coming. Here are some things to try and solve this problem. First you need to know in which moments you are predictable. Afterwards you can implement the changes you want to apply, in many cases it is just repetition.

Working with fur seals for example, we would ask the animal to go in and out 8-10 times and sometimes we would close the gate and reopen and sometimes we wouldn’t. The placement of the reinforcer would always be when we closed the gate. This helped limit the predictability of when the session would end. Another strategy we use can have a big effect on the animals gating behaviour. Closing the gate and keep the session going in protective contact. This helped the animal understand that the session wouldn’t necessarily end and the animals gating behaviour would stay strong.

We should not forget that food reinforcers do not always work. The attention and relationship we have with the animal is sometimes of higher reinforcement than the food presented. Therefore, the animal needs trust with the trainer that everything will be ok. A good strategy to try is the Premack principle. In this case ‘you (the animal) go in’ and as reinforcement ‘you can come back out’.

Number two is another challenge that is quite common. The first thing we have to understand is that a social group can change at any given moment and we have to respect that. If our plan was to gate animals a particular way or order; but through observation we can tell that it is unlikely to  work, we should not stay with our pre-existing plan but replan instead. This sounds simple enough but this is much harder for trainers than you think. A lot of the time, your choices should be based on the observation of how the group interacts with each other. The main reason is to increase your rate of success in gating the animals.

Determining who will be gated and where will help you to have more success. Observing which animal will be a challenge will help you to direct your focus. Hierarchies, dominance, social structure and proximity to resources are all important in gating of social groups. Especially with highly social animals balancing out the reinforcement might be the hardest thing to do. You may encounter problems if your planned reinforcement for the gating is not strong enough. Remember it isn’t always food, perhaps wanting to be with your best buddy, your mom, your dad or sibling is a higher value reinforcer than the food that is given.

The third challenge is one that comes up often. We are too comfortable and quick to assume that a specific area doesn’t look ‘bad’ or ‘scary’ and therefore the animal shouldn’t have any problems gating. When training, always look at it from the animals perspective. Just because we don’t think it’s a negative space, remember it only takes one negative experience for the area to become adverse. The negative association might have something to do with you but similarly it might only be the location. The point is we can’t conclude something will be okay for the animal. We have to listen to their behaviour, to what the animal has to say and see if we can discover the reason the animal doesn’t want to gate.

As previously stated, food doesn’t always work but there are strategies that can help you. We spoke earlier about the Premack principle (see this blog). Working with a young killer whale, we discovered quickly enough, that going back to its safe zone is a higher value reinforcer than being in the new area.

Another collection I visited had two groups of spider monkeys. The animals have to be rotated between a large outdoor enclosure and a smaller yard and inside enclosure. The animals were reluctant to go into the indoor exhibit, as they seemed to not want to be shut in. When you compare the indoor exhibit to the outdoor, you can perhaps see why they would prefer to stay outside. Revamping the indoor area through effective exhibit design, creating a dynamic and engaging environment may solve 50% of the problem, if not 100%. While observing the spider monkeys we discovered that some of the animals were not very comfortable going through the raceway and often, one or more sat in the doorway of the slide. This is where observation is key and we knew we had to work on our balance of reinforcement and our trust relationship. Spending 15 mins observing the animals, reinforcing heavily and building the trust, two of the monkeys that were blocking the slide were confidently sitting in the raceway and happily venturing inside and out. 

You can also have the opposite issue where the transport box is very reinforcing for the animal. This is definitely a better behaviour or challenge to work through, because most of the time, it can be solved by adjusting the balance of reinforcement. eg. food challenge.

I don’t know if you can see it but I’ve taught her to touch her nose on a target on the wall to the left. That’s her job. Whatever I do, I want her to have her head in that position. And actually I don’t want to reward her by going out. I reward her only to be inside. So I make the trailer as fun as I can. – Jonas Sjöstrom Horse Instructor

When we think the animal is ready for you to shut the gate but then it freaks out, you have pushed it too hard. Be aware that while you can desensitise an animal to somewhere or something but you can also sensitise them to it. You may think that you reinforced heavily enough to be able to close the gate in this case you should now think about the value of the reinforcer. Most of the time, building trust goes with closing and opening a gate or not even closing it, giving the animal the option to enter and exit if it isn’t comfortable will help build confidence and your relationship of trust. This will help your overall gating.

Number four is a build up of events. Many times we are so focused on wanting to gate the animal, especially when the animal has told you that it is not ready. If we miss those signs, we run the risk of making the next time a lot worse. Another situation is having an animal gated away in and then leave it for an X amount of time. There is a huge difference between closing a gate and leaving the animal in the box for a while. When the animal starts to be bored or stressed it will not trust you next time again and may effect future sessions.

To build trust we should gate an animal, open and close the gate a couple times and then decide to get the animal back directly to its group or the more comfortable area. This helps building up the trust account for the trainer. Number four can be helped by reading the animals behaviour properly and make the right decision after observing the situation.

Why not let them close their own gate?

Another option is choice and control, giving the animal the control over his or her environment allows the animal to be more motivated and more successful. This is used in some cases as you might have seen the gorilla closing his own gate in this blog post. But more animals are conditioned to do this.

Hopefully these tips will help you to figure out why the animal won’t separate. Observation and building trust are very important to maintain a strong gating behaviour. Practise makes perfect and repetition is key.

Good luck and don’t forget to:

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