Animal Training Philosophy

Animal Training

Animal Training Philosophy

Animal Training Philosophy at SeaWorld & Busch Gardens

  1. Trainers create a learning environment that is fun, interesting, and stimulating for the animals.
  2. Trainers create a learning environment that is fun, interesting and
    stimulating for the animals.

  3. Trainers reinforce desirable behavior with a variety of rewards, and do not draw attention to undesirable behavior.
  4. Trainers reinforce desirable behavior with a variety of rewards and do
    not draw attention to undesirable behavior.

  5. Trainers build strong and rewarding relationships with the animals based on a history of positive and stimulating interaction.
  6. Trainers build strong and rewarding relationships with the animals
    based on a history of positive and stimulating interaction.

Foundation

  1. Three important steps - reinforcement, communication, and target recognition - are the basic building blocks of how animals are trained at SeaWorld. Once an animal learns this foundation, the animal applies it to learning new and more complex behaviors.
    • Reinforcement
      • Positive reinforcement is the only type of reinforcement SeaWorld trainers use to train animals. All training is based on reinforcing desired behaviors. Reinforcers motivate an animal to repeat the desired behaviors. The reinforcer tells the animal, "Yes, you have done that well."
      • A variety of interesting, stimulating reinforcers is the key to training animals at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. Trainers use food more frequently during the early stages of the training process. Other primary reinforcers are introduced, and new reinforcers are conditioned. Examples of positive reinforcers used at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens include back scratches, rub downs, toys, favorite activities, squirts with a water hose, and ice cubes.
      • Ice cubes and ice blocks are examples of some of the positive
        reinforcers the trainers use.

      • Animals may not respond in the same way to the same reinforcers - each animal may have its favorites. Therefore, the trainer must learn which reinforcers are preferred by individual animals. Trainers determine what is reinforcing to the animals by carefully observing the behavior after a particular reinforcer is given. If the behavior decreases, trainers assume that the consequence was not reinforcing. They then try a different reinforcer. But if the behavior increases, the reinforcer is likely to be an effective one. Sometimes an animal appears to desire or even solicit a particular reinforcer.
      • Each animal responds differently to reinforcers. The trainer must learn
        which reinforcers are preferred by individual animals.

      • SeaWorld and Busch Gardens animals are trained on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, with reinforcement variety (VRRV). Animals are not automatically reinforced after each behavior; the number of reinforcers varies unpredictably from occasion to occasion.
      • Trainers have determined that using a variety of reinforcements is an important training strategy. If reinforcers become routine and predictable, animals may become bored, unmotivated, frustrated, and even aggressive. Variety is much more motivating to the animals.
      • Through years of application, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens trainers have determined that VRRV stimulates and motivates behavior better, and produces higher response rates, than other reinforcement schedules.
      • Trainers continually learn about the relationships between reinforcers and animal behaviors through direct contact and observation. Recording data daily is essential. In this way, animal trainers contribute to the knowledge of the animal's behavior as well as its ability to learn.
      • Recording data daily is essential to building the knowledge base of the
        animal's behavior and its ability to learn.

    • Communication
      • Communication is difficult between two people who don't speak the same language. So imagine what it's like to communicate with another species. It is the responsibility of humans to find some way for the animal to understand them. Reinforcers are one way to communicate with animals. Reinforcers let the animal know when it has performed the desired behavior.
      • Communication is difficult between two people who don't speak the
        same language, so imagine what it's like to communicate with
        another species.

      • Reinforcement must immediately follow the behavior in order to be effective. A delay of even a few seconds may accidentally reinforce the wrong behavior. But, it's not always possible to instantly reinforce an animal while it is performing - it may be across the pool from the trainer. The trainer must have some other way to communicate to the animal that it has performed correctly. They use a signal.
      • This signal is called a bridge signal. The bridge signal "bridges" the gap of time that occurs between the behavior and its reinforcement.
      • The bridge signal varies with species. For whales and dolphins, the bridge is usually a whistle or a light touch. For sea lions, walruses, and river otters the word "okay" or a light touch is used as a bridge. For birds, the word "good" is used.
      • A bridge signal communicates to an animal that it has done well. For some animals, like killer whales, the bridge signal is a whistle.

      • Each animal is trained to recognize a bridge signal: before an animal receives a reinforcer, a bridge signal is introduced. Through continual pairing with reinforcers, the bridge signal becomes a conditioned reinforcer. The animal comes to associate the bridge signal with being reinforced. The bridge signal can then be used to reinforce the animal the instant it performs the correct behavior. It is also the stimulus for the animal to return to the trainer.
      • The bridge signal for the wolves at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is the word "okay."

    • Target recognition
      • To train an animal to do a behavior, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens trainers usually break down the behavior into a series of small steps. Trainers use their hands as a focal point - animals are trained to come to the trainer's hand, hold on it, and await the next signal. This behavior is called "targeting". When a behavior takes place farther away, a tool called a "target" is used as an extension of the hand.
      • Through positive reinforcement animals like this California sea lion
        learn to "target" on the trainer's hand.

      • Just as a flagstick is a target that directs a golfer toward a golf hole, a target directs an animal toward a position or direction. For most animals, the target used is a long pole with a foam float or ball on one end. Other targets include a tap on the glass at the side of the pool or an ice cube tossed into the water.
      • Later the sea lion learns to follow a target pole.

      • Each animal is trained to follow the target. Trainers teach an animal to "target" by touching the target gently to the animal. The bridge signal is sounded, and the animal is reinforced. This is repeated several times. The next step is to position the target a few inches away from the animal. The trainer waits for the animal to touch the target. By this time, the animal has learned that whenever it touches the target, it gets reinforced. It moves toward the target and touches it. The bridge signal is immediately sounded, and the animal is reinforced.
      • After several successful repetitions, the target is moved still farther away. When the animal touches it, the animal is reinforced. Eventually the animal will follow the target. The target may then be used to lead the animal through a series of steps to gradually perform complex behaviors.
      • Eventually, the target is replaced by a hand signal. As with other stimuli in animal training, the hand signal stimulus is learned by introducing it along with the target.
      • Eventually the target is replaced by a hand signal

Creating The Training Environment

  1. By far, the most critical aspect in animal training is creating a positive environment. Trainers and keepers strive to make training fun, interesting, and stimulating for the animals. In doing so, the animals are motivated to participate. Trainers have developed several techniques to create a positive, motivating environment.

    The most critical aspect in animal training is creating a positive
    environment that is fun, interesting and stimulating.

  2. Through decades of experience, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Discovery Cove animal trainers and keepers have learned that a variety of interactive sessions contributes to the enrichment and well being of the animals. These interactive sessions fall into six categories:
    • Learning sessions involve a formal training process for the animals, in which trainers condition specific behaviors. Learning sessions provide a series of challenges that enrich the animals' environment. They also provide valuable information about how animals learn. These sessions are important to the continued learning and mental stimulation of the animals.

      Learning sessions involve a formal training process for the animals in
      which trainers condition specific behaviors.

    • Exercise sessions are essential to an animal's health and well-being. Exercise sessions of varying length consist of high-energy behaviors.

      Exercise sessions of varying length consist of high-energy behaviors.
      This African serval has exercise sessions each day to strengthen the
      cat's jumping and running skills.

    • Relationship sessions allow time for a trainer and animal to develop mutual trust, which enhances the degree of learning. A trainer spends one-on-one quiet, interactive time with the animal. A strong, rewarding relationship between trainer and animal is an important part of our animal training program foundation.

      Relationship sessions allow time for the trainer and animal to develop
      mutual trust.

    • Play sessions provide time in the day when trainers and animals interact with "games" and "toys". Trainers learn through experience which games and toys the animals appear to enjoy. In many instances trainers learn new reinforcers for the animals by observing the types of activities the animals choose.

      Play session provide time in the day when trainers and animals
      interact with "games" and "toys".

    • Husbandry sessions are very important for the day-to-day health care of the animals. Husbandry sessions make up a large portion of training time for all animals. Killer whales at SeaWorld are trained to present their tail flukes so veterinarians can draw blood. They are also trained to slide out from the water onto a scale to get weighed.

      Husbandry sessions are very important for the day-to-day health care of the animals.

    • Shows provide an opportunity for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens to educate the public about the behavior, physiology and ecology of numerous animals. The shows follow a basic format, but the behaviors, show segments, and reinforcers continually change. This makes each show different for the animals and is more stimulating for them than if the shows were always the same.

      Shows follow a basic format, but the behaviors, show segments, and
      reinforcers continually change.

Environmental Enrichment

  1. Trainers and keepers are devoted to the proper care and management of their animals. One of the ways they do this is to create a complex and stimulating environment with lots of variety. This is called environmental enrichment.
  2. One environmental enrichment technique is to create changes in an animal's daily activities. Animals are provided with activities they seem to find interesting and stimulating, including play sessions with trainers and other animals.
  3. Animals are challenged mentally and physically by engaging in foraging behaviors. To encourage this, SeaWorld trainers hide food treats in the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) habitat, in crevices and in snow and ice. African elephants at Busch Gardens enjoy large popsicles of frozen fruit and vegetables on a hot day.

    Elephants at Busch Gardens enjoy large popsicles of frozen fruit and
    vegetables on a hot day.

  4. Another way trainers provide a rich and positive environment for the animals is to present "toys" to them. Under trainer supervision, the animals interact visually or physically with these environmental enrichment devices. The toys vary depending upon the animal. Animals may interact visually with mirrors, brightly colored cones, balls, and animal shaped cut-outs. They may physically interact with floating plastic barrels, large plastic hoops, and large ice blocks. Animals are also challenged mentally with mazes, puzzles, and obstacle games.

    One of the ways trainers provide a rich and positive environment for
    the animals is to present "toys" to them.

Behavior Repertoire

  1. Animal training is an ongoing process throughout an animal's life. An animal can become bored if it is asked to do the same behaviors over and over. Trainers and animals develop new behaviors and modify current behaviors to keep the animals physically and mentally challenged.
  2. Animals have the potential to learn extensive repertoires of behaviors. An experienced animal may learn as many as 200 behaviors. Maintaining existing behavior is as equally important as training new behaviors.

Reinforcing Desirable Behavior

  1. Reinforcing desirable behavior is one of the cornerstones of animal training. It's a very simple concept, but a very complex undertaking. The reinforcer tells the animal, "Yes, you have done that well." It motivates an animal to repeat the desired behaviors and to stay interested.
  2. Trainers must also take care not to reinforce undesirable behavior, while keeping an animal motivated at the same time.

Reinforcement Variety

  1. A variety of interesting, stimulating reinforcers is essential to successful training. If reinforcers become routine and predictable, animals may become bored, unmotivated, frustrated, and even aggressive. Variety is much more motivating to the animals.
  2. Trainers and keepers use food more frequently during the early stages of the training process. Soon they introduce other primary reinforcers. Trainers also condition new reinforcers - strong, trusting relationships with the animals helps trainers present new reinforcers in a positive manner. Positive reinforcers include back scratches, rub downs, grooming, toys, favorite activities, squirts with a water hose, ice cubes, puzzle games, and one-on-one time.
  3. Animals may not respond in the same way to the same reinforcers - each animal may have its favorites. Therefore, the trainer must learn which reinforcers individual animals prefer. Again, a strong relationship with the animal is key. Knowing an animal's personality and carefully observing its body language and behavior helps trainers evaluate reinforcers.
  4. New behaviors are trained using a continuous schedule of reinforcement (every correct response is reinforced to assure learning). Trained behaviors are maintained on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. Variable ratio means that animals are not automatically reinforced after each behavior. They do a number of behaviors before they are reinforced. The number varies randomly from one occasion to another. At SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, experience has shown that a random schedule of reinforcement is more effective than a fixed one. Through years of application, trainers have determined that a variable ratio reinforcement schedule stimulates and motivates better behavior and produces higher response rates, than other reinforcement schedules.
  5. Trainers continually learn about the relationships between reinforcers and animal behaviors through direct contact and observation. Recording data daily is essential. In this way, animal trainers contribute to the knowledge of the animal's behavior as well as its ability to learn.

Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS)

  1. What happens if a trainer requests a particular behavior and the animal does not respond, or the animal responds with undesired behavior? At the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, incorrect behavior is followed by a training technique called the Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS).
  2. The LRS has two parts. The first part is a consequence for incorrect behavior. This occurs when the trainer does not reinforce the animal for the incorrect behavior. The second part is a stimulus providing an opportunity for reward - for two to three seconds the trainer is relaxed and attempts no change in environment. (Changes in the environment may accidentally reinforce the behavior.) This brief time period is a stimulus to the animal to remain calm and attentive. This stimulus provides a new opportunity for reward. Following an LRS, the animal is reinforced for calm, attentive behavior. The animal may also receive an opportunity to perform another behavior that will result in reinforcement.
  3. The LRS is not a fixed posture. It is a flexible system enabling the trainer to deliver the LRS in a variety of contexts. The trainer does not ignore the animal but must monitor its behavior. The trainer must do everything possible not to respond to inappropriate behavior. Reinforcing the animal for calm, attentive behavior following the LRS helps the animal learn from its mistakes. An animal never is forced to respond to a situation, nor is it ever punished.
  4. When used consistently, the LRS technique eventually decreases undesired behavior and increases calm and attentive behavior. The LRS helps reduce frustration that might result from the lack of reinforcement. It teaches the animal to respond without aggression.

Building A Relationship

  1. The key to successful training is building a strong and rewarding relationship between trainer and animal. This relationship is based on a history of positive and stimulating interaction. By creating a motivating environment and reinforcing desirable behavior, trainers and keepers have great success in developing strong relationships with their animals.
  2. The key to successful training is building a strong and rewarding
    relationship between trainer and animal.

  3. Three critical factors in building and maintaining a rewarding animal/trainer relationship are:
    • a variable ratio reinforcement schedule with reinforcement variety
    • the use of Least Reinforcing Scenario when necessary to decrease the frequency of undesired behavior
    • interactive sessions