Since starting my career, I’ve worked with a huge amount of animals with different social structures, from Killer whales and dolphins, to Chimpanzees, Takins, Bush dogs, Lions, and even Elephants. I’ve also worked with a lot of humans, perhaps the most complex of all but we can agree all of these species have a completely different type of social structure. Because of the often complex relationships these animals have with each other when training social animals there are a few things to remember.

Often for our blogs and Facebook group we are constantly searching for interesting training/enrichment videos to share on social media. These videos often inspire me and others here at Zoospensefull, to think about what can be done and the multitude of ways to achieve it. If you have a training or enrichment video that you think is really cool then please share it on our Facebook page, Zoospensefull – Conditioning a Creative Way. Some of these videos are only a snapshot of the entire training process and don’t always show the approximations or the antecedent arrangement. When I see some of these great videos, especially training of social animals, I wonder what steps have been taken to allow these dynamic social animals to be trained. At Kolmardens Wildlife Park, when conditioning our social animals, we try to focus on separating/gating from the start. In certain species this is fairly straightforward but in some species it can be very challenging.

Bush dogs are very calm animals. They are a small member of the canid family who are found through much of South America east of the Andes. They are the most gregarious South American canid species and have an interesting social structure. When we ask a call over and they all come to us, they are very relaxed and don’t really fight for the food. Which begs the question, ‘Did we train it well or is it just part of their social dynamics?’

Recently I’ve read a book entitled “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal. In his book, there are a couple cool research projects explained, one of which is about the cooperation in feeding of chimpanzees. We all know chimpanzees are very social animals and it is part of their survival mechanism. In the experiment, they added tubes against the bars of the exhibit, the idea was to replicate a termite or ant hill. They added as many tubes as the number of animals. The first step was for the chimps to understand how the devices worked, which didn’t take very long. The next step was the researchers began to take one tube away every day. Amazingly the chimps started to share the other tubes, they each waited for their turn to eat, a very cooperative social feeding structure. I was surprised when reading this, as my previous working relationship, saw animals who would fight for the last piece of reinforcement. This story changed my thought process about how a social group of animals can function, especially one I had preconceived notions about.

Orcas have a very strong hierarchical structure as well. When working with these magnificent animals, I discovered that you have to be extraordinarily careful who you will give the last reinforcer to in the group. This is so sensitive that even when you are on the other side of the pool, the animals know exactly who got the last hand full of fish and will attack if it was the submissive animal. It’s very delicate process and if a trainer doesn’t know about this yet, you might be the reason why an animal gets displaced.

When conditioning a group of animals we need to pay close attention to more than the feeding patterns. Let’s say we ask a group of capuchins to come to us, but 1 or 2 animals in the group do not respond to the signal. We can say these 2 are incorrect and the other correct, so I reinforce them. However if we think about this for a second, we just might be reinforcing the correct animals to keep the other 2 away. This will happen in strong social structures more often than when you have solitary individuals like tigers or snow leopards. A similar situation could happen in separations when we ask a whole group to separate and some animals stay behind. It might be that other animals tell them to stay and not come with the group. This is where it becomes challenging for the trainers, because now we have to start narrowing down the problem and find out which animal is influencing the groups decisions. This isn’t necessarily  the hierarchy leader, an animal doesn’t have to be in charge to be dominant.

At Kolmården Wildlife Park we have a group of 4 Southern White rhinos, 1 male and 3 females. What happens most of the time when we give a signal to come to us, the females are first and the male is last or doesn’t come at all.  On the occasions the male does come, he will be chased away and his chance of reinforcement is gone. The big problem is, that over time he will associate this negative experience as consequence of the call over behaviour. One possible solution was for us to ask the females to come first and gate themselves away. This would then give the male more of a chance to succeed and on top of that we can start to build his trust back up again, which is necessary to increase his rate of success. Eventually we want to work up to the point where we can have them all on 1 signal again. It is important to note that when we have all the rhinos in the back area, is when the most reinforcement comes, when they are together. This will teach them that when they accept each other they get more.

Solitary animals that are housed together will build a group structure.

Over the years, I’ve seen functionable groups and less functionable groups. Too many males in a group, could result in animals that have been placed together who do not work together or a group that requires daily aggression management. Sometimes however, we aren’t able to separate bachelor groups, the challenge is making it work. There are various techniques to use but the most important, is to make them understand that being together is a good thing. When the training team would be very good with their communication, the animals would actually help us with what we want from them. When the animals understand, “if we do this together we have a higher chance of reinforcement”, they will try to work together which helps the social management of the group. Some animals are easier to train than others. Red pandas for example, we have three at Kolmården Wildlife Park. Red pandas do not have a social structure like many other species but exhibiting a couple together directly puts them in a social setting. We are at the point where we train them to station. The reason is that there is one keeper to the three animals. We have found that when the animals have their own spot to eat without being challenged they are more calm in their exhibit. We ask them to come to their station, we add the reinforcement except for one, this one individual will be trained. This works very well and doesn’t seem to bother any of them, the whole process is calm and easy.

Harris hawks are on of the only social hunters in the birds of prey family.

In our bird department, we have two groups of Harris hawks. Harris hawks are one of the few birds of prey that hunt together in a pack. We have 8 hawks in total but separated in subgroups. We train them using a different strategy, used primarily in the marine mammal field. One bird prefers the company of another conspecific, so we carefully pick who should be with whom and slowly changing the cooperation between birds. When we come into the exhibit they have to go to their station and then wait to be trained. We will then ask one bird at the time to come to us for training. In the demonstration, there is a part where the small groups fly together and go to different stations and fly back home. With the right timing of reinforcement, we have a well-established group of hawks who accept each other to eat on a safe position.S

I’ve been in contact with Ryan Cartlidge, a passionate animal trainer from New Zealand who is the owner of the Animal Training Academy. He produces fantastic podcasts about exciting and interesting topics. I listened to them often and suggest you check them out. One podcast that stood out for me was Training groups of animals by Bianca Papadoloupos. A great podcast where Bianca Papadoloupos touches on a couple important aspects of social group training. One of them is stationing and structure; being black and white is one of the key factors.

Social management is important but difficult, we never know exactly what the challenges will be. When training, we have to carefully select animals who will work well together and start to work our way to through any potential problems that arise. Therefore, we need keen observation skills and a proper understanding of the species and their social structures. This will have an impact on the power of your reinforcement and when proper observation is done, our success rate in training the animals is a lot higher. Remember that each group of animals are different in their own way and the social structure is always changing.

Good Luck!

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!


PeterGiljam · November 28, 2021 at 19:50

Sharks are individuals. Which means they don’t live in groups. Therefore they don’t have a social hierarchy.

Anonymous · November 12, 2021 at 16:35

Does sharks have a social structure?

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