Cover Photo: Simon Jonsson (Instagram simon84jo)

The theory of animal training helped me a great deal until I worked with orcas. But little did I know that my skills would then be tested constantly along the way. A sea-lion was one thing, moving on to a killer whale was another. I got this job through a good friend of mine that I met on conference in 2008, since then we have kept in regular contact and one of the topics we always discuss is how a trainer can gain the success they need to grow in this field.

We both agree, that working with sea lions builds your understanding of basic behaviours needed to work those animals. However, a good background is then necessary to work the big animals, such as walruses or orcas. I discovered this only by the experiences I had along the way. 

Morgan and me building a relationship.

After a couple of months of helping the trainers I was introduced to the first animal to work with. This was Morgan, a deaf killer whale that was not able to be rehabilitated and was relocated in 2010 to join the group in Spain. First up, building a relationship. In this period of time I learned how incredibly important it is to build a strong connection with the animal you are going to work with. 

Not only that, there were some golden rules you had to apply to working with those powerful animals. One rule I will never forget, and still live by nowadays in training other species, was do not touch an orca that has just been attacked or challenged by another orca. I always wondered why it should be that way, i questioned some of the trainers and they explained it to me…

It actually makes a lot of sense. When an animal who is lowest in hierarchy is attacked and isn’t able to win, they will have a frustration build up that they can’t get rid of. The orca will choose something to send this frustration towards. This could be a toy or this could be you. With such a big animal you do not want to be chosen. I found this very interesting because it happens with us humans as well. Regardless of the situation you will try and displace somebody else directly after you have been displaced and couldn’t ‘win’. Regardless if the person receiving your frustration did something to deserve this.

There was an old study done to see how rats respond to this emotion. Two rats were put together, one rat was shocked and even though the other rat had nothing to do with the others state, the shocked rat did attack the other through pain-elicited aggression. (Ulrich & Azrin, 1962; Ulrich et al., 1965). A shocked animal will also attack a bigger animal if necessary. If the shocked animal can’t find that, it will find something to bite. If an object can’t be found it will obtain something it can bite (Azrin et al., 1965).

This is interesting to me, this means that observation is a lot more important than we already thought, before we go into a training session. If an animal has been attacked or challenged to be attacked or is in some type of shock, we have to know this to succeed in our session or to succeed in our own safety. 

Breeding Season

Branching out to work with more species than just marine mammals I had to learn that this works with all animals. For example it is better not to train fallow deers when the males are in rut, it fast became apparent it was very dangerous to do so. The big male will protect his position, and the flock, often displacing the younger males who in turn can also attack you, if they get the chance. This could even be the reason described in the study with the rats. If there are males lowest in rank not able to win fights you might as well be the next one. This actually is a lot more complicated as it is. 

This type of aggression can be described as territorial aggression or dominance aggression. In the IMATA Glossary of 2004 they are explained as:

Territorial aggression. This type of aggression is found in animals that hold and defend a territory. It is usually only directed towards members of the same species that enter that animal’s territory. This aggression is more often found in males. This aggression stops when the intruder leaves the territory. 

Dominance aggression. This is almost always between males. It is aggression aimed at maintaining or advancing in status. 

Male Ibex Fighting

It might be because of protection of the herd or wanting to be the top breeder. It might also be a display of power. Regardless of why the fallow deer attacks the other males the outcome can easily be you being attacked next, due to the fact that there is nobody below the attacked deer(s). 

Knowing that this can happen we need to look into when we should start a training session. Observation is the easiest option, but there are times you make the wrong decision. Working with those magnificent orcas, this could actually be life or death if the situation occurs where the orca has been attacked before you start your session, meaning it is better to be distant. Would we still train? Absolutely, but at a safe distance.

What would we call such aggression directed at us or a toy? The IMATA Glossary from 2004 says;

Re-directed aggression. This is a type of aggression first analysed by ethologists. When an animal is attacked or threatened by another animal of higher status, that animal may attack or threaten another animal of lower status presumably because it is not a good idea to aggress against an animal of higher status. The animal that is ultimately attacked is simply a scapegoat and usually did nothing to provoke aggression. 

This can be backed up by a study done with monkeys where they discovered that a fight would occur more often in a family group compared to when animals do not know each other. Read HERE. There is another study done with cats to find out the effect of a previous arousal and the directed aggression showed afterwards. Cat aggression redirected to people: 14 cases (1981-1987) Chapman BL, Voith VL. This means that we always have to be aware of the environment and the animals living in it.

When we work our animals there are many ways to solve aggression within our training session, but maybe we should start with an observation of the animals we work with and then determine if the session is achievable based on these observations. As trainers we need to be flexible in our choices to put our animals up for success, is our main goal of our session. If we ignore the signs from our animals, we have a higher chance of a session that ends up failing or even the animal or the trainer getting hurt. In worst case scenario your relationship with this animal will also drop. 

Eland Antelope Fighting

Ideally we should know where the aggression came from, but if we don’t, we have to understand the individuals body language, to observe the after effect of the situation. Your goal is now to pull the animal out of their anxious mindset.

Recently I’ve had some great discussions about conditioning a female gorilla and a mother brown bear to a signal that tells them ‘the animal that could challenge you won’t be there’. Great thought, but the challenge is that you either have to tell each animal that they will be by themselves or give this signal after they have been separated. The reason is that especially with gorillas if I tell the female the male won’t be there, and I gave the signal too early, it could be that the male decides that he wants to be with her, regardless of the females opinion.

For the gorillas we decided instead of telling the female that the male is gone, each exhibit will have its own signal meaning that the female will know where the male is. The exhibit is a circle area, where the top exhibit is 5 metres higher then the backstage area. Both areas have a tunnel on the left and right side. This means that they can’t see each other when one is up and the other down. We decided to have a signal meaning that all gates are open and that they have the whole circle so nobody can become cornered. This helps the animals to be more calm and know that they can can move away from a potential aggressor. 

New ideas are always coming forward for ways we can work animals and how we can train them for particular concepts. The most important thing is that we keep observing the animals before sessions and make sure sessions are flexible dependent on that. Your plans might change completely. Aggression within the group might be redirected to you, so always be sure to pay attention, even with the small animals.

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!

1 Comment

null · June 4, 2019 at 05:04

This is what is happening when a man comes home from work and beats up his wife and children. Or why the big dumb kid at school become a school yard bully 🙁

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