Mimicry is a shaping technique where mimicking is used to condition new behaviours. Either animals mimicking each other or animals mimicking their trainer. This technique has as the other ones its advantages and disadvantages. The trainer has to choose carefully and understand the process.

by Peter Giljam

The Social Experiment

There are plenty of social research projects done about how we people work. We are essentially group animals as well and mimicking is one of the dominant learning ways we have. We are mimicking all the time. Whenever we do the clicker training games at our workshops this technique is a go to just because we are easily capable of understanding each others language and go for success.


Observation has to happen between the 2 counter parts. A great example is that apes learn from each other using tools by trying what the other one is doing. Observing one another an important part in mimicking. In a test done by Frans de Waal you can what observation and understanding has for an effect between 2 capuchin monkeys. One animal observes the other about what the animal receives as reinforcement compared to himself.

“The act or art of copying or imitating closely; mimicking”

Wikie’s Copy Behaviour

Mimicry starts with observing each other, I remember working at Marineland France where we had to test the copying behaviour between the killer whales. We thought them to copy the behaviour the other animal was doing. So when we asked a dance we gave the other animal next to him the signal of copy and he would dance as well. To take away the “look at the other trainers signal” excuse we added a big wooden board in between the 2 trainers and they positioned themselves in a way the animal from the other person couldn’t see the trainer. The cool part was that we had at one point an animal who knew vocals that the other one didn’t know, we asked such a vocal and asked the animal who didn’t know this behaviour to copy and to our surprise the animal who had to copy tried very hard to see how to make this vocal.

Dolphin Research Center did such a research as well but then with dolphins blind folded. They would give the signal copy the other animal then blind fold the animal and ask animal 2 to do a behaviour. With their echolocation they could copy the behaviour animal 2 was doing.

A Sea Lion and Her Baby

At Dolphin Adventure they have conditioned a Patagonian Sea Lion to communicate with her young to get around. First they had to make the mother understand what it had to do to take further steps.

From here the trainers conditioned the mother to get the baby to come to her and follow her into a car for transportation. The baby has to follow its mother to do the same thing. The best part is that the baby learns on a young age to move around areas unfamiliar for the baby. By trusting its mother the baby gets used to all areas.

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The Surrogate Chimpanzee Mom

At Furuvik, a zoo north of Stockholm they do a similar thing but with chimpanzees. They had to reintroduce a baby back into the group and used an experienced female to do so. She is trained well by the keepers and understood that she had to retrieve the baby from everywhere. This helped the keepers to have a good look at the baby but this also allowed the baby to start to see how training works with the surrogate mother. This even helps the baby too potentially overcome the fear of passing gates and passages.

By mimicking this challenge is solved.

The Biggest Challenge

Mimicry can be a huge help in animal training but do not forget you will not have a history of approximations if you only use mimicry, similar to capturing behaviour. There is only a history of copying another animal so if the behaviour breaks down you might have a big challenge with training the behaviour back.

There are different reason when you want to use mimicry. Desensitisation is one of them but in the cetacean world it is used for body positioning. A mother is asked to move into a blood sample position. Then the baby is slowly modelled into it right next to mamma. The baby can copy the mother and feel more comfortable because of it.

Mimicry is a fine art and you have to know the pros and cons about it. It’s the art of knowing when to use it.

Have fun! Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at info@zoospensefull.com or visit our website zoospensefull.com 

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!


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