November 2018

Animal Welfare and Animal Training

We have a little thought experiment:

Learn how to drive with an incommunicative instructor who does not give much feedback on what to do, who is not very considered when you make a mistake, who might slam the breaks to make a point, or gets out of the car without telling you what was wrong, or rarely gives you positive feedback. It is likely that you are not looking forward to your next lesson.


Learn how to drive with a communicative instructor, who breaks the different parts you need to master into smaller steps, gives you plenty of feedback, directions and encouragement, does not make a big deal of the mistakes you make, and tries to anticipate and prevent mistake by clear communication. This instructor makes it clear not to worry but to keep trying, reinforcing what you do right consistently in a variety of ways. With joy you think about your next lesson.

Which instructor would you choose? We think all prefer to be around positive, communicative, and encouraging individuals.

How does this relate to animal training? If you already train animals you will have 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 to be weighed. It matters how all animals, including the human animal, are treated, how they feel, and depending on the methods used to teach new skills or anything else, this can be experienced in positive or negative manners. As we want to promote predominantly positive welfare we need to be cognisant and attentive to how we interact and communicate.

Setting up the environment to avoid and or reduce negative stressors like e.g. unknown objects or loud noises can make a big difference as to how the interaction is perceived. Animal care professionals can facilitate learning to e.g. introduce new objects to animals gradually and on their terms, by e.g. providing a hide to retreat to. Providing choices or control over what happens and when can be a powerful communication which can help build good human-non human animal relationships, trust and confidence.

Promoting positive welfare is fundamental when caring for animals, which needs to be considered in all routines, the ways we clean, feed, interact (remember, each interaction is a learning event/opportunity), formally train or implement and conduct environmental enrichment programs. It is wise to ask questions throughout and consider for example:

  • Why do we train?
  • When are we training?
  • What behaviours do we train?
  • How do habitats need to be designed to facilitate positive training and learning?
  • What is the influence of the habitat on animal learning and behaviour?
  • What methods do we use, and what tools?
  • Who should do the training?
  • How have animals evolved, what are their physical and mental capacities, their sensory systems, how do they develop?
  • What do we need to consider regarding learning and training when designing enrichment programs?
  • Do the questions above differ for about animals in conservation and reintroduction programs?
  • How does my body language or voice affect the animal?

There are a lot of questions to be considered when we want to achieve our training goals and promote positive animal welfare. Setting up the environment to acknowledge an individual and or species' need does not only make it more likely learning is a more positive experience but also likely more successful and faster, as it is on the animal's terms. An arboreal animal might at first be frightened to participate in training when we ask her or him to come down to a lower level or the ground, so next time you go out there think of a higher perch or establish a safe platform for you to work from, going closer to the animals, or giving the animal a choice on where to sit or come down to. 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.

Teaching animals behaviours that aid in voluntarily participation in their daily and or regular care such as weighing, opening the mouth or inspecting the teeth, monitor temperature or take a blood sample can all be valuable. Shifting from one area or holding area to another, coming in or going outside on cue, or to separate off from the group are other important animal management behaviours that can be very useful and making these behaviours positive to engage in when rewarded after completion. Regular voluntary cooperation for medical and or other management behaviours give animals the choice to voluntarily collaborate and interact with the 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 this, or not, this is one of the ways we can give more control to animals.

In order to promote positive animal welfare it is important for animal care professionals to understand consequences, also called reinforcers (adding something they like such as food, or removing something they do not like such as pressure, to increase or maintain behaviour), and punishers (removing things they like or adding something that frightens them to reduce or eliminate behaviour). When thinking about reinforcers and punishers we need to consider them in detail, how and why in detail, with regard to e.g. the intensity, and frequency. It is important to understand other ways of learning beyond operant conditioning, and aspects that influence animal welfare positively and negatively, for example hunger and thirst, social life, the environment, new people or visitors in zoos and aquariums, which may influence motivation and willingness to collaborate. Beside a good and current understanding of learning and behaviour we need to consider how animals have evolved, type of habitat(s) and social aspects, sensory systems, nutritional aspects, and many other animal welfare topics when promoting positive animal welfare. Learning about and from other animals is a lifelong endeavour and commitment and we always learn from other care professionals and trainers too. We look forward to sharing and learning to promote positive animal welfare and happy people!