As animal care professionals we try and have as many positive interactions with our animals as we can, through play, enrichment, and training that is based on positive reinforcement techniques. You build a strong relationship with the animal, so much so that it seems to enjoy seeing you and readily chooses to interact with you. Often your relationship can be so positive, the animal would like to continue interacting with you and never wants it to end. As much as you’d love to spend the entire day with them, often in our job we have an endless list of other stuff to do and you say to the animal ’Bye’ and you leave. Have you ever watched to see how the animal will behave after you leave, would you say the animal is ’disappointed’?
The end of session signal is not something we here at Zoospensefull tend to use. We don’t want to tell the animal that the session is over and they are losing the opportunity for reinforcement. So what is an end of session signal and how does it work? Remember animals observe as well, often a lot better than us.
At Kolmården’s Wildlife Park we bring our little buckets and put them either beside us or behind us. Whenever we reinforce with fish we walk back to the buckets, and will repeat this many times within the training session. At the end of the session we say to each trainer, that we are done. We then all walk to our buckets for the final time and reinforce the animals, making sure we all stop at the same time. We then walk back to the buckets to pick them up, by this time the dolphins generally have already left. This tells us the dolphins know that it’s the end of the session, due to our predictable behaviour, our body language gives it all away. They see the difference between me going to get a fish compared to me going and getting the buckets and leaving.
Similarly, when we train sea lions, we had a start of session signal, most of the time this told the sea lions they had to go to a particular target position, allowing the keeper to safely open the gate. By varying the moment between opening the gate or beginning a protective contact training session the animal doesn’t really know when they will be asked to come out and therefore they stay in their pen until asked to come out. When training the animals outside, at some point in the session we have to go back to the pen to gate the sea lion and close the gate behind them. Here we have a “close the gate” cue, if we always do the same and become predictable As to when we will close a gate, we end up training an end of session signal, especially, when the balance of reinforcement outside is greater than being in the pen. The animal might find it aversive to be in the pen when they understand the session is ending. This is where gating problems could potentially come in and can lead to instances of aggression. We are able to balance this out as shown in the video below.
What are the Pros & Cons of End of Session Signals?
- Gives clear communication.
- If planned well it is very black and white.
- Gives an advantage to animals with an impairment.
- Animal “knows” what is expected.
Basically it all comes down to communication to the animal. But the question is not what effect it has on the animal, but what kind of information are we passing to the animal and how is it received.
- You break the session, while the animal wants to continue.
- The animal can become frustrated.
- In free contact the animal might block you from stopping or leaving.
- Can be cued as a Time Out or Delta.
As you can see there are some big cons connected to the end of session signal. Mainly because they connect to a frustration from the animal that the session is over, which most likely means the reinforcement has stopped.
We want the animal to understand that the session is over, and that the trainer is going to leave. What we want from the animal is that they will leave before us and to make them understand the session is over, go do something for yourself.
This means that we have to reinforce the animal to go away from us and do something for themselves. In the zoo setting this can be a bit of a challenge at times. At the elephant house we have a female that used to rock back and forth pretty often after a session has stopped. We decided to teach her an end of session signal but at the same time we also empowered her to do things on her own, by applying enrichment. Often if you tell the animal that the session is over and the time they spend alone is not stimulating enough, it is more likely that the animal gets frustrated. However if you coming is a positive and you leaving is also positive then The likelihood of problem behaviours decreases drastically. By increasing the enrichment the rocking behaviour decrease.
Another option, is an end of session signal that tells the animal there is no More food coming but if you still want to play with me, interact through tactile interaction you can. This way the interaction can keep on going and relationship continues to grow stronger. It is another great option but it takes time and patience from the trainer.
The most important part about the end of session signal is not how we perceive it but how the animal understands it. It is a tool that can help you if conditioned. The team has to be black and white with this signal and the criteria around it. Regardless if you are free contact or protective contact we should apply the same thoughts. It is always easier to give an end of session signal in protective contact and walk away because the animal can’t come after you. In whichever situation, regardless if it is easy for us, we have to look at the behaviour and see what the effectS are afterwards.
If the animal shows a response that you think is unwanted, it‘s time for you to reassess the situation.
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