We make many choices throughout our lives. Some are simple, while others are more complex.  Everyday we make thousands of choices, what to eat, where to go, who we want to spend time with and some choices not only effect our days or weeks they can even affect our entire lives.

Are these conscious choices the same for animals or are they simply at the mercy of their instinct?   We certainly can’t just ask our animals what motivated them to make a particular choice, as wonderful as that would be. The only way we can discover this is to measure their behaviour through observatio

An animal makes the choice to play with one novel toy over another. This decision is not through human reinforcement, but because the animal made a conscious choice on his or her own accord.

What is consciousness? Simply put Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness or of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. There are many discussions about if animals are conscious of their own actions or decisions. We know that apes, elephants, dolphins and particular birds have the ability of cognitive learning.

Reflective Consciousness – “the recognition by the thinking subject of his own acts or affections” Book Source: Animal Minds – Donald R. Griffin

Imagine you are in a room and all doors are closed and locked. This will make you feel differently than being in a room with unlocked doors, that you may choose to open any time you wish. Taking this abstract idea and applying it to how we train and reinforce animals by allowing them more conscious choices, may help us better understand the decision-making process of the animal mind.

It’s difficult to not anthropomorphise animals, but sometimes it can be a tool in the process of thinking outside the box. This enables us to come to new conclusions about how we perceive each other.  Anthropomorphism, when used very loosely, could create new reinforcements for animals. Therefore, increasing their overall welfare by allowing them more choices.

I believe that it is very important to spend a lot of time playing with the animals and allow them to make choices about what they’d prefer to play with. This way you have a better understanding of how you could build a strong relationship with the animals you work with. 

At the pinniped department at Kolmården Wildlife Park they have the privilege of warm water, which all the animals enjoy. We have five South African fur seals and as most of us know from observation, they groom themselves very often. During play sessions, one trainer has flowing warm water and another one has a horse brush. The seal then makes the choice on his or her own.  It’s fun and rewarding to watch the fur seals run back and forth from the water to the brushes, choosing which they prefer, then switching off.

After a training session with the fur seals ends, they open the gates so they can go outside. Once again, the fur seals choose to run outside, then return, perhaps going back and forth a few more times.  It’s up to them, which exercises their judgment and decision-making, further strengthening their cognitive well being.

Another fun story is when four tigers came to Kolmården in 2018. The tigers were a challenge from the beginning. They had yet to be introduced to each other, but the trainers have done an incredible job at mixing the tigers successfully. When we finally had them all together the first things we trained them, was to choose us over each other. The reason we trained this behaviour was in the outdoor exhibit the distance that is between us and the animals is large. This allows the animals to quickly challenge each other for reinforcement. Therefore, we taught them ‘if you look at us instead of fighting, you will get yours as well’. This way we gave the animal a choice to choose the easier outcome. The question now becomes are the tigers making a choice consciously? What do you think?

It is interesting when other facilities think outside the box regarding the conscious choices of their animals. Sometimes there is a particular animal who is attached to the trainers more than others. Even outside of training sessions, some animals will still be more attached to humans than others. For this type of animal, we’ll offer training sessions until we see that they’ve made their own choice to end the session. It’s somewhat strange to see, but it’s amazing to watch animals that choose all on their own. As trainers, if we are observant enough, we are able to understand them better. Their desire to choose helps us understand them on a new level and train them to a point where food reinforcement might not be that important anymore.

The animal’s ability to choose may lead us to understand a whole new primary reinforcement in itself. Survival instincts and conscious choices are different. There are discussions that conscious choices makes the animal have more control over his own environment and therefore, it’s considered a primary reinforcer. If we go deeper, without anthropomorphism, and think like the animal does, the path may lead us to a new level of understanding.


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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