Aggression is very common in the animal world and is part of their natural behavioural repertoire. In spite of this, trainers often consider aggressive behaviour as unwanted. Animal trainers tend to have different views on whether aggressive behaviour needs to be extinguished or not. We can differentiate aggression between their own species or towards us trainers. An animal should be able to be an animal, but when it comes to animal training, we need to put certain rules in place. These rules are connected to a behaviour and are considered to be the criteria of the behaviour. Within training sessions we want to avoid aggressive tendencies so we use a variety of techniques to extinguish those and to reinforce other behaviours. So are we suppressing aggression?
What Is Flash Aggression?
Flash aggression is an aggressive outcome with no precursor detected. Most of the time when aggression occurs there will already have been many signals or precursors. Precursors are part of the communication structure between individuals.
Aggression can occur for a number of reasons, for example when animals are in breeding season, when they experience medical issues, feeling insecurite or when being punished. Animals show precursors to tell us something. Dolphins tend to chuff or vocalise. Macaws get flushed around the face, raise their feathers and their pupils contract.
A bison positions himself a particular way and starts to breathe heavier. Sea lions assume a cobra pose before they bite. All these signs are precursors to the aggressive outbreak an animal could have. Each species has their own set of precursors and it‘s up to the trainer to recognise these signals.
Reinforce Behaviour We Want To See In The Future
As trainers we tend to focus on the behaviours we want to see and work towards reinforcing these behaviours. The unwanted behaviours are either ignored and not paid attention to or redirected to a behaviour we want to see. This means precursors are often ignored too.
Who wants to reinforce the aggressive tendency of an animal?
On the other hand we also want animals to be animals. We want to give them the widest behavioural repertoire for their species. Precursors and aggressive behaviours are part of this repertoire, even if we deem them to be unwanted behaviours.
Suppressing The Precursor
If a macaw shows the precursors of aggressive behaviour, for example positions itself in a certain way or their pupils are contracted, we’re expecting the behaviour to materialise. Because we see it coming we do not want to escalate this to an outbreak of aggressive behaviour aimed at us. The choice we make is to redirect the precursor with an incompatible behaviour incompatible to the precursor i.e. a target.
This means the precursor is not reinforced but the redirected behaviour, (the target) is. By ignoring the precursors, the macaw will gradually stop showing any precursors before a bite.
Teaching The Animal To Take It All Out
We can also look at this issue from another perspective. When working with Morgan the Killer Whale at Loro Parque we discovered quickly that she didn’t have high patience levels. This might have been due to poor communication between the trainers, but compared to the other killer whales hers seem to be much lower. One of the SeaWorld veterinarians was watching a session and after asked me whether or not it would be possible to teach Morgan to get out her frustration on signal. What an interesting thought.
This would involve a lot of trust both from Morgan and us. The most challenging part is to teach the concept of ‘I’m ready and my frustration is lowered down or even gone‘. We can only measure how successful we are by looking at behaviour and the question remains if an animal is aware of their own frustrations and are they conscious enough to understand.
Aggression Reflected Towards Us
It is pretty common when animals fight, especially around food. But when this food aggression occurs between a submissive and dominant animal, most likely the submissive animal won’t be able to get rid of its frustration. In these instances we don’t want to get close to a displaced animal because there is a high chance it will choose to take its frustration out on you.
When flash aggression occurs we have to start looking into the suppression of precursors. The precursor to aggressive behaviour will still be there but more subtile which now means trainers have to pay even more attention to our animals. On the other hand we want training sessions that start and end well. The training session should be fun for both sides.
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