© 2018 AnimalConcepts
November 2018

Animal Welfare and Animal Training

Before we turn to animals we have a little thought experiment:

You can choose from two scenarios:

Learning how to drive with an insensitive instructor, who does not give much feedback on what to do, who yells at you each time you make a mistake, slams the breaks to make a point, then gets out and does not tell you what was wrong, and on top, rarely gives you positive feedback. With dread you think about the next lesson.


You can learn with a sensitive instructor, who breaks the different parts into smaller steps, gives you plenty of feedback, directions and encouragement, does not make a big deal out of the mistakes you make, but rather tries to prevent them and tells you not to worry but keep trying, reinforcing what you do right consistently in a variety of ways. With joy you think about your next lesson.

So, which instructor would you choose? We would choose the positive instructor, and I bet you do too.

What has this got to do with animal training? If you already train animals we are sure you noticed quite a few similarities between the methods used to teach humans a skill like driving a car, or teaching a tapir to stand on a scale for weighing. It matters to us how we are treated, how we feel and the methods used to teach us new skills or anything else we need to learn. Animals are sentient beings, who think and feel, and it matters to them too how they are treated.
Just like us they prefer to avoid negative stressors like scary objects or loud noises they do not understand, or at least be introduced to them gradually and on their terms rather than being confronted without choice or control. Like us they also prefer positive interactions and rewards.

Considering that ensuring excellent welfare is one of our main aims when caring for captive animals, when need to be aware of our actions. Our routines, the ways we clean, feed, interact, formally train or implement enrichment programs; we only have to spend a moment and questions roll into our minds!

    There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered when we want to achieve our training goals and ensure excellent animal welfare.

    Many of these questions, their consequences and answers, have or can potentially have, direct or indirect effect on animal welfare. Depending on what methods we use, the timing and location, or who does the training, it will create different experiences for animals. An arboreal animal might at first be frightened to participate in training when we ask her or him to come to the ground, and the chances for the animal to succeed might be low due to our insensitive criteria. The animal might be more likely to come over when training is done close to the place where the animal is comfortable at first, like higher up in a tree.

    Training animals, teaching them new behaviours to for example voluntarily participate in their daily healthcare such as weighing, show the mouth or teeth, take their temperature or a blood sample can all be valuable behaviours to have. Shifting from one area or cage to another, coming in or going outside on cue, or to separate off from the group are other important animal management behaviour to teach. Daily cooperation for medical and or other management behaviour gives animals the choice to voluntarily collaborate with their caretakers. We can ask animals whether they want to shift, open their mouth, sit on scales or station next to another animal. Animals can decide whether they want to do it or not, this is the control part. Anyone who has trained animals knows about consequences, also called reinforcers and punishers. Anyone who has been around animals (or humans through that matter) knows that consequences alone are not the only drivers of behaviour, so reinforcers and punishers are not the only things we have to think about when interacting and or training animals. When thinking about reinforcers and punishers we need to consider them in detail, it's not just a matter of using them; it is how they are used in detail.
    We need to think about the intensity, the frequency, and many other aspects of the use of consequences, with animal welfare always in the back of our minds.
    But there are of course other ways that animals learn, not only through operant conditioning, so we need to be aware of the different behavioural learning principles, and other ways that animals learn.

    As any person working with animals knows, there are many things that influence animals. It could be hunger and thirst, their social life, the environment, even visitors, or their developmental phase. Apart from influences and motivation, we also have to consider how animals have evolved, and what habitats they live, the social group, their sensory systems, nutrition, and many other topics that are relevant when caring for animals and ensuring excellent welfare. As you can see, one needs to be very knowledgeable and always open to learning as the animal behaviour field, as well as cognition, affective states, and physiology keep evolving, and we have to think about this when designing professional animal training programs. Just as the example with the arboreal animal, there will be many of these details that are important to take in consideration so we make sure that the interaction and/or formal training sessions will be positive for the animal as well as the people.

    Happy animals & training!