Home » Library » Enjoy » Ken's Letters

Reindeer Games

Filed in - Ken's Letters

While I was in Europe recently, I was invited to a zoological conference to present a talk on the importance of training for improved welfare. I had no plans of doing any training demonstrations during the conference. However, I ended up conducting an impromptu training session with a male reindeer during a tour at a local zoo.

Several of us were admiring a herd of reindeer when a keeper entered the enclosure to do a late-afternoon cleaning. The keeper, Paolo, had to push away a large male reindeer that was getting too close for comfort. Paolo laughed as he explained that the male was very unruly and always gets in the way during cleaning. One of the conference attendees said, “You should get Ken to train him.”

Paolo replied, “Oh, he’s not trainable.”

“Ken says anything is trainable,” shouted another attendee.

Paolo scoffed, “Love to see him try!”

I tried to focus on my zoo map and ignore the undesirable behavior of colleagues coaxing me into a training session. I don’t normally like doing training demos with animals I don’t know, especially when it comes in the form of a challenge. But it was too late; everyone was looking at me and asking me to try training this pushy reindeer. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get out of doing something, so I decided to turn the situation into a problem-solving session. I asked Paolo why he thought this reindeer was not trainable. Paolo explained that the male always gets in the way during cleaning, which I was witnessing firsthand, and nothing could dissuade the male reindeer from interfering and obstructing.

I pointed out that, because the male reindeer has so much interest in the keepers, we might be able to turn that into a good thing. I asked Paolo what he thought the reindeer wanted. Paolo explained that the male liked to lick the keeper’s hands and arms. I commented, “It seems to me that this male either likes people or he’s seeking the salty flavor of your skin—maybe both.”

The zoo staff hadn’t named their reindeer, so I decided to call this curious male Rudy. I asked Paolo, “What would you like Rudy to do when you’re in the enclosure?” Paolo said that he just wanted to be left alone when he was working. I asked if I could use Rudy’s remaining food as a reinforcer to try some training, but Paolo informed me that the reindeer had eaten for the day. The only possibility remaining was hay, which Rudy had been foraging on most of the afternoon.

While I was talking to Paolo I was standing outside the enclosure, leaning over the fence, and Rudy started trying to lick my hands. I said that I wasn’t sure how well this would work, but since there was no food available, I was going to use Rudy’s desire to lick me as a reinforcer.

I suggested that we pick a behavior for Rudy that would be acceptable to all of the keepers. After some discussion, we chose walking away from the keepers and standing by one of the large trees in the exhibit. The exhibit would serve as a station. I began by making a tongue click sound with my mouth and paired that sound with offering Rudy the opportunity to lick my hand. I did that five or six times, and then I started moving along the fence to see if Rudy would follow me. Rudy was focused on me, and went where I went. I clicked my tongue, and then let him lick my hand. In just a few minutes, it was clear to me that he understood the meaning of the click.

Next, I decided to stop offering my hand to see how Rudy would respond. He stared at me for about 30 seconds, and then he pushed on the fence where I was standing. He looked a bit frustrated, and finally he turned to walk away. I let him get one step away from me, then I clicked my tongue and offered him my hand again, which he came back to lick eagerly. I pulled my hand away and waited; Rudy stared again, and finally he walked away. I let him walk a few steps further, then clicked and offered my hand. At that point, everyone watching laughed and clapped because they understood what I was doing. Most important, they could see Rudy responding to the training game and learning! (I was so tickled that this was working as well as it was. Talk about training under pressure!)

Over the next five minutes I approximated Rudy to a tree halfway across the habitat. Rudy was now running to the tree the minute I pulled my hand away, which had now become the cue to go to the tree. He would wait by the tree until I clicked, then come trotting back. Curiously, he always circled around the tree when he got there, which I thought was cute and accepted as part of the behavior. The entire training process occurred in less than ten minutes.

The session became a very powerful demonstration of basic training and shaping; it illustrated the power of training as a communication tool between teacher and learner. I used the opportunity to talk to the group about redirection and the finding incompatible behavior to replace unwanted behavior. The training also provided an excellent example of alternative reinforcers and how to use what the animal already finds reinforcing. I can’t remember the last time I was put on the spot like that, but it reinforced the training message from my keynote talk the day before.

It was a very cool experience and a great reminder that training doesn’t have to be complicated.
I ended up coming back to visit the reindeer habitat frequently that night. When Rudy saw me approaching, he ran straight to me. Rudy’s enthusiasm was so funny to watch. Throughout the evening, conference attendees asked me to go visit the reindeer because they wanted to watch Rudy gallop over to greet me. It was a very cool experience and a great reminder that training doesn’t have to be complicated. The tools I used were very basic: good timing and appropriate reinforcers combined with observing and responding to the behavior and desires the animal demonstrates. And, the task was completed in a relatively short session. I hope that the zookeepers maintain the training that we started that night and that Rudy continues to join in his new reindeer games!

Happy Training,



About the author
User picture

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <embed> <object> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.

More information about formatting options

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.