Our personality is created by the experiences we have throughout our life. Whether you’re extremely confident, or have many insecurities, all of this was developed, and is shaped, by our experiences. If this can be the case for humans, what about our animals?
When I’m walking through Kolmårdens Zoo, I’m constantly thinking about why the animals do what they do. Why do they respond a certain way to each other or another species? Although some of it may be instinctive, if an animal is attacked daily as part of a hierarchy, it will remember this experience just like you or I would. It can mould this animal into being a submissive individual and shape its personality. This is the same when animals are born into our care and we interact with these animals right away. The youngsters learn so much in their first few weeks, months, and years of existence. This could help us when training the animal in the future, if the introduction of ourselves and new environments has been done well. However it is important to remember we have to be careful with the kind of influence we create towards green, or young animals.
Animal shelters for example – animals who are potentially abused or mistreated. These animals have a history leading to the way they are today. They could be the most engaging, friendly animal, or they could be that terrified animal curled up in a corner. All behaviours have a reason they are present.
Let’s say an animal has no history or connection with us at all, a situation I personally think is a great scenario to begin training. This way, they are shaped a lot easier, without struggling through a learned process from previous trainers. It is extremely important to know the history of the animal we are working with. The reason is very simple, it can automatically put your training on a higher rate of success from the start. The more we know about the animals’ personality, likes and dislikes, and the reasons for it, we can give the animal the best chance to succeed. This alone can have a huge affect on their motivation and learning. If we do not pay enough attention to their history, we can actually make the animal more insecure, which can be reflected through more aggressive behaviour.
I remember a friend explaining this to me when he just got a puppy who was a few months old. He blamed the problems he was having with the puppy on life experiences it had had earlier in its’ life. He explained how he had been out walking and passed another person with his dog. Without paying attention this dog jumped on top of the puppy. The puppy took this as a traumatic experience and he had to focus a lot on his socialisation with other dogs. The first years of an animals life are educational classes they will need later in life, if there are continuous negative experiences, you will most likely have an animal who is anxious for the rest of their life.
Fighting a history can take a long time, especially when its trust-based. The gibbons at the zoo took quite some time to establish a positive experience towards the keepers as they had had a rough time before they moved to us. The animals were always sent from one area to another other by using a positive punishment – such as a broom. This had caused them to build up a negative history connected to humans. A couple of years down the line and we have started with their individual training. At this point, they have begun to be more comfortable than ever before. Even though they can still be hesitant at times, which may just be related to one on one trust with us.
What about the behavioural history?
I find it important to know how particular behaviours are trained and finished. If we do not know, it will be harder to go back in steps and can lead to us guessing how it might have been trained. What if we don’t know? Guesswork can just end up in you training a new behaviour anyway. If you don’t know how to fix a behaviour you might as well just train the behaviour from new and put a new sD to it. This way we make a whole new history on the same behaviour which we can control in the future. Remember, we always want the highest chances of success for our animals.
I believe we shouldn’t focus on the behavioural goal, but how we are going to train the behaviour. When we focus on this, we build a strong history on the behaviour we want to train. I remember having to add a history to a behaviour that was captured years ago. Quite the challenge, but the way I went about it was not just step 1 good, step 2 good and so on. My strategy is, most of the time, step 1, step 2, step 1, step 3, etc. This gives a repetition to the steps, making the animal remember them better to reach the ultimate goal. This way it will then be easier for me to retrain the behaviour if it is lost in future, for whatever reason. With planning my reinforcement instead of what I’m going to train, success is made easy, and learning becomes even more fun for the animal. This can reflect in the confidence the animal gives back to the trainer, even if they have had a tough history.
As you can see, an animals history is important. If you have animals who are reinforced more than punished, you will eradicate pessimistic animals and work towards having opportunistic, confident animals.
Never underestimate the history of an animals’ behaviour.
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