The Five Minute Principle in Animal Training

Animal training is often seen as luxury and a common concern is that there is not enough time to include animal training in the daily routine of zookeepers. Especially for zoo institutions or other animal facilities that just get started it is difficult to find the time, and together with all the other challenges within animal training it can be overwhelming. From a nice presentation from Barbara Heidenreich, I’ve got some tips & tricks about time management in animal training I’d like to share with you. 

The five minute principle

It’s called the five minute principles because of the simple fact that you can train an animal to express the desired behaviour with five minutes or less per day. Training sessions last on average around 5 till 20 minutes, before most animals lose their concentration. But even in less than 5 minutes, a lot of goal behaviours can be learned with most of the animals. A nice example is given by Barbara:

One behavior of training a leopard to target to a laser pointer was trained with only one repetition per day. It started with a chalk circle drawn on the wall of inside holding. When the cat was let inside it would put its nose on the circle out of curiosity. The animal caregiver could bridge and reinforce one repetition per day. This was eventually transferred to the laser. In just a few weeks of one repetition per day, the behavior was trained.

From this nice example, it shows the next tip. Many animals get their food daily. Before placing a food bowl down or directly feed the animal, use (a part of) the food for a 5 minute training session. You can offer the rest of the food after the training session. Some animals are even fed multiple times a day, so this can mean multiple short training sessions on a day. And even so, training sessions don’t have to occur daily to get the desired behaviour. If you have a training session two-three times per week (or even less) is enough for an animal to continue to progress in their learning. Especially already learned behaviours can be maintained without daily reinforcement. 

Some other advice to progress animal training

Take the opportunity to have longer training sessions when there is more staff or team members available. Also, use that time to reflect your training plan. You can also use this opportunity to discuss your training progress with other caregivers and trainers. When time is limited it is better to focus on a single animal or one group of animals. It is easier to make progress with one animal and learn from all these challenges instead of training the same behaviour to multiple individuals at the same time. Also, start with simple behaviours like target and station, so that the animal understands the training principles before you train more complex behaviours or chain multiple behaviours together. 

Celebrate your progress

If you use a checklist to record your progress you can check off each accomplishment and make it clear what the next focus behaviour is. When checking off accomplished behaviours you need to enjoy the fact that you succeed. Enjoying your progress gives a boost of motivation to make better progress with the next behaviour(s) and to better overcome difficult training challenges. 

To summarize the above

  • Training sessions of 5 minutes or less is enough to learn the desired behaviour
  • Use feeding time as a training opportunity
  • Even with two-three sessions a week is enough to make progress
  • Focus on a single animal or one group of animals
  • When staffing permits make longer training sessions once a week or two weeks
  • Make a checklist and celebrate every achievement

For more information about Animal Training see other snippets.

Further reading

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