Comparative cognition, as an interdisciplinary field, should utilize a holistic approach for studying cognitive mechanisms. We suggest that research with species of interest should employ both work with animals under human care and in the field. This complimentary approach allows for a better understanding of functional cognitive mechanisms themselves (i.e., comparative cognition regarding processes), and how these skill sets can relate to a particular species’ ecological niche. We suggest that research evidence for equivalence classification, learning by exclusion, and long-term memory in pinnipeds can provide a foundation for discussion and implementation of a two-pronged methodological approach utilizing ‘lab’ and field’ work. First, we describe evidence from research with pinnipeds under human care supporting each of these cognitive abilities, then follow this with evidence for implications of these mechanisms from complimentary field research. Lastly, we provide a brief discussion of implementation of a purposeful and two-pronged research approach as an understanding of pinnipeds’ high levels of cognitive flexibility may underlie their success for navigating the ever-changing, and often human-altered, natural environment.