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Effects of Positive Reinforcement Training on Improving Giant Panda Care

There is a great deal of interest in applying positive reinforcement training to improving the care and management of captive animals. It is being used to gain the voluntary cooperation of animals in a huge array of husbandry, medical and research procedures, as well as to enrich their environment and improve social relationships. We need to use these techniques to train animals, and we need to document the training process. This study evaluated the process of training pandas to move on cue to objectively evaluate the use of positive reinforcement training with giant pandas.

Subjects were the two giant pandas on loan to Zoo Atlanta. General steps for training were: establishing the conditioned reinforcer, establishing the animal’s name as a discriminative stimulus, establishing the “shift” command and moving within one room, moving through one open door, moving through more than one open door, moving through doors that were opened only after the command was given, generalizing to doors to the outside, establishing the “come” command, and moving through outside doors between exhibits.

We conducted more than 100 sessions for each of the pandas, and they contained well over 1000 trials or requests to shift, with an average of 10 requests per session. Each panda was usually trained in three or four sessions per week, and they averaged 11-13 minutes long. We spent an average of 46 minutes per panda per week on training this behavior. We collected baseline data on shifting prior to any training, during both “routine” shifting times (i.e., shifting on exhibit in the morning or off exhibit in the late afternoon) and during “non-routine” shifting times. Then we compared compliance under these conditions to compliance during the final 15 sessions of shift training for each animal. Baseline compliance and maintenance compliance are fairly comparable during routine shifting times, with all performance falling between 80% and 92%. But compliance changed dramatically during the non-routine shifting requests, increasing from 22% or 23% to 89% for each panda.

Once training was established it was unusual for the pandas to be unresponsive. We found that when they did not comply with the first shift command (about 10% of the time) they almost always responded to a second command given 30 seconds or a minute later. The percentage of compliance (as defined by presentation of the conditioned reinforcer divided by the number of trials for each session) improved for both animals over the course of training. Compliance increased over sessions, while reinforcer density decreased indicating that an intermittent reinforcement schedule was associated with improving performance.

Our findings indicate that training can be effective in improving the movement of captive giant pandas, as has been shown for other animals. Positive reinforcement training techniques successfully increased the pandas’ compliance with requests to move, throughout the day. This improved compliance can be important for a variety of procedures. It allows panda keepers to access animal enclosures for maintenance, to move animals to portions of the enclosure that are air conditioned as outdoor areas become too warm, and it facilitates stocking enrichment devices in the pandas’ enclosures. The training also allows close veterinary inspection of a panda when needed, and moving pandas into areas for research testing. Even though there was a substantial investment of time in the training initially, the amount of personnel time now needed to accomplish daily husbandry routines has been substantially reduced.

Training the pandas may also benefit the pandas themselves. Training may improve relationships between animals and the people who care for them, it gives the animals a choice and choice is an important factor in promoting animal well-being. Positive reinforcement training gives the pandas an opportunity to work for food, and to experience the stimulation of learning.

Based on the positive findings of this study, Zoo Atlanta staff members conducting behavioral research at the Chengdu giant panda facilities have initiated a training program in partnership with Chengdu staff to assist with husbandry procedures.