#97: Types of Training

I have been a trainer for four years now. In that time, I have learned a lot about what it means to train and how you can go about doing it. I have also had the awesome opportunity to use a variety of training methods with our marine mammals. This blog post describes the different training methods that I have used and gives video examples of the behaviors that have come from them. It is pretty amazing when you open your eyes to the limitless ways you can train a behavior. Plus it's a lot of fun!

The training method that I use most often is called Shaping. By shaping a behavior, you are basically breaking it down into steps called approximations and you reinforce each step that the animal reaches. This allows you to build up a behavior and "shape" it as you go. Think of climbing a flight of stairs ... If you want to get to the eighth step, you have to walk up steps one through seven first. Shaping can be broken down even further into categories. The two shaping categories that I have used are successive approximations and selective reinforcement.

This above video is an example of Successive Approximations. Reggae is demonstrating his sink spin behavior. Since there are several components to the behavior, Reggae has to learn to spin in a circle, then to sink before putting the two behaviors together. In the video, you will see how he was trained to sink to successively deeper levels in the water column. Once that part was completed, he was given the spin signal which he was already trained to do at the surface. This requires a bit of abstract learning on his part since he was never asked to spin underwater but he can handle it! I can't take credit for training this one but it is a perfect example of the approximations needed to build a behavior.

Another category that is part of the shaping method of training is Selective Reinforcement. Before they headed off for their vacation in New York, I worked with our northern fur seals Cordova and Ursula. Both of them were quick studies and selective reinforcement was a new and exciting way for me to train behaviors with them. To train using this method, you basically wait until the seal offers something that you want. Then, you reinforce only that movement.

An example of this is Cordova's spin behavior. To start the training of this behavior, I gave Cordova (pictured at left) the spin signal (which she had never seen before) and then waited until she turned her head ever so slightly. From there, I continued to reinforce her head movement as long as it was past the point she reached the last time. As her head would turn, her body would follow and she would begin to turn in a circle.

By using this technique, I was able to train Cordova to spin in two days! It also gave me an opportunity to fine tune my bridging skills. It is really important to give a clear message to the seal so the accuracy of your bridge is crucial. This is a also a great training method to use when trying to introduce an animal to new surroundings. So stay tuned for the return of our northern fur seals because I am sure we will be using selective reinforcement as a very helpful training tool when introducing them to their brand new exhibit!

Shaping is also a really helpful way to rework an old behavior that has broken down over time. There are a number of reasons a behavior breaks down or no longer meets criteria. The seal may have been reinforced for a lesser version of what was originally required. Sometimes other trainers give a different version of the signal that the seal may not recognize. Reggae's dance behavior became progressively lower and slower. Below is a video of of the behavior.

Right now, he doesn't extend his flippers very far out of the water and he also moves verrrrrry slooooowly. Through shaping, I am hoping to sharpen this behavior so that he dances the salsa (like Cayenne in the video) rather than a waltz. Stay tuned for an update ...

Another training category that has been really fun to use with Reggae is Capturing. This is a training technique where you capture a behavior that the animal offers on their own. Reggae exhibits many different fun and energetic behaviors during the breeding season. Reggae would often offer these different behaviors after training sessions so I would wait on exhibit with a few fish and feed him when he did the desired behavior. In the video below, you can see him offering all sorts of behaviors in an attempt to get reinforced. The more he was reinforced for doing a specific behavior, the more he offered it. Then I picked a word or a signal to go with the behavior and transferred it into training sessions. This video shows a couple sessions where I am trying to capture Reggae's underwater bubbles. You can see him starting to understand what I am looking for because he offers behaviors other than underwater bubbles less and less as we go along.

The behaviors Reggae offers during breeding season usually involve blowing bubbles, slapping the water and quick body movements. Over the past two years I have been able to capture three of these behaviors and pair then with a signal. This video shows all the cool behaviors that Reggae has come up with. Check it out! :)

Some of the many captured behaviors from Reggae the Atlantic harbor seal at the New England Aquarium.

So the sky is the limit with the types of training we utilize with our animals but it always comes down to one main theme ... positive reinforcement. Make it positive for the animal and for the trainer and you are bound to have success!

Thanks to all our volunteers who helped me videotape Reggae's behaviors. I don't know what we would do without you!




  1. Great entry! You made the different techniques much easier to understand than any of the books I've read. I love the examples and videos that went along with it too. Keep up the great work!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Hi there,
    What is the update on the New Balanced Marine Mammal Center contruction?


Have a question for the trainers? Send it to them in the space below. The moderator will share the question.