Do you ever ask yourself the question, who is training who?

Who gets trained and who has the control? It’s common business in animal training. It happens in front of your eyes without you even noticing. I was amazed how killer whales do it when I was working with them. They could grasp you away from your goal and get to the point where they had you doing exactly what they wanted. Elephants are another species that come very close to doing this too.


The trainers at our elephant stable told me that elephants plan ahead. It was interesting to hear and what I wanted to know was what they could plan? Would they plan how they could get the best reinforcement out of me? Or would they plan not to cooperate at all? I once did a recall training session with our big Asian Bull, his name is Tonsak. He is a 4000+ kg and 19 years old. We have various pens we house him in, and time to time he will be in with the herd. At one point he was in one of the big pens so I decided to try a recall with him. I wanted a little bit of a challenge and tried sneaking up on him pre-session, but however quiet I was, he discovered me too soon. I had some enrichment with me made for elephants -some big feeder boxes, almost impossible to hide. He saw me coming and I couldn’t make a detour. Trying to pretend nothing would happen with my big enrichment devices, I sat down while he came to me and simply stared. What he was thinking I don’t know, but he definitely knew that I was going to give him something. I also brought the recall device with me, a small african drum. If the elephants are as smart as they say they are, then he knew what I was up to. I waited and waited to a point where he turned around and walked the other way but he stopped after 5 meters. It looked like he was still focused on me, but I wasn’t sure. I decided to give a recall and reinforce with the enrichment devices I brought with me, this was the moment where I confirmed to myself, I just got trained by Tonsak.

We have to pay close attention to the animals we train. We have to pick up on our responses to the animals and our patterns. I mean, an animal that stays in control and gets the exact same reinforcement, after the exact same time over and over again, will become bored sooner rather than later. When the animal turns away and wants to leave because its boring, some of us will decide to call the animal back right away. This breaks the reinforcing pattern and could be higher in reinforcement for the animal, because of the variation and the different attention that is given to the animal at that moment. There are plenty more examples but I hope this explains it.

Letting animals train us can also be done on purpose. Working for a couple of years with killer whales I learned how to do this. At this point I was working with Orcas in Spain. They had two magnificent animals in their group, Kohanna and Skyla. They loved playing and were engaged quickly in doing so. I passed the windows and they swam with me, I looked at them and stopped. They stopped swimming and stayed with me, without me asking them to do so. I had found some leaves in a nearby garden and use them to slide along the window as some enrichment. They started to open their mouth and make noises. They squirted at it and I moved them each time they did. They discovered that they could make me move the leaves around. I tried my hardest to be as creative as I could, but it wasn’t an easy task. After 20 minutes playing, I had to leave them, but what an amazing, and interesting, experience to have had with the girls.

We trainers have to observe and acknowledge quickly who has the lead in our sessions. This is not only for the progression of learning, but also for the safety of ourselves. Animals are very observant and are a lot smarter then we think. If we look at it from the A-B-C standpoint, the elephant that left is the (A) signal, the trainers calling him back is (B) behaviour, the trainers reinforcing him right after is (C) reinforcement. Its not easy to recognise but if you know it you can solve it.

This can also go the opposite way. I remember once being in a vet clinic where the vet had to euthanise a dog because it was aggressive to the owner. He explained that the dog would sit on his foot, whenever the owner was going to move the dog would growl as precursor of aggression. Over time this has escalated so badly that the dog was training the owner to an extreme and dangerous extent. When animals get the control in the wrong way, dominant aggression starts to rule our sessions.

So ask yourself once in a while, who is training who here?

What is the chance an animal comes back once it has left and you scream its name right after? Very small right? What if the animal knows and you give a response to the behaviour he shows you? We never really know. We have to look at the future behaviour and see if this increases or decreases.

If we become very good at recognising these behaviours we can have more ‘outside the box’ training sessions and let the animals train us on purpose instead. All of a sudden, training becomes play and this will only strengthen our relationships. At this point we just have to be creative and not fall in patterns. As we all know, animals love to play!

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!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.