Ultrasounds help the veterinarian identify the inside of our bodies. This is used for especially pregnancies but can also be used for finding the veins to take a blood sample, problems with organs or any abnormalities regarding the us or the animals body. 

It is a great tool that does not require a painful method to check the animals. Even though it might not be painful there are quite some details we need to know about to condition our animals for a successful ultrasound behaviour. It seems easy from the outside but it is not that easy to condition such a behaviour. 

First of all we need to understand how such an ultrasound procedure works from the veterinarians point of view. What the veterinarian sees on their screen are thin sliced photos from the organs they are looking for. They are so thin that finding a potential problem is difficult and when they found it they want to keep on looking at it for further analyses and recordings. Losing this doesn’t guarantee they will find it again. The problem is the trainer and the animal, because in the perfect case scenario the animal has to stand or lie down in a relax and still body posture which might be impossible but don’t worry we can condition this procedure with the right techniques applied.

Imagine you are using the strategy of continuous feeding to keep the duration. Any time the animal eats and swallows their reinforcer the body moves. This means the chance that the vet loses the position is pretty big. The same for uncomfortable positioning for the animal, unpredictable changes or forgotten objects, sounds and smells the trainer hasn’t conditioned the animal for.

1. Positioning

The position of the animal is a huge part of a successful ultrasound. Organs are in different places which means different positions are necessary for the reach of these organs. The animal conditioned for various positions helps the veterinarian to reach the organs they want study. Therefore conditioning your animal for a left side and a right side are of great importance. Many animals are only trained for one specific side which is problematic if other organs need to be seen. The veterinarian will ask you to ask the animal to go in a specific position. All for the vet to reach their goal as good and quick as they can. If you can’t have the animal in the right position there is no way to do a proper voluntary ultrasound procedure which might costs you a lot of money if you work with veterinarian consultants.

2. Duration

It has been mentioned by a great veterinarian which we did a workshop with in Japan with in 2019 that for a great outcome of an ultrasound procedure the animal needs to be preferable in the asked position for up to 20 minutes. This is a pretty long sit for the animal and a great challenge for the trainer. Because asking the animal to be in such duration takes a lot of successful approximations. Therefore many of us choose continuous feeding during such a behaviour where the animal has to be in a position for such a long time. Using the continuous feeding strategy can be very problematic for the veterinarian and is therefore one technique you might want to avoid.

Through classical conditioning we can get our animals to understand to relax in a position we ask them in. This helps your duration drastically. A calm and relaxed animal will stay in a position longer in comparison to an animal that is somewhat stressed due to excitement which in turn is not helping the vet to find the right organs to look at in the ultrasound procedure. 

The animal knowing the position and connecting this to calmness is a great step forward in creating the foundation for a proper ultrasound.

3. Desensitisation 

If you haven’t desensitised your animal well enough the ultrasound procedure will be a drastic failure. We don’t know what the animal might respond to, it might be the little light that comes on when we turn on the apparatus or the beeping sound you might not hear. This means that every small change in the environment has to be considered. 

  • The computer
  • The probe
  • Extra assistants 
  • The wires
  • The sound
  • The feeling
  • The gel
  • The gel bottle
  • The sound of the gel

I can keep on going. I remember one vet telling me about a trainer that trained their animal so well for the ultrasound behaviour but forgot one specific part. He had trained everything but not the moment when the gel bottle was almost empty. Of course the situation occurred that the bottle was almost empty and therefore made a “farting” sound. The animal jumped up and refused the procedure afterwards. Small changes might have a huge impact to the animal.

Another fun story is that when you work with animals that live mostly in the water that we have to think about the protection of the apparatus. We can’t just bring the laptop, wires and probe with us all the time. The question pops up how do we desensitise the probe and the feeling when the probe is turned on? Funny enough which you might not know is that the probe vibrates a tiny bit when it is turned on. This means that even though you’ve trained the animal very well for the apparatus touching the animal might be a huge challenge. 

In this case to train the animals for this specific feeling we used a vibrator in a plastic bag. This way we could train the feeling of an object on the body of the animal while it was vibrating. This helped the animal to accept another detail in the ultrasound procedure.

What a vibrator can be good for!

4. Safe Place

For any behaviour that might be challenging for the animal it is helpful to put the animal in a situation where he or she feels safe. Working with sea lions for example will be safer for them to be around a water source or even in the water. Thats where they would go when they get a startle reflect.  

Animals living in a group feel a lot safer when group members are around. This all helps strengthening the duration of the behaviour. While it might be the easiest for you to have the individual by themselves, having the animal separated might be a huge stressful challenge for the animal. This means that when separation training is forgotten the problems come in. 

Continuous feeding wouldn’t work here. If this was used the animals eye would be at risk.

When the animal feels somewhat stressful think about the vet trying to find the super thin sliced picture of the organs. A stressful animal will move a lot and the procedure might most likely not be successful. The ultrasound procedure is sensitive because of what the vet is trying to do. Each movement made by the animal might become a problem for the vet. Therefore we have to minimise movements completely.

There are many veterinarians choosing for sedation to be able to have a proper ultrasound just because these movement talked about previously wouldn’t be there anymore. But even sedation comes with great risks. Therefore us as trainers have to understand how such a procedure functions, what is the vet trying to look for and what does the vet need to succeed. This all helps you to be successful in training this behaviour. 

Good luck! 

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Categories: Uncategorized


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!


PeterGiljam · July 11, 2021 at 21:12

Thank you Kirsten.

With ultrasound it is important to take away the air between the probe and the body. Doing it this way you take away all the air and have a direct successful ultrasound procedure.

Kristen · June 22, 2021 at 05:11

What is the benefit of having the fur seal’s face in the water for the ultrasound?

Dr Kat GREGORY · June 22, 2021 at 03:31

nice over view….

the only other suggestion…. generalise the behaviour once well established.

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