Animal Training 101


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Animal training is a necessary part of zoo life. By utilizing operant conditioning strategies, keepers can encourage animals to behave in a preferred manner for a reward.

Recently I connected with Heidi Hellmuth, Curator of Enrichment and Training at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, to learn more about captive animal training and positive reinforcement strategies. She explained the process further: “it basically means that when an animal does something that they’re asked, they get something that they like in return. This might be food, a favored enrichment item, a rubdown or other tactile interaction (with appropriate animals, of course), praise, or anything else that we learn that the animal enjoys.”

Oftentimes, a training tool is necessary to help communicate desired behaviors to the animal.” Heidi shared that at the National Zoo, “many keepers do use some training tools, primarily a bridge and a target. A bridge is a signal that tells the animal exactly when they’ve done something correctly, and signals that a reward is on the way. A bridge can be something like a word such as ‘good’ or ‘okay’, a clicker, or a whistle. A target is an object, frequently a ball or buoy on the end of a stick or pole, that an animal is taught to touch and follow. This allows you to easily show the animal what you’d like them to do, such as go into a crate, onto a scale, or from place to place.”

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According to Sean Royals, elephant keeper at the National Zoo, “The target is usually used in conjunction with a command to indicate that a specific body part should move towards the target. By using this need to touch the target to complete the behavior and to get the reinforcement, you can get the animals to move into new areas including stalls or crates.”

Below, keeper Marie Galloway demonstrates the use of training tools at the Asian elephant house. These tools facilitate the safety of both the keeper and animal, and communicate specific information to the elephant that help keep her calm and comfortable. In this specific instance, the target and verbal cue tell the elephant which direction she should move during her morning shower routine.

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Below, this Asian elephant readily allows Sean to draw a vile of blood from behind her ear, and Marie rewards this endangered elephant for her good behavior.

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Combined with verbal cues, the target also helps the trainers communicate to the Asian elephants when to lift a foot, shift her trunk or kneel on the ground. Shown below, Sean utilizes the target to encourage the young bull Asian elephant to lift his foot for an evaluation during a morning weigh-in. These regular exercises help minimize the animal’s stress during more in-depth veterinarian examinations.

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According to Heidi, the single most important component of a successful animal training program is to “first establish a strong, positive relationship with the animal that is built on trust. Just like we don’t enjoy working for a teacher or supervisor that we don’t like, animals do much better in training when they are comfortable with and appear to enjoy being around the trainer.”


Learn more about animal behaviors on the National Geographic Animals fact pages, and go behind the scenes and observe an Asian elephant shower at the National Zoo.


Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall, taken at the National Zoo.