Within my marine mammal career I slowly started to understand that relationships are more than giving a fish to an animal. Especially when I started my work with these magnificent killer whales. I came in and had the chance to do what I always wanted. But before this really started I had to observe the killer whales and slowly integrate myself in the training system the park had laid out a long time ago.
Slowly I was introduced to one of the animals. With slowly I meant that it took about 3-6 months to start training one of these black and white creatures. This period of time we were only focused on building a relationship before we could start further training. This reslionship building was done with playfull sessions, rubdowns and reinforcement moments.
5 years later….
I stepped foot into a stable where they housed south American animals such as capybaras, tapirs and so on. Interestingly when the keepers came into the exhibit the animals would be there right away. The keepers had developed such a bond with their animals that the animals were looking for the keepers when they walked in for that comfortable belly rub. I had never seen something like this where there was this mutual respect.
The Catch of Establishing a Good Relationship
Relationships based on positive experiences are needed to develop a good and strong training program but there is a catch! As animal caregivers we enjoy the seeking behaviour of animals towards us. We like it when the animal is searching for you because we feel important. The horses that wait in front of the fence. The otters jumping and making sounds at a specific feeding spot waiting for you. The capybaras and their belly rubs etc. While we think this is “cute” is it really what we want?
Associative learning happens in any interaction we have with the animals we take care of. Might this be a dog, horse, cow or any exotic animal. Especially with using reinforcement strategies we associate a positive situation directly with us which means that we become more important to the animal whenever we interact with them.
This is the problem, we become so important to the individuals that it seems to be that they forget how to behave as the animal they are. The interactions between couterparts seems to decrease because we showed up. Their behavioural repertoire is decreasing. The anticipatory behaviour increases because the animals are waiting when we show up again. We bring excitement for the animal due to the association we created. We become a huge motivational factor for the animals.
It is going this far that when we use a reinforcer which the animals only can get from us they start seeing us as a resource. When we work with multiple animals and we don’t pay enough attention fights might break out due to the fact that one animal is trying to resource guard us. All because the reinforcer we bring is for the animals the only time they can get it.
Shouldn’t we think about when training is good and when it isn’t? We need to find the right balance. We need to try to give animals the chance to practice species specific behaviour while we don’t train them. We need to teach our giraffes that when we pass by the exhibit that this doesn’t mean anything unless a signal is given. Everything we do should be done thinking about what is the best overall strategy and not just because training with positive reinforcement is good. There are cons regarding their welfare.
You might think now “well Peter you want me to stop training the animals?” No not at all. What we want you to do is look at it from a critical standpoint. We have to think about is the times we don’t want to train. What are the animals doing? Paying attention to me? Anticipatory Behaviour? Waiting for the next feed? The point of the matter is that we created these situations which I believe also decreases the welfare. We have not allowed the animals to practice species specific behaviours. We haven’t give them the tools to do so. We only gave them the tools to interact with us.
Think about isolation distress in dogs. It might as well be that whenever the dog wants attention the dog gets attention, when we take that option away the dog is stressed and doesn’t know what to do anymore and now starts its coping mechanism and there you go. We haven’t given the dog the tools to practice dog behaviour. Animal training is good as long as we think about when does the animal train us and how have we build this routine which the animals respond to.
Animal training should be a welfare benefit like anything else but when the animals show you more anticipatory behaviour regarding expected situations you might need to ask yourself, do I really give all the benefits by training the animals?
Many behaviour problems we have created ourselves. Animal training is a small part of their day. If we make this small part the most important time of their day we have a problem. We need to think about the times we don’t train. Do we give the animals the chance to practice the behaviours we want without training them?
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