Many institutions train their animals for a variety of medical behaviours. In the marine mammal world, especially with pinnipeds, eye checks are of great importance. Before we explain how to train this behaviour, we have to understand why we need it? Often, training for eye drops is retroactive management. We have to find the reasons why they require treatment in the first place and see how we can mitigate these challenges. 

What Is Needed To Be Able To Do Eye Drops? 

Although providing eye drops may appear to be pretty simple, it is a complex behaviour. Below is an outline of steps: 

  • The animal has to be on or at a station. 
  • They have to position their head in a specific angle. 
  • They need to keep their eye open while the dropper is held above their eye. 
  • Then the drop will be put into the eye and they have to keep their eye open at all times.
  • Often there is more than one drop required. 

On top of all of this, with many eye drop medicine the animal can’t blink for up to 3 seconds to be effective. A lot of criteria is needed for the perfect eye drop behaviour. 


First we need a stable station, somewhere the animal can feel comfortable. With some species this is easier than others, but this position has to be strong enough because the animal has to hold itself in this position for a while. After this is established properly we need the head position. Looking at the animal you work with this can either be a straight position or a position where the animal turns their head slightly to one side.

Eye drop position at SELWO Marine Park, Spain

Whichever position you would like to train, we must first start to condition the animal to really understand the signal, and we do this by generalising the signal. Generalising means you can apply the concept to many situations, inside, outside, quiet or busy. The reason you want to do generalise the signal is to make the positioning behaviour stronger.


The duration after the positioning is pretty important. We know that the procedure of administering eye drops won’t take too long, but in some cases you want to teach the animal different behaviours related to the eyes such as further exams with different apparatuses.

SELWO Marine Park, Spain

Regardless of the procedure, duration is an important part of this behaviour, read more about duration here. Because we are working around an extremely sensitive organ we suggest not to use continuous feeding. Every movement the animal makes could be dangerous for the eyes of the animal. The keep on going signal could help but we prefer the time interval training which takes a bit more time but you will have a stronger foundation for this behaviour. 

Remember we need to have the station, the head position and the eye open all in the duration. This means that blinking can’t happen. 

Great criteria shown with this fur seal. Eye stays open all the time.


When the other steps are all set, we now start the desensitisation process. This is the tricky part because we will give the animal an uncomfortable feeling in its eye. First we have to think about what we have to desensitise. This will be a watery substance, often in a small bottle, that might have a smell, these are all elements we need to take into consideration during desensitisation.

We start by using the positioning that you have conditioned already. The first step will be showing the little bottle or container the drops are in. The animal can smell or touch it but can’t take it. If the animal is no longer curious of the bottle and focusses, on you then you can reinforce. Next you add the bottle and the animal now moves towards the bottle and gets into position.

Eye drop practise at Dallas Zoo, US

Now we apply movement. The movement we make with the bottle is both left to right and up and down, and we will gradually get closer to the eye. Once we finish with the movement we can begin the drops. The drops are first placed on any other body part besides the eye, this way the animal has an idea of what will happen and we set it up for success from the start. We now gradually start working our way to their head. We drop on top of their head first but every time we start this training we show the bottle to the animal, this way the animal understand something will happen. 

Eye drop desensitisation with Belmont by Sarah Wyss

When you apply a drop in the eye (suggested is distilled water, because we don’t want to damage anything) the animal will close their eye. This is the moment we wait until the animal reopens their eye and bridge. The timing of the bridge is extraordinary important here. Remember the criteria at the start of the blog post, eye should be open at all times.

When one eye has been trained this doesn’t mean the other eye will be as well. Go back to the earlier steps and work you way up, the process if trained correctly should go fairly fast, but your goal is to go slow and steady to give the animal optimal success. 


We can apply modelling to hold the eye open as well, but we have to desensitise a little differently. We ask the positioning behaviour, then we first move our hands around the head of the animal. Then we put our hand on their head but not over their eye yet. After this step we open our hand and put our fingers far around the eye and work our way close to the eye. We do not add pressure yet. When the animal is comfortable we now start adding pressure little by little and keep the eye open. When the animal is comfortable with this, we apply the same drop desensitisation as described before. Read more about modelling here.

As with most training the technique you chose to train depends on which goal you have. For a specific eye exam where you need to look on the side of the eye you might need to use modelling. If you train eye drops you don’t have to use any modelling and targeting will work for you. It is important to remember that the eye is a highly sensitive part of the body and therefore, we have to be very careful and patient. Small steps and a strong foundation are necessary to ensure success.

Do you have any questions about this topic? Have you had success training this behaviour a different way? Send us an email! Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at or visit our website 

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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