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Trainer Talk with Peter – Examining the Conscious Choices of Animals

We have to make many choices in our lives.  Some are simple, while others are complicated.  Every day, we make thousands of choices that effect our days, weeks, and our entire lives.

Are these conscious choices the same for animals or are they simply at the mercy of their instinct?  We can only discover the answer through observation. We certainly can’t flat-out ask our animals what motivated them to make a particular choice, as wonderful as that would be.

To look at it simply, an animal makes the choice to play with one toy over another.  This decision is not through human reinforcement, but because the animal made a conscious choice on his or her own accord.

Imagine you are in a room and all doors are closed and locked.  This will make you feel differently than being in a room with unlocked doors you may choose to open any time you wish.  Taking this abstract idea and applying it to how we train and reinforce animals by allowing them more conscious choices may help us better understand the decision-making process of the animal mind.

It’s difficult to not anthropomorphize animals, but sometimes it can be a tool in the process of thinking outside the box to come to new conclusions about how we perceive each other.  Anthropomorphism, when used very loosely, could create new reinforcements for animals, therefore increasing their overall welfare by allowing them more choices.

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Up here at Kolmårdens Djurpark, we spend a lot of time playing with the animals and allow them to make choices about what they’d prefer to play with.

In our pinniped department, we have the privilege of warm water which all the animals enjoy.  We have five South African fur seals and as most of us know from observation, they groom themselves very often.  During play sessions, one trainer has flowing warm water and another one has a horse brush.  The seal then makes the choice on his or her own.  It’s fun and rewarding to watch the fur seals run back and forth from the water to the brushes, choosing which they prefer, then switching off.

After a training session with the fur seals ends, we open the gates so they can go outside.  They can stay inside the facility or move through the gate outside at this time.  Once again, the fur seals choose to run outside, then return, perhaps going back and forth a few more times.  It’s up to them, which exercises their judgment and decision-making, further strengthening their cognitive well being.

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It is interesting when other facilities think outside the box regarding the conscious choices of the animals.  Sometimes there is a particular animal who is attached to the trainers more then others.  I ask myself why this animal makes this decision for themselves.  Even outside of training sessions, some still will be more attached to humans than others.  We certainly have one of our own.  For this type of animal, we’ll offer training sessions with her until we see that she’s made her own choice to end the session.  It’s somewhat strange to see, but it’s amazing to watch animals choose all on their own.  As trainers, if we are observant enough, we are able to understand them better.  Their desire to choose helps us understand them on a new level and train them to a point where food reinforcement isn’t that important anymore.

The animal’s ability to choose may lead us to understand a whole new primary reinforcement in itself.  Survival instincts and conscious choices are different.  If we go deeper, without anthropomorphism, and think like the animal does, the path may lead us to a new level of animal training and reinforcement.




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