Gail Laule (1993), Animal Welfare Information Center Newsletter 4(1): 2, 8-9 *************************

Using Training to Enhance Animal Care and Welfare

Gail Laule
Director of Animal Behavior
Active Environments


There is a growing trend in the zoological and laboratory animal community to recognize the value of using operant conditioning techniques as an animal care and management tool. Animals have been trained for public exhibition for centuries, but only in recent times has the versatility of training been explored to any appreciable extent. The result has been a variety of benefits for animals, caretakers, veterinarians, and others concerned with the welfare of captive animals. This new interest in tra ining has grown concurrently with the interest and attention surrounding the issue of psychological well-being. I don't believe this is an accident. In fact, a strong case can be made that training, from a physical and psychological perspective, is &quo t;good" for animals. However, I am referring to a specific type of training.

Positive Reinforcement

As consultants, we advocate and teach positive reinforcement training. This type of training relies on the voluntary cooperation of the animal to succeed. Unlike some methods, positive reinforcement training does not require food deprivation. Although animals are reinforced with rewards for the desired response, they are fed their daily allotment of food and rewards for training utilize that diet or extra treats. Operationally, it means that we exhaust the positive alternatives before any negative rei nforcement is used. On the rare occasion when an escape/avoidance technique is necessary, it is used minimally and is balanced by a greater proportion of positive reinforcement. Punishment is only used in a life-threatening situation for a person or anima l.

Positive reinforcement training is truly universal. Operant conditioning provides the tools; how the trainer uses them provides endless opportunities. We have used these techniques with marine mammals, great apes and other primates, canids, felids, ungulates, and others. The basic techniques remain the same; however, adjustments are made for different species, differences among individual animals, the environmental and social situations they are in, and the specific operational objectives.

If training has a down side, it is twofold. First, training is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Poorly planned and implemented training can definitely create more problems than it will solve. Secondly, training is time and labor int ensive, particularly in the initial stages of a project. However, if viewed in the longterm, these drawbacks can be turned into advantages. Having caretakers with training skills may help alleviate future problem behaviors. And, training results, such a s animals voluntarily cooperating in veterinary procedures, ultimately are time and labor saving.

For example, in a pilot program being conducted at the chimpanzee breeding facility at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Science Park in Bastrop, Texas, urine collection training is being pursued with all breeding-age female chimps (9) . Currently, urine from these females is collected once per cycle by separating the female from her group and waiting for her to urinate, which may take minutes to hours. Training a chimp to urinate on cue may initially take several hours of time over se veral weeks. However, investing those few hours to achieve reliable collection in less than 10 minutes realizes tremendous time savings over the life of that animal. With urine collection simple and reliable, other research or medical opportunities also become possible.

Training offers a wide array of benefits for animals and personnel. Through the process of desensitization, animals are conditioned to voluntarily cooperate in veterinary procedures that can be negative events. Training sessions are spent pairing po sitive reinforcement with these negative events, ultimately making them less negative, less scary, and less stressful. Also, when animals voluntarily cooperate, anesthesia becomes unnecessary, and the frequency of these behaviors can be increased for use on a preventive basis. Another, more subtle benefit is the increase in choices and control that trained animals' experience. Restraining an animal for a procedure, or having an animal voluntarily cooperate during the procedure without restraint, are tw o very different events, for both the animal and personnel. One could argue that allowing animals greater control over their lives contributes to psychological well-being.

In practice, skillful use of training techniques has resulted in animals that voluntarily move between areas or cages in a reliable and timely manner; marine mammals that voluntarily allow routine blood, stomach, fecal, urine, and blow hole samples to be taken; and primates that cooperate in physical examinations including offering body parts for inspection (Fig. 2.) and treatment of wounds, tolerating a stethoscope and thermometer, and allowing blood sampling and injections (7, 11). Thus, the potential is there to condition individuals of many species to tolerate similar procedures.

Photo of chimpanzee
Fig. 1. Through positive reinforcement training,
this chimpanzee voluntarily cooperates with
veterinary examinations.

Aggressive Behaviors

Training has proven to be effective in addressing aggression problems in social groups in a variety of species. One study documented the reduction of aggressive behavior of one male chimpanzee toward other group members during feeding time (1). By reinforcing the dominant animal for allowing the others to have their share of food and attention, both aggressor and subordinate animals benefitted. He received special treats and attention for his cooperation, and the others were able t o receive and consume their allotted food in a less stressful environment. We call this technique "cooperative feeding" and have used it successfully over the years in many situations, including working pairs of male sea lions together, integra ting subdominant dolphins into groups, and preparing and implementing introductions with gorillas and other primates (7, 8). It was also one technique employed with a group of drill baboons to increase overall positive social interactions and affiliative behavior within the group (3, 4).

Positive reinforcement training with elephants, implemented through a system we call "protected contact," has resulted in a dramatic reduction of aggressive behavior toward keepers (5, 10). In this type of training, where trainers work with the elephants through shields or barriers (Fig. 2), aggressive behavior is not punished, but simply ignored. At the same time, cooperative, nonaggressive behavior is reinforced when it occurs. T he system does not rely on social dominance or escape/avoidance techniques, but on the voluntary participation of the elephant. In fact, in 365 protected contact training sessions with four elephants, the animals chose to work 99 percent of the time. Th e result is an elephant that is motivated to cooperate with, rather than act aggressively toward, the trainer.

Photo of elephant with two trainers
Fig. 2. "Protected contact" training allows trainers to
work with elephants in a cooperative manner.

Stereotypic Behaviors and Enrichment

Training offers techniques and strategies to address neurotic or stereotypic behavior that is incompatible with the problem one, or a new behavior to replace the undesirable one, or by simply raising the amount of activity and stimulation for the anim al, problematic behavior can be reduced or eliminated. In the case of one bottlenose dolphin, training strategies were successfully employed to reduce the incidence of four behavioral problems: swallowing of foreign objects, frequent regurgitation, bitin g trainers, and inability to integrate into a social group (6).

In a recent study conducted at the M.D. Anderson chimp facility, the issue of training as enrichment was explored. Preliminary results indicate that training offers some benefits for animals that are related to psychological well-being. For example, three significant positive changes occurred during training: reduced self-directed behavior, reduced inactivity, and increased social play (2). To my knowledge this is the first study of its kind, and we intend to do more.

Positive reinforcement training is gaining stature among animal managers as a useful tool for enhancing animal health care and husbandry needs. It is also more versatile and multi-functional than may initially be perceived. Whether the situation inv olves a solitary animal with limited sensory stimulation, or a group of animals in the most "naturalistic" environment imaginable, well planned and implemented training has a place.


  1. Bloomsmith, M. et al. "Using Training to Modify Chimpanzee Aggression." 1992 American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) Central Regional Conference Proceedings, Dallas, TX.
  2. Bloomsmith, M. "Chimpanzee Training and Behavioral Research: A Symbiotic Relationship." 1992 AAZPA National Conference Proceedings, Toronto, Canada.
  3. Cox, C. "Increase in the Frequency of Social Interactions and the Likelihood of Reproduction Among Drills." 1987 AAZPA Annual Conference Proceedings, Portland, OR.
  4. Desmond, T. et al. "Training for Socialization and Reproduction with Drills." 1987 AAZPA National Conference Proceedings, Portland, OR.
  5. Desmond, T. and Laule, G. "Protected Contact Elephant Training." 1991 AAZPA National Conference Proceedings, San Diego, CA.
  6. Laule, G. "Behavioral Intervention in the Case of a Hybrid Tursiops sp." 1984 International Marine Animal Trainer Association (IMATA) Annual Conference Proceedings, Los Angeles, CA.
  7. Laule, G. and Desmond, T. "Use of Positive Behavioral Techniques in Primates for Husbandry and Handling." 1990 ZooVet Annual Conference Proceedings, South Padre Island, TX.
  8. Laule, G. and Desmond, T. "Meeting Behavioral Objectives While Maintaining Healthy Social Behavior and Dominance." 1991 IMATA Annual Conference Proceedings, San Francisco, CA.
  9. Laule, G. et al. "Positive Reinforcement Techniques and Chimpanzees: An Innovative Program." 1992 AAZPA Central Regional Conference Proceedings, Dallas, TX.
  10. Maddox, S. "Bull Elephant Management: A Safe Alternative." 1992 AAZPA Central Regional Conference Proceedings, Dallas, TX.
  11. Reichard, T. et al. "Training for Husbandry and Medical Purposes." 1992 AAZPA National Conference Proceedings, Toronto, Canada.

Work at the M.D. Anderson facility was supported by the NIH/DRR grants R01-RR03578 and U42-RR03489.

This article appeared in the Animal Welfare Information Center Bulletin, Volume 4, Number 1, Winter 1993

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