Aggression is a natural and common behaviour in animals. There are many reasons why animals demonstrate aggressive behaviour to conspecifics or even towards us. When should we take action as caretakers and what is the reason the aggressor shows aggressive behaviour towards the other members of the group, other species or even the trainer?
How to get control over the others
At Zoospensefull we talk a lot about behaviour modification and focus on the behavioural aspect of the this topic. Whatever the reason for the aggression, we need to make sure that aggressor is under control, at the same time we can look at possible reasons for the behaviour. For example a collection I consulted at had two bald eagles that shared an exhibit, but one of them wouldn’t come when called over. The trainer asked me what to do to solve the problem, I told him, if you get control over the aggressor you’ll get control over the rest.
Often we are empathetic towards the aggressee. We are quickly focusing on the animals that was hurt and want to ignore the animal who showed, in our eyes, ‘bad behaviour’. But let’s turn the tables, we suggest focusing on the aggressor instead of the animal or trainer being aggressed upon.
Another example from a zoo in Norway where they house five goats together. They are housed in an exhibit where visitors can come and interact with them. Recently a problem developed that one of the goats has started to chase away the other goats and is extremely aggressive towards the trainer.
In both cases we should apply the same strategy and get control over the aggressor and start reinforcing behaviour you want to see. This is where stationing comes in, you want to teach the aggressor to preform another behaviour in the situation where aggression normally occurs. This can be difficult as you have to find a moment where the animals are calm.
Why would you start with the aggressive individual first?
The goal is to teach the aggressor to accept the rest of the group. If you have followed our work, this technique is our go-to strategy, cooperative feeding. Read more about it here or watch our webinar about cooperative feeding.
The goal is to get control over the aggressor to get control over the rest. To have a chance, start connecting reinforcers with you as a trainer. The first thing we want is a relationship with our animals and food as reinforcer is a great place to start.
Aggressive behaviour from one individual to another can impact on your relationship with the animal, even though you weren’t directly responsible for the aggression. Classical conditioning comes into play here. Whenever you show up with a valuable resource for the animals, they start to push each other out of the way to get most out of the items provided. In some cases other group members will be chased away, to such an extent that the aggressor will get all the resources. This means that when you show up that the animals will associate you with receiving aggression. The solution is to start reinforcing the aggressor for behaviour you want to see.
Recognise the right behaviour and reinforce accordingly
The difficult part of reinforcing the aggressor is that you have to reinforce the behaviour you want to see immediately, because if your timing is off you could risk strengthening the aggressive behaviour. Only when your timing is precise will you be able to solve this behavioural challenge.
Using a low value reinforcer will not work, because whatever reinforcer you use, if you don’t know why a behaviour increases than the reinforcer doesn’t matter. Recognise what you want to see from the aggressor and get their behaviour under control. If you do you should start to see a direct change in the group.
Want to learn more about this and other topics? Sign yourself up for the upcoming webinar Conditioning for Cooperative Care on the 12th of November from 8PM CET. Check out our website for more information and other webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at upskilling your basics, take a look here. If you have any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or join our Facebook group.
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