There are several learning principles, namely positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, “positive” punishment and negative punishment. We refer to Gatz (1998) for more information about these principles.
Training or operant conditioning programmes may also serve as a form of enrichment. Numerous examinations, as well as numerous nutritional, reproductive and veterinary research projects, often require hands-on contact with rhinos. An alternative to manual or chemical restraint of an individual is an operant conditioning programme that utilises positive reinforcement. Such a programme has many benefits, including reduced stress to the animal, more reliable sample collection, reduction of any effects of stress on the samples and less need for structural modifications to restrain animals. There are several institutions that have successfully trained rhinos to do procedures like blood collection, ultrasound and skin and food care.
Before beginning any training the first step is to establish training programme goals and requirements. Training rhinos will require much coordination among staff members including keepers, curators, veterinarians and zoo management. Exhibit schedules may be modified during training. All parties must understand that consistency in routine is inevitable for training. Modifications will undoubtedly be made to the pre-training routine to accomplish the training programme goals.
When training programme goals and requirements have been established the training of the animals can begin. The training process will generally include three basic steps:
habituating of the animal to the trainer
constructing and introducing targets, or visual areas of ideal placement for the rhino
establishing the commands necessary to steer the animal to these target areas
It is recommended that training starts with one individual as the primary trainer. Additional personnel may be included once the rhino reliably executes the desired behaviours of the primary trainer. The goal is that ultimately, given the appropriate stimuli, the rhino will execute the desired behaviours for a number of different personnel. It is recommended that the training initially be performed in a specific area of the enclosure, but later on, flexibility is important so that the rhino will perform the desired behaviours in more than one area if necessary. Training commands, targets and rewards should only be used during training sessions. Training commands and targets should be carefully evaluated prior to beginning the training programme. Most used commands in training sessions are:
Move up; when a rhino needs to move forward
Back; when a rhino needs to move back
Over; when a rhino needs to do a side step
Steady; when a rhino needs to hold its position
Foot; when a rhino needs to present its foot
Come; when a rhino needs to approach the trainer
Target; when a rhino needs to place is head or body part at a specific area (e.g. on the target)
All right; when the training is over and the rhino can do what it wants
Specific training areas and objectives will vary across institutions. Closed stall, free-stall and chutes work well for medical procedures, provided there is ample access to the animal and the safety for personnel.
To habituate the rhino to the presence of the trainer, regular ten minutes training sessions may be effective. It should be emphasised that the amount of time required will depend on the tractability of the individual. The primary objective of these sessions is to establish trust. By noting generalised behaviours and body positions of the animal, the trainer should be able to notice when the animal is relaxed in the trainer’s presence. At this point the trainer can begin shaping the desired behaviour. Each successive approximation of the desired behaviour should be rewarded with a command like “good”, which serves as a bridge to link the behaviour to the reinforcement, which is given concurrently. A positive reinforcer should increase the frequency of the desired behaviour. Successful reinforcers are food (e.g. apple, bananas or bread) and, to a lesser extent, tactile stimulation (e.g. belly scratching). The bridge and reinforcer should only be given for the approximation of the desired behaviour. Otherwise, additional behaviours performed in conjunction with desired behaviour will also be reinforced.
After successful completion of the approach behaviour the trainer can introduce a target, or object easily visible to the rhino. At this point the trainer should encourage the rhino to the target on command using the same basic procedure of reinforcing approximations of the desired behaviour. At this point training sessions should last about 10 to 30 minutes. Alignment with both head and body targets places the rhino in position for all kind of procedures like blood collection or rectal temperature readings. When the rhino successfully targets the target the next step is to encourage the rhino to remain stationary for a given period of time (using the command steady). Once these behaviours have been established the final step is to desensitise the rhino to medical equipment. Additional personnel who will be performing the procedure can be introduced to the training. Initially the collection area should be manipulated (e.g. touching and pinching or cleaning the colon of faeces). Any medical materials that will be used should be slowly introduced. These introductions should continue until the rhino shows no reaction to the equipment. The final stage prior to the actual procedure may include pressure from a blunt needle or insertion of a reproductive probe until the rhino shows no reaction (Fouraker and Wagener, 1996).
If at any point during the training there is regression, the trainer should revert to a point in the training where the rhino is comfortable and then slowly proceed again. This may add time to the total time needed for conditioning but the probability of the overall success is increased. Once the procedure is routine for the rhino the trainer should periodically lead the rhino in performing the desired behaviours if they are not otherwise performed regularly. In the absence of regular performance, this variable reinforcement will help prevent the behaviours from extinguishing (Fouraker and Wagener, 1996).