As animal caretakers we have to try and be proactive in different situations and scenarios. To be able to check our animals voluntary we need some basic trained behaviours. The animals often require a good relationship with the trainer and understand several foundation behaviours. But when we train for urine collection, not all animals need the same foundation behaviours.

A Tiger & A Frisbee

At Kansas City Zoo, Amy Sarno explains that ‘observation is one of the most important parts in having this behavior on signal. What you really want to know is when the animal urinates throughout the day’. One of the techniques used afterwards is capturing or scanning. How this works is just reinforcing when they show you the behaviour. Over time the behavior will happen more often and you can start adding a signal. The frisbee used in the video had to be desensitised before it could be used. When the animals were comfortable with the whole scenario and all the items required they added newspapers and cardboard into the indoor enclosures. Tigers will scent mark new items and this gave the keepers the chance of capturing this behaviour more often. Later on, the frisbee was added as a signal and the animals began to understand that the frisbee meant urinate.

Urine Sample With a Tiger at Downtown Aquarium, Denver  – Amy Sarno

In order to succeed with marine mammals we need specific foundation behaviours because most of the time they’re in the water. For example a call over (come when you are called) or control (stay with the trainer and wait for further information) are both important. When we have the right foundation behaviours we can go on with specific body positions for the procedure you need. Those positions are important to take the first approximations for fluid samples such as urine collection.

With marine mammals is is very common to do daily body checks where we get the animal to present a range of body positions. This way we can have a proper look at their physical health.

Body Check on a Grey Seal at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park, SE

Urine Collection with a Deaf Killer Whale

Over the years I’ve trained many medical behaviours, but there is one that stands out for me. The story is about Morgan the deaf Killer whale. At the time all the female killer whales were trained for urine collection. The reasoning is that you can easily see if the animal is cycling. Training such a behaviour comes with challenges, especially when the animal is not able to hear the whistle or audible marker.

Our Game Plan

One of the first important pieces of information we need, is when does the Morgan urinate on her own and how can we encourage her to urinate. We observed Morgan urinating every morning. Now we needed to help her to urinate at a specific time in the morning for us to capture this behaviour.

The plan was to see how we can take all the variables within our control.

  • Every morning at the same time we gave her 1 big bucket (20L) of ice and about 0.5 – 1L of gelatine.
  • Afterwards we would ask X amount of high energy behaviours, such as high jumps and fast swims. This would help to get her to pee quicker.
  • After this approximation we took a break for about 3 minutes.
  • We would come back and ask her in a parallel position with her belly up on the surface.
  • From there we would wait until she starts to pee. We always brought a stopwatch with us to count the time between the position and when she would urinate, this way we would know that between the first session and the second we could add some more time if necessary. This all to take away the excuses we can control.
  • Timing is very important when sampling. What we want is that she opens her passage to urinate. When we see this happening, we bridge. If we would mark the behaviour when she already urinates she might not understand that the movement of her passage to urinate is what she needed to do.

Change of Plan!

A huge challenge we had was that she wasn’t able to hear the bridge (whistle). This was not in our favour because the bridge used (a hand signal) came too late all the time for her to understand what we wanted. With doing the same procedure over and over we at least got her to urinate within a particular amount of time. Until one of the trainers came up with a new idea that we do the whole procedure at the time we normally train this behaviur.

The goal behaviour was that the first thing in the morning we would go to a slide out (an area where Morgan easily could slide herself out of the water). Where we asked her to do a side slide out with a cup in our hand. This signalled to her that we wanted her urine. Directly after, we would go to her passage to take the sample.

Urine Sampling With Morgan at Loro Parque, Tenerife

This behaviour already took us 11 months to train. The slide out this helped her to put pressure on her bladder. We asked her to come out on her side and within 20 seconds we got her to urinate. Since that moment we had the behavior on signal.

Important points to consider from this story is the observation. From knowing this data we can see a similarity each day when the animals urinate. This helps you capturing this behaviour. I believe with teaching the animals to drink you can increase the chances of urination. This will help to get the behaviour on signal a lot faster.

Want to learn more about this and other topics? Sign yourself up for the upcoming event Xmas Special on 19 December from 930AM CET. Check out our website for more information and other webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at Conditioning a Behaviour for Cooperative Care, take a look here. If you have any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general, we now have the option of online coaching! Book your FREE 15 minute call right HERE.

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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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