Killer whale with trainer

Challenges of Animal Training

Environmental Desensitization

Animals are very aware of their environment and changes within that environment. As a basic part of training, trainers work with the animals to help them learn to accept unusual or unexpected changes in their environment. When animals become used to changes in the environment, it is known as desensitization.

Humans also desensitize to various stimuli in the environment. For example, when rain begins to fall, the sound of the water hitting the ground is noticeable. Eventually, the sound becomes less noticeable as we grow used to it. Soon we don't even notice the sound of the rain at all.

Desensitization is extremely important in animal training for a number of reasons. For animals, various aspects of the show situation may be distracting. These distractions include other animals in the stage, two or more trainers, applause from the audience, loud voices, and music over the sound system. Animals learn to ignore these distractions and are reinforced for responding calmly to changes in the environment.

Desensitization is also essential in animal health care and husbandry. Animals are trained to remain calm and ignore the veterinarians' hands and medical equipment.

A lemur stands on hind legs and extends its head toward a veterinarian's hand.

Desensitization training teaches animals to remain calm and ignore the veterinarians' hands and medical equipment.

Here is a sample scenario of how trainers might desensitize a whale to having blood taken:

The trainer begins by desensitizing the animal to touch. The trainer lightly touches the animal's tail flukes. If the animal does not move or flinch, it is reinforced for its calm demeanor. Next, the trainer appliers some pressure to the area where the needle will eventually go. If the animal shows no reaction, it is reinforced. Eventually, the animal will learn to calmly accept a needle inserted into its tail.

Two veterinarians draw blood from from a killer whale's tail fluke.

Through dedication and patience the animals can even be desensitized to having blood drawn.

Desensitization may take several days to several weeks, depending on the animal. The process requires a great deal of patience and dedication.

Working with Different Species and Personalities

Many of the animals at the SEA parks are gregarious species that live in social groups. Trainers help these animals learn to feel comfortable performing individually, as well as in groups.

At the show stadiums, the animals move from backstage areas or pools to the mainstage area or pool, and back again, depending on the show segments. The animals learn to feel comfortable in every area or pool, alone or with combinations of other animals. Trainers and keepers carefully plan which animals will perform in which show, and in what combinations. This gives the animals plenty of variety and opportunities to learn.

At SeaWorld & Busch Gardens, flamingos are trained to parade through the park. The parade not only draws a crowd of curious guests, but it also draws on the flamingos’ naturally gregarious behavior. The flamingos are first trained individually, then are eventually integrated into the crowd of other trained flamingos and participate in the parade.

A large group of flamingoes parade in an orderly line.

At SeaWorld & Busch Gardens, flamingos are trained to parade through the park, drawing on the flamingos' naturally gregarious behavior.

Trainer and Animal Interaction

Because of the desensitization training, SeaWorld trainers safely enter the water with various marine mammal species. This interaction creates unique behavioral enrichment opportunities for the animals. It also makes it easier for trainers to collect accurate data for health monitoring and research.

A dolphin jumps out of the water next to a swimming trainer who is giving a hand signal.

Because of desensitization training, SeaWorld trainers safely enter the water with various mammal species.

Interactive Programs

One of the most common guest suggestions at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks is to offer more contact with animals. It seems almost everyone wants to make a connection with another species. SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Discovery Cove Adventure parks deliver a variety of hands-on animal experiences. But this relatively new venture has opened up a whole new world of challenges for animal trainers.

A dolphin with head just out of the water rests its rostrum (snout) in a guest's cupped hands.

Guests frequently request to have contact with the animals and for this reason, the SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Discovery Cove Adventure Parks offer a variety of hands-on experiences.

There are two basic types of interaction programs: in-park and out-of-park. In-park interaction programs involve guest touching, feeding, and even wading with the animals. In more extended cases, guests even join in training sessions, giving signals and reinforcers. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens offer Adventure Camps, Interaction Programs, and Trainer for a Day Programs. These programs provide the opportunity for guests to be fully immersed in the world of animal care and training. Besides having an unforgettable adventure, guests come away with a greater appreciation of everything involved in training and caring for animals.

Giraffes bend their necks down to interact with guests at eye level. One giraffe in the foreground approaches a child's outstretched hand.

Adventure Camp programs provide the opportunity for guests to be fully immersed in the world of animal care and training.

Out-of-park programs are often referred to as "animal ambassador programs". These programs involve an animal trainer taking animals on the road - to schools, conventions, and even television shows - as ambassadors of the parks.

For both types of interactive programs, desensitization is key. Training animals to be calm and yet responsive in the presence of numerous distractions is a priority. But the growth of the animal ambassador program has presented the most challenges of all. Animals must be trained to be calm and indifferent in a new world full of novel situations. Traveling in a carrier, meeting strangers, loud and sudden noises, bright lights, and sudden movements all are potentially negative stimuli to animals. Working step by step and using lots of positive reinforcement, trainers have had great success in desensitizing animal ambassadors.