Cover Photo Credit: AnimalTrainingCenter, Austria

Whether you’re working on a voluntary mouth open, an ultrasound, or perhaps conditioning a blood sample with the tiger or rectal exam with elephants. All of these behaviours have one thing in common, and that is the duration of the behaviour. We have all trained many different animals, all with a different goal, one of the biggest challenges trainers encounter is to teach the animal duration. There are a few techniques one can use to teach an animal duration, whether stationary or in a behaviour.

Continuous Reinforcement

This particular technique is used quite often with training hoof-stock animals but is used across other taxa like big cats. Continuous reinforcement involves feeding an animal constantly while the animal is in a particular position, for example in a medical procedure like hoof trim.

Pros:

  • The training goal is usually reached quickly using this technique.
  • It builds control and a good relationship with the keeper.
  • The animal ignores what ever is happening to him or her because it’s more focused on the reinforcement its getting during this time. 

Cons:

  • The animal is distracted, which poses the question of if the animal actually understands what’s going on?
  • When the animal is not hungry or doesn’t want the reinforcement, you won’t be able to use this technique.
  • Depending on the animal you work with, you can quickly run out of reinforcement, which can affect other training sessions.
  • It is very easy to reinforce incorrect or superstitious behaviours.
  • We are not clear with the animal what we exactly want and why it’s being reinforced.
  • Over use can lead to, in some cases, an increase in weight which has a negative effect on their welfare. 

In 2018 Kolmarden Wildlife Park trained some Ibex to wear a collar to measure their enclosure use. The behaviour of attaching the collars was trained using continuous feeding. At one point during the training we tried to change our strategy to an ABC (antecedent, behaviour, consequence) structure where the animal has to do something to be able to get something. We tried for 2-3 weeks but seemed to only go backwards in the training. When we went back to the strategy of continuous feeding, the animals began to progress again. The biggest challenge was to decrease unwanted behaviour, but as you can see in the video, this wasn’t always successful.

This technique is helpful as goals are met quickly. Training a vet check for example, with young animals, continuous reinforcement is a great start but we suggest not staying with this technique for long. The animal training centre shows us that using this technique helps young animals to be comfortable at the vet!

Keep Going Signal

This particular signal is often used with marine mammals, but has been successfully used with other species. It is a signal that tells the animal that they are doing well but they have to keep going with the behaviour. It differs from a bridge, in that it doesn’t terminate the behaviour, it encourages the animal to continue and is paired with reinforcement. 

Pros:

  • The signal helps the duration by having a strong history.
  • Useful to get the behaviour on an interval schedule where you change the amount of time the animal has to do this behaviour in.
  • If you’re working with a second trainer, the signal tells the second trainer when to reinforce.
  • The signal is very helpful in long duration behaviours by setting strong approximations.
  • The animal most likely understands what is being asked for.
  • You will have a more focused animal.

Cons:

  • If you start to depend on this signal, the animal will break the behaviour every time you don’t give this signal.
  • Doing the signal often could turn into the distraction strategy.
  • This signal is easily over used and the animal easily depends on it. When trainers over use it, it can become part of the behaviour and the signal will lose strength.

The camel is being trained for a ‘keep going’ signal, in this case “bra” (good in Swedish). This signal also tells the other trainer giving reinforcement that she should reinforce. The clicker used in this video is to terminate the behaviour. The terminal bridge tells the animal, ‘well done’ and tells the second trainer in front of the animal that it will be reinforced. A ‘Keep Going’ signal has to be thought out and planned very well, especially, what the goal will be for the trainer and for the animal.

We trained the South African fur seals for duration to stay in a position so we could condition blood sampling, ultrasounds or other long duration behaviours. This keep going signal was reinforced by another secondary reinforcer such as praise, to let the animal know that what they are doing is good and to keep it up. This has helped the duration of the behaviour very much.

Teaching Duration Through Time

This technique is used widely with a broad range of taxa. Each approximation is a couple seconds longer. The behaviour is asked and the trainer bridges after X amount of seconds/minutes. This technique fits in the variable interval schedule. A variable interval schedule provides reinforcement for the first response following a variable duration of time.

Pros:

  • The animal knows exactly what to do and what to expect.
  • Making an animal calm and relax is much easier.
  • The animal tells you when it’s ready to proceed and when it’s had enough.
  • With training a behaviour this way you will have a solid base with foundation behaviours.
  • The animal will be comfortable and calm and your control strengthens.
  • The animal’s internal and external motivation are fed which leads into a stronger relationship.
  • The animal understands very clearly that it has to do something to get something.
  • You will have a more focused animal.

Cons:

  • It takes a lot of small approximations and therefore, time.
  • The patience of the trainer will be tested.
  • It’s challenging for the animal if you want to have a very long duration. 
  • The end goal isn’t reached quickly.

Tonsak is asked for his foot in a lean in position. He is reinforced only after the whole procedure is done. He understands the concept of waiting as duration for a behaviour. His history was very different compared to where we are now. He used to be continuously fed but over time we changed this to where we are now. We see a big change in his learning process. It seems to be that he is very intrinsically motivated by training which makes the relationship with the trainer stronger.

Budda the Eurasian Eagle Owl is conditioned to wear a transponder. In this session you can see that it takes the trainer a while to get the transponder on. Budda is conditioned for this by being trained for duration and desensitisation.

Variable Ratio Schedule

Repeated behaviour after a given signal. The behaviour could be reinforced after a different amount of repetitions of the asked behaviour. Requires the completion of a variable number of responses to produce a reinforcer.

Pros:

  • This technique helps the motivation of the animal.
  • Helps the skillset of the trainer training this behaviour.
  • Needs detailed shaping.
  • Trainer needs detailed timing with their bridge.

Cons:

  • Each repetition has to reach the same criteria which makes it hard to stay on criteria.
  • The trainer has to have a good level of training experience to teach the animal. 
  • Timing is everything.

Each piece of rubbish is picked up by the raven and thrown in the garbage bin. Each time the animal picks up a piece of trash the behaviour is repeated. Each part has to have the same criteria. It is important to mention that no other signals should be given while the animal is repeating the behaviour. The repetition of the behaviour will help the duration.

Another example is the claw clipping of an owl. The animal is asked to be touched, the trainer touches and clips, the trainer bridges and reinforces. The next time the trainer will clip 2 nails before reinforcement is given and so on. This helps the duration of the calm behaviour of the owl.

There are many different ways to teach an animal duration. Just remember it takes time and patience, timed bridging, knowing the individual and understanding their history to be successful. Small approximations are needed and sometimes it’s better to go slower to make your foundation history will be a lot stronger!

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