One of the biggest challenges I faced in my career regarding medical training wasn’t necessarily a blood sample, or putting urination on cue it was conditioning an animal to eat presented medicine. It would be so easy if the animals we take care of would just accept a little pill or a bit of paste but unfortunately like us the animals have their own thoughts and decisions. This mostly represents into spit out what we want them to eat for their own health. 

A syringe through a grape tricks the panda to eat the medicine by focussing on the grape.

There are so many tricks out there, mixing paste with banana, putting the pill in the gills of the fish or even cut into the meat. What about an oily substance mixed with pellets? There are so many creative ways animal care takers come up with which is fantastic to see. Unfortunately it always seems like animals pick up the taste, smell and structure of the medicine. Eventually we are out of ideas.

Trust has to be build. This agouti named “Chica” has no problem with this behaviour and the trust she has with the trainers. A detailed and thought through training plan backs this up.

What about teaching the animals to accept such taste, smell and structure?

We are able to teach our animals anything we like. Teaching them to eat medicine is possible and pretty important if you ask me. How many of you had to hold an animal, opening their mouth to put in the medication in the back of the throat closing the mouth afterwards, hoping they swallowed the medicine? Im guessing many of you have had this experience before. 

If we look at this situation from a behaviour point of view we can say that the taste and smell now connects to a stressful situation. Classical conditioning is in place which also means that each and every practise after the last one will maintain the terrible experience connected with this smell and taste. Animals connect events and situations and will recognise them in the future. As trainers we are able change these experiences. All we need to know is how classical conditioning works in practise. 

Gelatine used to give animals extra water.

My challenge started with a specific sea lion that I had to train to eat gelatine. This specific animal named Dock needed more water. Normally we would stuff the herring with water but this just wasn’t enough. We decided to condition him to eat gelatine. At first we had to teach him that he had to do something with this strange substance. Looking at it, touch it with your flipper, smelling it, do something with the gelatine was the message. Over time we started to work towards his mouth but slowly we came to the conclusion that he tried everything to not swallow this yellow strange bouncy stuff. We mixed it with fish, we sliced it different ways and so on but nothing seemed to work very well. Eventually we decided to go by size. A super tiny piece worked. We directly backed this up with a hand full of fish. All we wanted to make him understand is when you accept the gelatine you get reinforced more afterwards. When he got this we took a jump in progression.

In Sweden a trainer came up to me and said I would like to teach one of the elephants to eat pills. We discussed and came with a great plan. We decided that teaching the concept of eat what I give you will help. All we had to think about is that it won’t be dangerous for the elephants. 

  • Peanuts
  • Coffee beans
  • Apple pieces
  • Carrot pieces
  • Gelatine (based on vegetables)
  • Etc. 

But to be honest it wasn’t necessary what we gave her but how we did it. Looking at other species that I was involved in the most important behaviour we used in this case was a mouth open. 

The mouth open allows us to see the throat. This helps us to time the marker perfectly. The behaviour we are looking for is a mouth open and a swallowing motion. This way we teach the animal when we give you something you need to swallow this. This specific behaviour of the mouth open worked very well for us not only for the elephant but for all especially marine mammals I’ve helped to condition this behaviour with.

Is there an easier way? 

Of course there is. What we need to understand is that we want the animal to accept a medicine. We do not know what they taste or smell. We can only respond to behaviour. Therefore through classical conditioning we can slowly connect funny smells with an exciting outcome. Thats exactly what we want to create. 1 time a medicine, 100 times something super nice. Thats what we like to do. 

Through teaching this male Bison to eat from a smaller bowl we could start the process of giving him medicine. We mixed the medicine with very favourable pellets.

Just remember that whatever you give them you back up with something you know they seem to enjoy very much which doesn’t have to be a food source.

I remember looking at a video from Ken Ramirez where he showed this exact behaviour. He used something sweet in a bottle I believe for his donkeys. He explained that he conditioned the bottle with having something nice in there. He practised this behaviour often with successful repetitions before he introduced the medicine mixture. When he used the medicine mixture he directly backed this up with the mixture they knew was tasty for them. To build the trust back up he after practised the previous repetitions once again. This builds the behaviour after the medicine. Why is this important? We want our animals to trust us with what we give them. 

Many trainers forget this last part. The goal is not to make them accept medicine once but every time. When we give them the medicine and they take the medicine perfectly and we don’t back it up well enough. We make the situation suspicious all of a sudden. When we do not move a couple steps backwards and build trust again we will fall into the problem of trying to find creative ways to make them eat the medicine we present. To solve this problem we have to build trust again by practising the good stuff. Adding proper ABC structures and build success. When they become suspicious you have a bigger problem as before. Remember that training something new is easier than re-training a behaviour. 

At the start you can see that the kea isn’t very keen to do the behaviour. This might be due to previous outcomes of what has been in the syringe. Over time the kea becomes more comfortable and is then reinforced right after.

Building the ABC structure is what you want with any behaviour. This allows you to teach the animal the most effective way possible. A = Show the medicine, B = Accept and swallow the medicine, C = Reinforcer for taking the medicine. 

Do you need help with training your animals for behaviours such as these? 

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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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