Animal Training, an Overlooked Science: Bringing Training Out of the Closet
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Ken Ramirez
John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL, USA


When most people think of animal training, it either conjures up images of performing animals in the circus or a pet dog rolling over on cue. While those images certainly reflect one small component of training it hardly represents the complete picture; no more than describing a doctor’s job as “prescribing a few pills” accurately reflects a physician’s duties or the extent of his or her knowledge. Modern trainers in a zoologic setting should be skilled professionals with a background in both animal care and animal behavior. Trainers must know the science behind training and understand the practical applications with a variety of species. Training is one of the cornerstones to a good animal care program; just as one would never put together an animal care program without proper veterinary care, good nutrition, and the proper environment, a behavior management component is just as essential. Today, thanks to modern training, many diverse and seemingly amazing feats have been accomplished: nurse sharks swimming into a stretcher for weights, a baboon presenting its arm for insulin injections, a killer whale allowing its tooth to be drilled, a tiger submitting to ultra sound exams, and an endangered black rhino allowing blood to be drawn from its ear. These are just a few examples of the possibilities. However, for more programs to realize this type of success, all animal care personnel must recognize the importance of training and recognize the skills needed to implement a good behavioral management program. Additionally, the barriers that tend to get in the way of good communication must be avoided—trainers, keepers, veterinarians, curators, and managers can all contribute to the roadblocks to good communication. Finally, everyone involved in an animal care program should be aware of the most common pitfalls that can cause a good training program to fail.

Training is a Science

Training is a technology based on proven scientific principles.3 The serious trainer must understand both operant and classic conditioning; these two very different concepts explain why animals behave the way they do and govern how an animal will learn within a training program. Classic conditioning was first defined by Pavlov and describes the automatic or involuntary response that animals have to certain stimuli.1 An understanding of these principles will help a trainer better understand an animal’s instinctive responses to certain situations or reactions to certain behaviors, such as aggression. Operant conditioning was first defined by Skinner and it describes the learning that occurs when an animal’s behavior is modified by the consequences that follow it.4 As an example, assume that a dog pokes his nose into a fountain and is sprayed with water. If he likes the sensation, he is likely to repeat the behavior—because the behavior was reinforced. On the other hand, if the dog pokes his nose into the fountain and it frightens him, he is less likely to repeat the behavior—because the behavior was punished. Understanding these principles and the things that affect, motivate, and modify behavior are a key to training animals.

Basic Training

Most training programs revolve around the application of operant conditioning principles. At first glance, the concepts seem simple and straightforward, which is precisely what causes some people to delve into training without being fully prepared for the problems and pitfalls. Although basic training concepts are simple, the proper application of those principles, under less than perfect circumstances, requires a great deal of expertise. One of the clearest introductions to operant conditioning for the beginner, is Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog. She developed a list that she refers to as the “10 laws of shaping.”2 These laws provide a good introduction to basic training principles without getting too bogged down with operant jargon. Here is Pryor’s list with my own explanation of each law’s meaning.

1.  Raise criteria in small increments. By using very small steps (successive approximations) you will set your animal up to succeed.

2.  Train one criterion at a time. This will keep your goals clear and not confuse your animal. Most behaviors have multiple criteria, but you should focus on only one aspect of the behavior at a time. If you are asking an animal to position its hindquarters against one part of its enclosure so that you may give an injection, the position, the length of time in that position, touching the animal, the use of a syringe, and the use of an assistant are five separate criteria.

3.  Vary reinforcement before moving to the next approximation. One way to maintain a strong response in an animal is to assure that reinforcement is varied. There are many ways of providing variety including varying the magnitude of reinforcement, type of reinforcers, or requiring varied duration or repetition of the behavior being trained.

4.  Relax old criteria when introducing new criteria. When an animal is being introduced to something new, it is not unusual for an animal to fail to meet all previously learned criteria. This is acceptable at first and will minimize frustration in your animal.

5.  Plan ahead. Have a training plan in mind and know the short-term and long-term goals.

6.  Don’t change trainers in mid-stream. In order to maintain consistency with the animal it is not wise to have different individuals training the same behavior.

7.  If a plan doesn’t work change the plan. Training is a dynamic process, so don’t be afraid to change the plan.

8.  Don’t stop a session gratuitously. It is important to stay focused and not get distracted, don’t end a session abruptly or the animal may get confused or frustrated.

9.  Regress when behavior deteriorates. It is normal for animals to forget or get confused. Taking a few steps back can refresh their memory and get them back on the right track.

10.  End on a positive note. Training should always be fun. Avoid ending a session when an animal is frustrated; try to end with success.

The Veterinarian’s Role

It is typically not the role of the veterinarian to build the type of relationship with an animal necessary for successful training. However, veterinarians can have a tremendous impact on the ability of trainers to train their animals successfully. There are several programs that demonstrate a very good relationship between the veterinary staff and the animal care staff. Those programs seem to have the “cure” for building veterinarian/trainer relationships: communication, understanding, respect, and evaluation.


It is critical that veterinarians communicate their plans, needs, and expectations to the animal care staff far in advance of a visit or exam. Likewise, the trainers must communicate their plans needs and expectations to the veterinary staff.


All staff should understand the role and responsibility of each person involved in making animal care decisions.


Each staff member has special skills and talents that they bring to the job; it is important to respect those skills and talents.


After each procedure it is important to evaluate what worked and what did not so that future procedures can be made more efficient and successful—which leads back to the top of the list with communication.

Most Common Mistakes

Finally, there are many pressures and decisions that are made that can cause animal behavior to deteriorate. Some of these pressures are from eager inexperienced trainers who expect too much too fast, sometimes the pressure comes from managers who demand unrealistic results, and sometimes the pressure is from the veterinarian who is pushing urgently for assistance in a medical treatment. Whatever the reason, it is usually when dealing with problem behavior or medical issues that the biggest mistakes in training are made. Here is a list of some of the most common pitfalls that cause medical behaviors to deteriorate. They are in no particular order.

Looking for the Quick Fix

We all want behavioral problems solved quickly, but the reality is that it takes time to solve them. Searching for a quick fix often leads to the use of punishment or aversive stimuli, which can ultimately cause bigger problems.

Forgetting That Learning Is Always Taking Place

Animal care staff will often forget that an animal is learning all the time, not just when a training session is taking place. When trainers or veterinarians forget this fact, they often inadvertently shape undesirable behavior. Activities and interactions that take place with or near the animals can affect an animal’s behavior in either a productive or destructive manner—the only way to make sure that learning is productive is to be conscious of each and every interaction.

Using Voluntary Medical Behaviors Before They Are Completely Trained

This is one of the most common mistakes made when training voluntary medical behaviors. Although it is more typical with beginners, even experienced trainers can fall into this trap. A behavior may be progressing very well, when suddenly there is a medical need that would benefit from the use of this “behavior in training.” At the time, the temptation to use the behavior “even though it is not quite ready,” is very strong—it seems easy, what can it hurt? Most of the time it fails to get the desired result and even when it does work, it often breaks down the trust and can turn the behavior into a frightening experience. If a medical behavior (taking blood, kennel or crate training, giving an injection, etc.) is planned for regular or frequent use, it is important not to use the behavior for actual sampling until all steps are completed and the animal has been desensitized to all stimuli.

Not Using a Conditioned Reinforcer (A Bridging Stimulus or an Event Marker)

Whether a trainer uses a whistle, a clicker, or simply says the word “good” the use of this signal is instrumental in shaping behavior. Sometimes trainers will feel that once a behavior is trained that a whistle is no longer needed. However, it is important to remember that medical behaviors are never truly complete; there are always new stimuli to desensitize or longer durations to approximate. The conditioned reinforcer becomes invaluable in providing the animal with information about what aspect of the behavior is being reinforced.

Using Too Many Trainers to Train One Task

This is a common mistake when working on medical behaviors. The urgency or desire to get the behavior completed sometimes necessitates multiple trainers. However, if you must use more than one trainer it is still wise to use as few as possible and to make sure that those who are involved communicate constantly and in a consistent manner.

Making Assumptions About What an Animal Likes

It is easy for trainers to fall victim to the concept of assuming they know what an animal finds reinforcing. But husbandry behaviors frequently involve novel or frightening equipment, some discomfort, or awkward positioning. For this to be worthwhile to the animal it requires that the reinforcement offered be high. Most experienced trainers know how to gauge this, but it is truly a difficult thing to define and a mistake made often by young trainers.

Taking Approximations That Are Too Large

It is not unusual for a skilled trainer or a sharp animal to move quickly through certain training steps. Often this encourages the trainer to make larger and larger approximations. However, these approximations are the foundation of a strong medical behavior, skipping steps or taking large approximations can weaken the foundation that these behaviors are built upon.

Forgetting the Importance of a Calm Response

One of the keys to successful medical training is a calm response by the animal. However, if a sample is successfully taken, trainers will often get so excited that they bridge and reinforce the behavior even if the animal is tense, nervous, or moving too much. This inevitably teaches the animal that this type of movement is acceptable.

Desensitization Is an Ongoing Process

The effort to desensitize animals to new stimuli and new situations is a continuous process that never ends. When trainers assume that a medical behavior is complete and everything has been desensitized, they are likely to be disappointed very quickly.

Trying Just One More Time or Pushing for a Few Extra Seconds

When a trained behavior fails to get the desired result or pushing for a few extra seconds seems like it will allow the veterinarian to get the sample he or she wants, trainers are often tempted to push the limit. However, one of the best ways to ensure long-term success is to reinforce a behavior well if the animal did its part correctly and not ask for the behavior again too soon. If a needle was inserted or the animal remained calm, but you did not get the sample you were looking for—it was not the fault of the animal. The animal should be reinforced well. Asking again can sometimes cause the behavior to deteriorate, unless the repetition or the extra time was already a part of the training.

Lack of Communication

As discussed in a previous section, communication is a key to successful interactions between trainers and veterinarians and a well-communicated plan can set the animal and the staff up for success.

Assuming That Training Can Be Done by Anyone

On the outside, training can seem so simple that the training of complex medical behaviors or the resolution of behavioral problems are often assigned to individuals with little or no training experience. While it is certainly wise for all animal care staff to understand the basics and importance of operant conditioning, there is no substitute for the knowledge and skill of an experienced professional trainer.


Training offers an incredible tool to help us manage the animals in our care more responsibly. A behavioral management program that is overseen by an experienced trainer will assure that training needs are not placed on the backburner, but given the importance they deserve. As more facilities recognize the significance of training and approach it as a science and as one of the cornerstones to good animal care, there is no question that the animals will benefit. The veterinarian plays a key role in influencing animal care decisions, and he or she is in a position to help bring training out of the closet and to the forefront in animal care management and decision-making. The points described above are hardly a substitute for a good training manual or extensive training experience; but hopefully they serve as a starting point for thinking about how to integrate training into a strong animal care program.

Literature Cited

1.  Pavlov IP. Conditioned Reflexes. London, England: Oxford University Press; 1927.

2.  Pryor K. Don’t Shoot the Dog. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 1999.

3.  Ramirez K. Animal Training: Successful Animal Management through Positive Reinforcement. Chicago, IL: Shedd Aquarium Press; 1999.

4.  Skinner BF. The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. (The Century Psychology Series). New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1938.


Speaker Information
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Ken Ramirez
John G. Shedd Aquarium
Chicago, IL, USA

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