What is shaping? 

Shaping is a form of conditioning using successive approximations. It is the main method used by marine mammal trainers to teach the animals how to do anything from a flip in a show to presenting their flukes for a blood draw.

Basically, shaping is when the trainer rewards small baby steps that lead up to a big behavior. In the above gifs Kohana, a young female orca, learns to perform a hula with a trainer (This is not a currently practiced behavior. This footage was taken in Seaworld orlando prior to waterwork being banned). In the first gif, Kohana is given the signal to perform a normal hula (spin) which she likely learned from copying her mother (on her left). Upon her completion of the spin, the trainer blows a whistle telling her she did the right thing. It’s clear that Kohana has the normal hula down, so the trainer takes it to the next level, she enters the water and another trainer on stage asks for a hula again. Kohana completes the behavior perfectly with the trainer in the water and the whistle is blown. Now, in the third gif, the trainer takes a hold of Kohana’s pectoral flippers and both the trainer on stage and the trainer in the water signal for a hula. At first Kohana appears not to understand, but then she moves as if to start rotating and the trainer gives her what looks like a slap. This is a tactile bridge that does the exact same thing as a whistle. In the fourth gif, you can see Kohana is heavily rewarded with tactile reinforcement for simply having started to rotate with a trainer holding her pecs. By the fith gif, Kohana is on her way to completing the behavior, though her movements are choppy, she gets the idea of what she is supposed to do. She is bridged and, as you can see in the sixth gif, she is heavily rewarded for her progress. 

Note, no form of punishment was used in this training session. In reputable facilities, no form of punishment is ever used. All training sessions are based entirely upon rewarding the animal for desired behaviors. In the full length video you can see Kohana was only rewarded a couple handfuls of fish in all. This is not a meal for a whale but more like a treat. Kohana would have been fed whether or not she participated in that training session and it is very likely she knew that. From previous experience, she probably also knew that she wasn’t going to be fed anything substantial. Shaping, and all other forms of training sessions, are meant to be fun experiences for the animals. They are meant to enjoy the social interactions with their trainers, the mental/ physical stimulation and the multitude of challenges each session presents. Judging by the animal’s willing participation when they know food will rarely be involved, it is logical to assume they do indeed find pleasure in it. 

For more on shaping [x]

For another example of shaping (skip to 1:04) [x]

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