Animal Care staff working with seal Animal Care staff working with seal

Positive Reinforcement Training

Animal Care staff feeding a polar bear through a fence

Through positive reinforcement training, Lincoln Park Zoo’s Animal Care staff teaches animals to participate in their own care and showcase species-specific behaviors for educational programs. This partnership between animal and trainer is an essential component to providing high-quality care to zoo animals.

Animal Care staff scratching a polar bear's back through a fence

What Is Positive Reinforcement Training? 

During positive reinforcement training, trainers request certain behaviors, such as a seal waving its flipper or a gorilla displaying its teeth, while ignoring others. If the animal performs the desired action, trainers provide a reward, such as a tasty snack, to encourage that behavior in the future.

Animal Care staff working with seal

How It Works

Building the Relationship

The first step in creating a positive training program is building a positive relationship with the intended animal through daily interactions. A “trust account,” as it is commonly referred to in the animal training world, is like a bank account. Every positive interaction a trainer has with an animal can deposit some trust into their account. This can even occur outside a formal training session. For example, when a trainer is caring for an animal and opens a door to a space filled with food and enrichment, they just shared a positive interaction.

Communication

When a trainer is working with an animal, they are having a conversation. Trainers use cues or signals to request a behavior, and animals use their behavior to control outcomes and communicate comfort.

Trainers must have strong observation skills in order to “read” the animals during every interaction. If an animal is showing signs of being nervous during a certain interaction and the trainer makes the smart decision to move away or stop what they are doing, they just added trust to their account—the animal now feels more confident in its ability to communicate its needs. By observing the animal over time, trainers learn to gauge the animal’s comfort in its surroundings.

Control Through Choice

Animals experience better welfare when they have choice over their surroundings. At Lincoln Park Zoo, trainers structure training plans to provide the animals with as much control as possible. All the animals choose whether or not to participate in training session each day, and they control each session though their behavior.

Safety

Trainers take every precaution to guarantee the safety of both themselves and the animals in their care. When working with large carnivores or hoofstock animals, such as camels and zebras, it is always safer to work in a protected setting, which usually means working from behind a barrier. With other animals, such as the seals, barriers aren’t necessary.

The Benefits

Animal Care staff holding a young Chilean flamingo

Daily Veterinary Care

Teaching animals to participate in their own care helps them feel more comfortable during potentially stressful situations, such as moving to a new space so staff can clean their habitat or standing still during basic veterinary procedures. In many cases, an animal’s voluntary participation mitigates the need for anesthesia. Trainers work with nearly every animal at Lincoln Park Zoo. As a result, the polar bears offer their paws for x-rays, the eastern black rhinos stand still during routine blood draws, and the Asian small-clawed otters willingly receive insulin injections—to name just a few examples.

Animal Care staff working with seal

Education Programs

Some Lincoln Park Zoo animals—such as the seals, polar bears, and gorillas—practice their training in the view of the public, which allows the zoo’s Learning department to explain how positive reinforcement training enables the animals to participate in their own care.

Animals Depend on People Too

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