How Animals Are Trained
PERFORMING birds, bears, seals, horses, elephants and a host of other animals continue to delight persons of all ages. There is a certain fascination in seeing these creatures do things that would never be witnessed in the wild. Just how are these animals trained?
Take a look at what happens during a performance. A cockatoo, or crested parrot, pedals a small bicycle on a high wire for a distance of some 50 feet (15 meters). The act completed, the bird, almost unnoticeably, receives a tasty morsel from the trainer’s hand. Carefully balancing a ball on the tip of its nose, a seal jumps over a pole raised above the surface of the water. The feat accomplished, the animal gets a fish to eat. Yes, the reward system plays a vital role in the successful training of animals.
Additionally, a great deal of patience is required on the part of the trainer, and there must also be a good relationship between him and the animal. A closer examination of what trainers do gives one some idea of how much patience is needed.
One device that is commonly used for training birds to perform is the “Skinner box,” named after its inventor, psychologist B. F. Skinner. The box is a three-foot (one-meter) cube. Its one-way peepholes enable the trainer to watch the bird. Besides having a tube for conveying food, the box is equipped with an arrangement whereby the trainer can control the bird’s environment inside. Soothing or irritating sounds can be produced. Also, lights can be flashed on and off.
A trainer might put a bird into the box with a prop, perhaps a small cart. Whenever the bird does something with the cart that is desirable, the trainer drops a tasty tidbit into the feeding tube and pushes a button to produce a pleasant sound inside the box. But, then, if the bird does something undesirable, there will be no reward. Inside the box, the bird will hear loud buzzing as lights flash on and off. Eventually, the creature becomes conditioned to do that which brings a reward.
The time now comes for the bird to perform outside the “Skinner box.” The training sessions may now be transferred to the ground or a table. Again the reward system is used. If the bird does the right thing, it will get something enjoyable to eat. But if the wrong thing is done, there will be no reward. In this way, the bird comes to associate right performance and food with its trainer.
The same principles can be applied in training household pets, a dog, for example. When the animal does something that is wrong, a scolding would be in order. Some persons have found that a gentle pat after the severe scolding is beneficial, as it assures the animal that it has not been rejected. In the case of serious misbehavior, a few slaps on the dog’s hips with a folded newspaper may be appropriate. On the other hand, when the dog does what is right, there should be some reward. For example, a few words spoken in a cheerful tone of voice and a few pats can bring pleasure to the animal. Consistency in bestowing rewards and giving scoldings conditions a dog to do what is desirable to its owner.
Man has long trained animals for his use and enjoyment. Over 19 centuries ago the Christian disciple James wrote: “Every species of wild beast as well as bird and creeping thing and sea creature is to be tamed and has been tamed by humankind.” (Jas. 3:7) Roman naturalist Pliny, also of the first century C.E., mentioned the taming of elephants, lions, tigers, eagles, crocodiles, serpents and various fishes. The fact that this has been possible confirms the Bible’s statement that man was given dominion over the animal creation. (Gen. 1:28) When that dominion is properly exercised, animals are treated kindly. This enables them to do their best in providing both delight and service for humankind.