While one-on-one training is ideal, it’s not always possible. Maybe you need multiple animals for a trick, maybe you’re working with a mom whose baby is too young to be separated from her, or maybe you’ve got highly flock/herd oriented animals who just don’t do well when apart from its cohorts. Whatever the case, sometimes training multiple animals at once is a necessity.
As with many training questions, the answer to how to best set up a session with more than one animal depends on many factors. The species, the size of the group, and the trainer’s experience level all matter. And, Ken said, one of the most important considerations has to do with social situations. Although dominance is something of a dirty word in the dog world, it does exist, and it’s important to understand who is currently at the top of the social structure and whether or not that’s in flux. Understanding the current social situation will help you be more successful. For example, a lower-ranking animal will be extremely hesitant to perform a behavior that requires it to be in close proximity to a higher-ranking one. It could even provoke a fight, which would definitely wreck your training session for the day.
When training in a group, Ken encouraged us to find a way to most closely replicate an individual session. Physical separation is the easiest way to do this; animals could be brought out of an adjoining enclosure one by one. If this is not possible, spatial separation may be another viable option. To do this, two trainers are required. One occupies the group (by feeding them, usually), while the other works with an animal a short distance away. If this won’t work either, then the next option is to use stationing.
|A selection of name targets used by Shedd staff.|
Stationing is when an animal goes to and stays at a designated spot. Stationing can take several different forms. In location specific stationing, the animal will go to a specific place in its habitat, such as under a tree or next to a boulder. Position specific stationing is very natural to animals; it requires them to take up a position relative to others in the group. In other words, they always line up in the same order, regardless of which habitat they are in. Name targets are used to direct the animal to a particular place. Shedd uses colorful shapes, and many of their animals know to look for the shape they’ve been assigned and station there. Choice is a more informal type of stationing in which the animal needs to follow certain guidelines but has more control over the details. For example, the group may be required to assemble in front of the trainer, but can choose where to stand in relation to one another. Finally, shuffle stationing is where each animal chooses a spot on their own, and then moves to a location as specified by the trainer.
The type of stationing you use will depend on the group and your goals. For example, location specific stationing is often used for meal times. Position specific stationing is frequently used during training sessions.
A common question people have about group training is how to avoid bridging confusion. How will each animal know if the bridge was meant for it or not? Ken recommended having multiple bridges for each animal, which means that you will need to teach each animal several bridges separately before you bring them together as a group. Although we often think of bridges as audible (a click or a whistle), Ken suggested having tactile bridges (a tap on a particular body part) and visual bridges (pointing distinctly in the animal’s face or a thumbs up) as well.
Another group bridging problem occurs during unison behaviors. If there are three dolphins leaping into the air, and two get it right but the third doesn’t, the trainer needs to decide whether or not to give the bridge. There are two ways to approach this. You can make the bridge group-contingent. This requires all of the animals to do the behavior correctly in order to get the bridge and subsequent reinforcement. This is particularly useful when competition between two animals is causing one to fail. The other option is to not give the bridge, but reinforce the animals that were correct. Of course, this only works if the behavior is “self-terminated” (ie, ends on its own and not continued or repeated until bridged).
The last thing Ken encouraged us to consider when training a group of animals is the concept of fairness. Animals are very aware of whether or not they are receiving your attention or food… and if someone else is receiving it instead! What’s more, he believes that animals will question why they should bother to pay attention to you if you aren’t paying attention to them. Animals need to be taught how to share your attention (and food!), so Ken encouraged us to recognize that during a group training session, all of the animals are doing something. Whether it’s simply staying at their station or waiting their turn, all animals should be reinforced equally. The ultimate goal is to avoid competition, so you’ll need to set up your sessions well. Know your animals and your goals.
Although this is just a very brief look at a pretty complex topic, I hope it gives you a starting point the next time you find yourself faced with the need to train more than one animal at a time. And if you often train multiple animals, join the conversation! What have you done to make your job easier?