Teaching old bears new tricks

Training adult grizzly bears to give blood turned out to be much easier than Joy Erlenbach imagined.

Two people face an fence with a bear on the other side. The male is on his knees holding a plastic bottle in one hand. The woman touches a leg of the bear, which is sticking out of a hole in the fence.
WSU Bear Center manager Brandon Hutzenbiler (left) and graduate student Joy Erlenbach work on training one of the WSU bears for a blood draw. Hutzenbiler feeds the bears honey water and apples slices as a reward for obeying commands like ‘leg’.

The Washington State University graduate student trained the WSU Grizzly Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center’s two adult males to give blood in less than a month, along with Bear Center manager Brandon Hutzenbiler.

“It was surprisingly easy,” Erlenbach said. “These bears haven’t really been touched before by people, and they’ve been at the Center for over a decade. But they just got it right away. It was awesome.”

John and Frank, the two adult males, came to WSU from Yellowstone, so they’re not as comfortable around people as the bears that were bottle-raised at the Center.

The Center has 11 bears total, and the seven bottle-raised bears have long been trained for blood draws. But until now, the four bears from the wild had to be anesthetized for their regular blood work.

“Having them trained is so much less stressful on them,” Erlenbach said. “And these regular blood checks are important for us to monitor their health and make sure they’re getting the best care possible.”

The training is also mentally challenging for the bears, which is a major focus for the staff at the Bear Center. Their enrichment program is meant to keep the bears mentally engaged and working.

Training a grizzly to sit and ‘shake’

The bears all have unique personalities, and some of their behaviors are reminiscent of dogs. Erlenbach and Hutzenbiler, who have never trained animals before, got the idea to use techniques found in dog training videos they watched online. Bears are very food-motivated, so they used food and clickers as rewards.

First, they used food to teach the bears to sit on command at a certain spot at the fence. Then they wanted the bears to put their front paws up against the fence, almost like a bank robber’s ‘hands-up’ pose.

One of the ‘trainers’ would give a command, and reward each movement toward the goal with food. If they did a movement Erlenbach didn’t want, then no food.

Next, they used another command to get the bears to stick their foot out through a small removable gap in the fence. Each movement toward the hole with the foot was rewarded. The trainers also touched the presented foot of the bear gently with a stick.

“We said ‘leg’ and touched their foot with the stick as we said it,” Erlenbach said. “If they moved the foot, they got rewarded. If they moved it toward us, they got a bigger reward. After eight days, they were sticking their leg through the gap.”

Concerns and next steps

Since the wild bears didn’t grow up with human interaction, the novice trainers paid close attention to the bears’ body language to make sure they were comfortable. The trainers needed to gain the bears’ trust before touching their feet, for example.

Close up of a hairy bear leg and foot stick out of a hole in a fence.
A WSU bear sticks his leg out of the hole in the fence as part of the training.

“They were really calm,” Erlenbach said. “Once we got a foot through the hole, we introduced touch. We would pet their leg and the top of their foot, rewarding them the whole time they kept it there.”

After a few sessions getting used to that, they moved to the blood draw. They shaved a small patch of fur, cleaned the area, then took a blood sample. The bears didn’t even flinch.

“We just looked at each other stunned,” Erlenbach said. “Then we high-fived each other and started celebrating. That was so amazing to be a part of.”

Benefits for training

The WSU bears are research animals that are needed to study the biology bears for the benefit of their wild brethren. There are other bears in captivity around the world that could benefit from this training as well.

“I was talking to a zookeeper and mentioned this project, and they were amazed,” Erlenbach said. “I really think this could have huge benefits for bears in captivity.”

That’s because bears in zoos don’t get regular blood draws due to the difficulty and stress of regular anesthetizing. This training could allow zoos to do more regular blood draws, improving health care for the bears and increasing the potential research samples exponentially.

“Blood draws are super important for regular health checks,” Erlenbach said. “As much as we try to mimic the diet and environment in the wild, that’s impossible. So monitoring their blood work helps us make sure they’re staying healthy and receiving the best possible care.”

Next group of trainees

After training the two males, Erlenbach and Hutzenbiler are taking on a more difficult challenge: the two adult female bears from the wild, Cooke and Oakley.

“John and Frank are more laid back, personality-wise,” Erlenbach said. “They seem more trusting. The females are less sure about being touched by people, so we’re trying to desensitize them.”

One female becomes aggressive when given the command to raise her hands, for example. So they’re adapting their approach, kneeling down, making very slow movements, and using smaller motions that don’t trigger that charging instinct.

Future uses of training

Erlenbach can foresee other ways to use the training to help make the bears’ lives easier. Some of the bears have heart monitors that need to be downloaded. To do that currently, the bears must be anesthetized. Her goal is to train the bears to stick their chests against the fence at the right angle to allow for these data downloads to be done while the bear stands at the fence.

Anesthetizing could also become safer and less stressful. There are still procedures that will require anesthetization. Erlenbach hopes that they will be able to administer the medicine via the training, easing the bears’ stress.

“These bears are so smart, and are doing so much to help bears in the wild,” Erlenbach said. “And we want to do everything possible to make their lives better and less stressful. This training could be a huge breakthrough in helping do that.”