Recently I have been in some projects who all had one thing in common and which is to change the perspective from the animals in their environment. Within the interaction we have with the animals in our care we are actually doing this all the time. The challenges come when we have animals who have a history which is very negative with the people in their care. 

Behaviour is the science of one how S.F. Friedman says so beautifully. For us to understand the impact of past experiences we need to look at the individual history. Because for one individual the impact might be a lot bigger as for another. This on it’s own is difficult to measure. The question now is how are we making sure that we can reverse their negative experience with a situation that we want to be positive? 

There are various situations where the animals build negative associations. Associations are made all the time but often we are not considering this with our learners. We choose for short term magement without thinking about the impact on behaviour. That’s where the first problem is. There are various situations where we as trainers build a negative history with our animals which have a massive impact on behaviour. 

Animals being herded into another area

Many facilities still use this technique. Which seems to be a legid strategy but the problem here is that the animals have to see us as bad for this to work. We keep maintaining this by applying this technique. In some case we make it even worse. When this happens we make us more negative to the animals which reflects to animals in higher stress. The point of the matter is that when animals are afraid of their keepers they might be stressed for quite some periods of times during the day due to the amunt of interactions the keeper has with the animals. Times when you enter the exhibit to clean, apply enrichment, passing by etc. 

Catching an animal

One of the biggest stressors is actually catching an animal. There will be multiple people present with nets or any other objects. We chase the animal around till we can corner it. Which all sounds like a quick procedure but on the long term you are building such a negative history with the animals that they start to stress whenever you are around. 

Forceful medical situations

Once I’ve tried to feed a goat and at the same time we added the injection. The goat wasn’t trained but we wanted to somehow make the impact a lot less. The outcome was that she left the bucket and I had to held her regardless. When I had her in my arms we set the injection. The experience for the goat was terrible and how associative learning works I was a terrible person to the goat. Such a situation happens all that often without us thinking about the future experiences of the goat and how we want to change their perception.

Observable situations.

Recently in the book “Mamma’s Last Hug – Frans de Waal” I read that capuchin monkeys understand if a person is unfair to another person. This made me think because if that’s the case in how far do they connect observing what we do to a group member. This means that there is a high chance that the negative impact of catching a group member isn’t only on the one being caught but as well on the one observing this individual. Which means that our actions go beyond the physical action we apply. 

How do we then change their perception towards us? 

First of all we have to exclude our interactions which maintains the negative. We have to make sure we are not associated anymore with such events. We then have to start placing the animal in a position where they are most likely to succeed. When we have both all set we now start to apply a reinforcer which has a higher value then what maintains the negative experience. I’m not talking about a better food source, I’m talking about the quantity of the reinforcer. We have to outbalance the negative weight of the behaviour. As we do not know how bad the experience was for the invividual we need to have a big reinforcer which will start to outbalance that negative history. 

As trainers we have to understand a couple things when we do this: 

  • It takes time so be patient. If the animal maintained his negative perception for the past 10 years and we kept on maintaining that reason you will not fix this within a week. 
  • The animal decides the reinforcer and the power of the reinforcer. If you want to be sure, bring a quantity of variety! 
  • Take yourself out of situations where you have to catch the animals, herd the animals, or any other situation which maintains the associations with a negative experience. 

When all this is set you are going to have success with changing the animals perception.

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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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