Cover Photo: Namsskogan Familie Park
How many of us look around an enclosure, at all of the animals and the potential distractions before starting a training session? During my years of observing training sessions I have seen many sessions that begin with the animal not being set up correctly to succeed. Making sure the animal is ready to receive information and is able to perform the requested behaviour will allow both you and the animal to succeed. How we enter our sessions and the way we set it up is more important than you think. Sometimes it’s better to skip a session then to force it and end up with a absent or frustrated animal and an overall negative experience.
Starting a session is as important as the timing of ending a session. Both can have such a huge impact on whether or not we are successful. A successful session depends on the communication and understanding in the team. Making sure everyone who is participating in the session understand the goals and their role. We discuss how the session might play out, what contingencies would be in place, if required and how the environment is set up to make it easier for the animal to perform the correct behaviour; this is called the antecedent arrangement.
Antecedent Arrangement: A way to describe how the environment that the animal is in has been set up, deliberately or not. The antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform.
When brainstorming about how to condition a lean in behaviour in protective contact at a zoo I used to work at, we started off by first seeing how we are able to reach our behavioural goal. We discussed targeting, using two targets to train the animal, one for the front end and one to bring the animals hips to the second target. The a good understanding of targeting and precise timing are required from the trainer to be successful. But we can add a barrier into the enclosure so the animal has to pass as close as they can with their side facing you. This is a very common way of getting a line up behaviour through antecedent arrangement.
We prepare the exhibit for a predicted outcome of behaviour.
During medical training of South African fur seals we experienced a challenge. When we entered breeding season the large male seal has an increase in testosterone and calling rates which has an effect on the females. His behaviour had a lot of effect in the training session of some of the female fur seals. Because we experienced this before we started a session with him just before we started with the females, which gave us more success with the females. It is very important to know what’s happening in the environment of the animals we work with to become more successful in our training sessions.
We’ve been talking a lot about observation (read more about observation here) and I think it’s one of the key aspects in being a great animal trainer. Observe your animal’s behaviour when you come into work, during feeding events, at training sessions or even when you just pass by their enclosures. Having excellent observation skills will help you to be effective in your sessions. When we observe we know what the animal enjoys, what we can use as reinforcement, when’s the best time to train and in what circumstances.
It is possible to guess the percentage of an animal succeeding before we start the session. For example, I was helping a zoo in Norway where our goal was to get the sheep on the scale. Looking at the environment and the placement of the scale we can have a direct effect on the successes on the individuals. Behaviour changes according to the environment that we set up for the animal. Therefore, we added a fence leading to the scale. The door in the back would be closed and now there is only one way to go for the sheep to get the other side.
Why should we try to train if we already know it’s unlikely it will happen? Often it’s a time management issue, ‘well if we don’t do it now, we don’t have time to try again’, but many times you progress faster when you don’t even try and it becomes simplified, remembering a session is as long as you want it to be, when we feed our animals we are training them, we are providing reinforcement and likely increasing a behaviour. That’s where keen observation skills will help. We have to observe our animals well enough to see what is a good moment to reinforce or start a session.
A successful training session begins with antecedent arrangement. Think about it this way, how can I change the environment to reach behavioural goal before I introduce my animal? If the animal has to go on a scale, how likely will it be that the animal steps on the scale, with the current position of the scale? We can ask this question in any situation to have a higher change we elicit the behaviour we are looking for.
Thinking about potential consequences allows us to prevent a whole lot of challenges along the way. All by preparing proper arrangement of the environment to give our animals more success!
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