Animal Trainer and Beluga Whale Animal Trainer and Beluga
Animal Behavior & Learning

Animals can only be trained to do what they are physically capable of doing. So in order to understand how animal training works, a basic knowledge of animal behavior is very useful.

A sea lion airborne in mid jump during a marine park performance. The sea lion is arched backwards with tail almost meeting head, forming a loop shape.

Animals can only be trained to do what they are physically capable of doing.


Definition of Behavior

Behavior is anything an animal does involving action and/or a response to a stimulus. Blinking, eating, walking, flying, vocalizing and huddling are all examples of behaviors.


A polar bear swimming underwater

Behavior is broadly defined as the way an animal acts. Swimming is an example of behavior.


Animals behave in certain ways for four basic reasons:

  • to find food and water
  • to interact in social groups
  • to avoid predators
  • to reproduce


Behaviors Help Animals Survive

Animal behaviors usually are adaptations for survival. Some behaviors, such as eating, or escaping predators are obvious survival strategies. But other behaviors, which also are important for survival, may not be as easily understood. For example why does a flamingo stand on one leg? By tucking the other leg close to its body, the bird conserves heat that would otherwise escape.


Several flamingoes in water, each standing on one leg with head tucked close to the body

By tucking a leg close to its body and standing on the other one, a flamingo conserves heat that would otherwise escape from the exposed leg.


Ethology is the scientific study of an animal’s behavior in the wild. It is easier to observe and record behavior than to interpret it. When studying animal behavior, observers must take care not to be anthropomorphic – that is, to mistakenly connect human-like characteristics to animals. Although humans and animals share some traits, we have no way of knowing for sure why an animal is doing something.


A researcher hiding in a wooden shelter observes using binoculars

Ethology is the scientific study of an animal's behavior in the wild.



Definition of Stimulus

A stimulus is a change in the environment that produces a behavioral response. It may be an object or an event perceived through an animal's senses. Stimuli may include the sight of food, the sound of a potential predator, or the smell of a mate. They may also include such daily events as nightfall and seasonal events such as decreasing temperatures. Animals respond to stimuli. Each of these stimuli elicits specific behaviors from animals.

An opossum hiding in grass, partially obscured from view by the grass

This opossum responds to a noise stimulus by hiding in the grass.



Definition of Reflex

Reflexes are unlearned, involuntary, simple responses to specific stimuli. Reflexes are controlled by the part of the brain called the cerebellum, or primitive brain - animals do not have conscious control over them. Examples of reflexes include shivering in response to the cold, or blinking when an object flies toward the eye.

Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between reflexes and complex behavior. Complex behavior may be made up of several reflexes. For example: walking, running, and jumping are all learned behaviors, but they involve several reflexes such as those that control balance.


Animal Intelligence

How intelligent are animals? Animals are as intelligent as they need to be to survive in their environment. They often are thought of as intelligent if they can be trained to do certain behaviors. But animals do amazing things in their own habitats. For example, certain octopuses demonstrate complex problem--solving skills. Compared to other invertebrates, octopuses may be quite intelligent. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are considered to be the most intelligent of the apes because of their ability to identify and construct tools for foraging.

Accurately rating the intelligence of animals is challenging because it is not standardized. As a result it is difficult to compare intelligences between species. Trying to measure animal intelligence using human guidelines would be inappropriate.

A chimpanzee inserting a stick into an anthill

Chimpanzees are one of the few species that learn to use tools. They learn that when they insert a stick into an ant or termite mound, a favorable result occurs: they can more easily reach the tiny morsels.


Learned Behavior

While some animal behaviors are inborn, many are learned from experience. Scientists define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior as the result of experience. For the most part, learning occurs gradually and in steps.

An animal’s genetic makeup and body structure determine what kinds of behavior are possible for it to learn. An animal can learn to do only what it is physically capable of doing. A dolphin cannot learn to ride a bicycle, because it has no legs to work the pedals, and no fingers to grasp the handle bars.


A dolphin underwater, viewed head-on


An animal learns and is able to respond and adapt to a changing environment. If an environment changes, an animal's behaviors may no longer achieve results. The animal is forced to change its behavior. It learns which responses get desired results, and changes its behavior accordingly. For purposes of training, an animal trainer manipulates the animal's environment to achieve the desired results.


Observational Learning

Animals often learn through observation, that is, by watching other animals. Observational learning can occur with no outside reinforcement. The animal simply learns by observing and mimicking. Animals are able to learn individual behaviors as well as entire behavioral repertoires through observation.


A killer whale and trainer together in a pool. The whale is raising a pectoral flipper out of the water, imitating the trainer raising an arm.

Observational learning can occur with no outside reinforcement. The animal simply learns through observing and mimicking.


At SeaWorld, killer whale calves continually follow their mothers and try to imitate everything they do. This includes show behaviors. By a calf's first birthday, it may have learned more than a dozen show behaviors just by mimicking its mother.


A mother killer whale and her calf resting at the edge of a pool. Both have heads and tails raised in the same manner.

Killer whale calves continually follow their mothers and try to imitate everything they do including show behaviors.


At Busch Gardens, a young chimpanzee learns foraging and social behavior from watching its mother and other members of the group. Baby black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) are especially close to their mothers. A calf relies on its mother's protection until it is completely weaned. This close tie allows young rhinos to learn defense and foraging behavior.

Adult animals trained alongside experienced animals may learn a faster rate than if they were trained without them.


Classical Conditioning

One of the simplest types of learning is called classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is based on a stimulus (a change in the environment) producing a response from the animal.

Over time, a response to a stimulus may be conditioned. (Conditioning is another word for learning.) By pairing a new stimulus with a familiar one, an animal can be conditioned to respond to the new stimulus. The conditioned response is typically a reflex - a behavior that requires no thought.

One of the best known examples of classical conditioning may be Pavlov's experiments on domestic dogs. Russian behaviorist Ivan Pavlov noticed that the smell of meat made his dogs drool. He began to ring a bell just before introducing the meat. After repeating this several times, Pavlov rang the bell without introducing the meat. The dogs drooled when they heard the bell. Over time, they came to associate the sound of the bell with the smell of food. The bell became the stimulus that caused the drooling response.


Operant Conditioning

Like classical conditioning, operant conditioning involves a stimulus and a response. But unlike classical conditioning, in operant conditioning the response is a behavior that requires thought and an action. The response is also followed by a consequence known as a reinforcer.

In operant conditioning, an animal's behavior is conditioned by the consequences that follow. That is, a behavior will happen either more or less often, depending on its results. When an animal performs a particular behavior that produces a favorable result, the animal is likely to repeat the behavior. So, in operant conditioning, an animal is conditioned as it operates on the environment.


A killer whale emerges from the water in front of a trainer sitting on the edge of a pool. The trainer has arms extended to hug the whale.

When an animal performs a particular behavior that produces a favorable result, the animal is likely to repeat the behavior.


Animals learn by the principles of operant conditioning every day. For example, woodpeckers find insects to eat by pecking holes in trees with their beaks. One day, a woodpecker finds a particular tree that offers an especially abundant supply of the bird's favorite bugs. The woodpecker is likely to return to that tree again and again.

Humans learn by the same principles. We learn that when we push the power button on the remote control, the television comes on. When we put coins into a vending machine, a snack comes out.

Animal trainers apply the principles of operant conditioning. When an animal performs a behavior that the trainer wants, the trainer administers a favorable consequence.


Positive Reinforcement

A favorable consequence is a positive stimulus - something desirable to the animal. When an animal performs a behavior that produces a positive result, the animal is likely to repeat that behavior in the near future.

The positive result is termed a positive reinforcer because it reinforces, or strengthens the behavior. When a positive reinforcer immediately follows a behavior, it increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. It must immediately follow the behavior in order to be effective.


Stimulus Discrimination

As an animal learns behaviors, it also learns the various situations to which they apply. The more behaviors an animal learns, the more it must learn to make distinctions - that is to discriminate - among the situations.

Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation, but not in others. Animals learn which behavior to use for each different stimulus.


Shaping of Behavior

Most behaviors cannot be learned all at once, but develop in steps. This step-by-step learning process is called shaping.

Many human behaviors are learned through shaping. For example, most begin by riding a tricycle. The child graduates to a two-wheeler bicycle with training wheels, and eventually masters a much larger bicycle, perhaps one with multiple speeds. Each step towards the final goal of riding a bicycle is reinforcing.

Animals learn complex behaviors through shaping. Each step in the learning process is called an approximation. An animal may be reinforced for each successive approximation toward the final goal of the desired trained behavior.


Three dolphins jumping out of the water side-by-side during a marine park performance.

Animals learn complex behaviors through shaping.


Extinction of Behavior

If a behavior is not reinforced, it decreases. Eventually it is extinguished altogether. This is called extinction. Animal trainers use the technique of extinction to eliminate undesired behaviors. (In animal training, when a trainer requests a particular behavior and the animal gives no response, this is also considered an undesired behavior.) To eliminate the behavior, they simply do not reinforce it. Over time, the animal learns that a particular behavior is not producing a desired effect. The animal discontinues the behavior.

When using the extinction technique, it is important to identify what stimuli are reinforcing for an animal. The trainer must be careful not to present a positive reinforcer after an undesirable behavior. The best way to avoid reinforcing an undesired behavior is to try to give no stimulus at all.