We discuss the benefits of training and the advantages of focusing on positive reinforcement quite frequently, but I have long believed that training does far more than we realize. Positive reinforcement training expands animals’ repertoires, makes them better problem-solvers, increases their resilience to change and, dare I say it, boosts their intelligence. The evidence of these benefits is anecdotal, but I would suggest that the examples below present a compelling case for supporting these claims.
Escape from predation
A friend and colleague of mine, Ilana Bram, shared a story from a local co-op where she trains goats to do various husbandry behaviors. The co-op also has chickens living on site, and Ilana began training one hen in particular named Chickie. Chickie really took to the training and was an eager learner, developing a small but solid repertoire of behaviors.
I immediately responded, "Yes!" I have long believed that training gives animals new skills and makes them better problem-solvers. We will never know for sure whether those skills made a difference to Chickie on that terrible night, but I believe they did. This incident brought to mind other examples of well-trained animals showing resilience and accomplishing incredible things.
I spent several years as the trainer for a group of more than 200 birds in a park in Mexico City. The population included several species of parrots, ravens, toucans, birds of prey, and a variety of songbirds. These birds lived in social groups in large free-flight aviaries. We did basic training with all the birds, but we focused most of our attention and advanced training on the birds that were part of our daily shows. The complexity of training varied from species to species, but included flying on cue, medical behaviors, tactile, vocalizations, and lots of socialization and desensitization to new people and places.
Early one morning, Mexico City experienced a devastating earthquake that registered 8.0 on the Richter scale and created widespread damage in the area. When I arrived at the park, I found that although three of the aviaries were still standing, two of the aviaries had sustained serious damage. A large building next to the enclosures had collapsed, and huge slabs of concrete and shards of glass had torn holes in the aviary and crushed or buried sections of the birds' homes.
As we inspected the area, what we found was heartbreaking. Most of the 62 birds who lived in the damaged aviaries had died, primarily from inhaling smoke and dust created by the collapsed building. Words cannot describe the pain we experienced over the wonderfully bright lives that were lost that morning.
Given the variety of species involved, their escape from two different aviaries, the unusual routes and extraordinary effort to get to where we found them, and the large number of similar species living in the same space that did not survive, it seems more than a coincidence that it was primarily the well-trained birds that found their way to safety. All of the birds had spent time in the training locations and had access to those spaces; the only difference was that they had not had the same complex and extensive training. We could not find any other logical explanation.
Late night fishing
On a lighter note, I would like to share the story of a California sea lion named Jones that I worked with in Texas. We were doing some renovations to one of our sea lion habitats, so we relocated Jones and six other males to a temporary home located right next to a large lake. Jones was an older, well-trained, very experienced animal. The other six animals were rescued animals that we had recently adopted, and although they were part of our training program, they were still in the early stages of training.
The sea lions had been living in their temporary habitat for about six weeks when we began to notice that Jones was starting his mornings very slowly. He was healthy and bright-eyed, but he behaved as though he had just eaten a huge meal. We knew this wasn't the case because his last meal had been the night before. Sea lions have voracious appetites, and Jones would still eat his morning meal, but he ate slowly and seemed full. The veterinarian found no signs of illness, and we were baffled.
This unusual behavior had gone on for almost two weeks when in the wee hours of the morning I received a phone call from one of our night security officers. He claimed that he saw a large animal in the lake. I knew that the only animals living in the lake were fish, nothing large like our security guard was describing, so I went into the park to investigate.
It was still dark at 4:00 am when I arrived to check out the mysterious report. In the moonlight, I could see a large body break the surface of the water, then quickly disappear below the surface. It took me several minutes to recognize the distinct form of a sea lion! But how was that possible? I dashed over to the sea lion habitats in alarm.
When I arrived at the habitat next to the lake, I immediately noticed there were six instead of seven animals. Jones was missing. That must be him in the lake! I carefully inspected the habitat. No open doors; they were all locked. No holes, gaps or openings in the fence or wall. How did he get out? Had he really been fishing in the lake like this for the past two weeks? It didn't make sense.
The next evening, I watched Jones again from my hiding spot. About an hour after closing, Jones woke up from his slumber, paced the entire exhibit as if looking to make sure nobody was watching (yes, anthropomorphic again). Then he carefully reversed the process, climbing out of the exhibit, just as I had watched him climb back in that morning. It was obviously difficult and required some balancing skill, strength, and determination, but he eventually made it over the fence and went straight for the lake where he foraged for fish all night long, returning back home at sunrise, just as he had done the night before.
So many other examples
These three stories just scratch the surface; I have worked with many animals that demonstrated unique and untrained problem-solving skills. There was a dolphin, Misty, who learned to collect trash and hide it away in a drain like a bank account so that she could cash it in for fish when she felt the need. Ranbir the gibbon, upon seeing a wild snake enter his habitat, figured out how to hide in a restraint box and lock himself in so that he was safely out of harm’s way. Service dog Lambo, faced with a fire and an unconscious owner, took the initiative to grab the sleeping baby by the onesie and carry it to the neighbor’s house. Lambo’s action resulted in getting the owner help in time, and ultimately saving the lives of all involved. We see examples in the service and guide dog world all the time of dogs that go far beyond what they were trained to do and accomplish the improbable.
Training expands animals’ views of their world and enables them to accomplish tasks that had not been specifically trained. Positive reinforcement opens up learners’ thinking and allows them to explore and grow with greater confidence. Animals trained with punishment tend to have the opposite happen; their worldview shrinks and they are hesitant to try new things.
The more I am exposed to the power and benefits of positive training, the more impressed I am by the possibilities and the remarkable ways that animals benefit.