Ask a Zookeeper: That Dancing Walrus

As many of you know, I am the Zookeeper-in-Residence on website where "you can ask people anything about their jobs and answer questions about yours. It’s as though [they] took the classic 'What do you do?' cocktail party question and turned it into a website…minus the awkward small-talk."

I have been having a great time hosting my Zookeeper Q&A so far, and I have decided to reprint one of my favorite Jobstr questions on my blog every Tuesday. (Do you have your very own "Ask a Zookeeper" question for me? Ask it HERE!)

To kick things off, I will start with one of my very first questions:

Q: Have you ever seen this clip? Can you explain just how they train an animal to do that? Obviously they give him treats, but how do you even begin to teach a walrus how to step forward and back to a beat? -coryschneider

A: I love this question, and thanks for the link, Cory. I actually hadn't seen that video before, and it is fabulous.

Complicated behaviors like the ones shown in this clip often take months--if not years--to perfect. What you are seeing is the result of many, many hours of hard work and dedication, both on the part of the trainer and on the part of the walrus.

In order for a trainer to teach an animal something that complicated, the behavior must be broken down into many tiny steps. In the case of the tango, the steps would be something like 1) right flipper forward, 2) left flipper forward, 3) right flipper forward again, 4) left flipper forward again, 5) right flipper back, 6) left flipper back, 7) bow to the crowd, etc.

When the trainer first begins training, he approaches each behavior individually. For example, if he wants to train "right flipper forward," he will reward the walrus with positive reinforcement (treats, rubs, etc.) every time he successfully moves his right flipper forward.

This is done much like the "hot/cold" game we played as kids. The moment the walrus moves his flipper forward--even if it's on accident--the trainer will blow a whistle to signal success and then will quickly give the walrus his reward. Eventually, the walrus will make the connection, and he will happily move his flipper forward whenever directed--usually through a verbal command or a hand signal.

Once the walrus has this behavior mastered, the trainer will move on to the next command: "left flipper forward." Eventually, the trainer will string these two behaviors together, and the walrus will realize he only gets his reward when he completes both behaviors in sequence.

The trainer will teach this over and over and over until the walrus can perform this entire sequence on command. Once this is perfected, the walrus and his trainer can perform the illusion of a spontaneous musical number to the beat of a song, even though the walrus isn't actually paying attention to the song at all. He is watching his trainer, and he is waiting for the subtle commands that will undoubtedly lead to his reward at the end of the number. (Notice the attention and that juicy fish he got right before they walked off-stage!)