When Aggression Becomes a Problem…

Animals come in many shapes and sizes. From big African Elephants to the beautiful red squirrels who roam in the forest of Europe. Every animal has its stress levels and so do we humans now we are considered mammals. Stress comes in many various ways but when we talk about stress we most of the time talk about the negativity of it. There are many species in our Zoos who show us many different natural specie specific behaviours. One of the tasks of the zookeeper is to acknowledge the natural specie behaviours with the animals he or she works with. Some animals are flight animals, some are more social and need to live in big groups. Each individual specie has natural behaviours. Depending on the acknowledgement of these behaviours we could filter out stress behaviour.

If we look at these natural behaviours and think about animal training a lot of thoughts come through our minds when we start. I mean we train a flight animal different as we would train an animal who is hand raised. Every animal has his or her strategy with ways they learn best we just have to acknowledge those ways. As mentioned in the blog HERE about animals who are afraid of us training these animals has a whole different strategy. Observation is an important matter when we talk about what kind of species we will be training. I mean with fear full animals our reinforcement is very different as what you think it would be. Talking about aggression gives the same thought, I mean we need to know when the animal is aggressive, to whom and why the animal could be aggressive. Its all about observation and to be honest I think that we can solve a lot of problems with proper observation (See this Blog).

With animals who are most likely afraid of us the biggest reinforcement is probably to leave because we form this stress to them at that moment and this stress might decrease by leaving what will be reinforcing for the animals. They should trust us and not feel pressured. This works the same way with aggression but not. Let me explain this… When an animal feels cornered they have 2 choices or the give up or their natural instinct kicks in with “fighting till the end” what reflects as aggression towards us. At this point they want us to leave as well. Another situation is for example our Takins we have 3 of them, 2 females and 1 male. The females behave very well in their training sessions but the male just wants to attack us. Im always wondering why it is like that… I mean when we end a session on a good note he would just chase us first by smashing the fens behind us with his horns. I guess he doesn’t want us to be there, so for him that we walk away will be extra reinforcing especially when he attacks us in his way. Now when animals are afraid of us its a useful reinforcement to build up the trust with the animals. Walking away because the animal aggresses us like the Takin might increase the problem behaviour. Thats the big difference between these to type of animals.

Photo Credit: Takin – Simon Jonsson

I do not want to say that with aggression of animals to trainers they just want you to go away because there are cases that I experienced where it is not the case at all. Once when working in Canada with the dolphins, I was swimming with one of them when I wanted to leave the water I got blocked by the dolphin and pushed back in the pool before I could go out. She started to push me under water and away from the stage. I guess in this case she just wanted me to be with her and not going away. This happened at the end of my session. Probably because I was to predictable. There are some more different cases when aggression occurs and the outcome could be different… here in Kolmårdens Zoo I try to teach the keepers that the bridge doesn’t mean more then good job. To explain this a bit deeper, A bridge is a secondary or conditioned reinforcer what means that it has been conditioned to the animal to like it by paring it with primary or strong secondary reinforcers. A bridge only tells the animal that they did a good job, it should not mean more then this. When we become to predictable or to comfortable with food reinforcers we will also shape the bridge into a meaning of “food is coming”. Now when we come to this point we are training the animal a FR1 schedule. An FR1 schedule means a fixed ratio 1 schedule, this comes down to when I ask a behaviour to the animal and the animal reach the criteria I asked for, I will bridge, and I reinforce with a food item. What will happen now is that the animal starts to predict what it will get from the trainer. What is in some cases ok but that’s another discussion. In this case the animal is receiving something all the time in a form of a food reinforcer. Now when the animal gets reinforced by a food reinforce for 10 times in a row and the 11th time the animal will get nothing the behaviour excels right away into frustration what leads to aggression. Now this aggression is most likely not the one where the animal wants you to leave, the animal wants to have his reinforcer and because of your predictability the animal became aggressive.

Aggressiveness comes from different standpoints from out the animals. One golden rule with working killer whales was “do not touch the submissive animal if the animal was just aggressed”. The reason for this rule is that when animals are in a position to fight, their adrenaline rushes up what in this case reflects to frustration, some animals decide not to fight back because they are the lowest in rank. Now the animal has an Adrenaline level of high frustration and has to push this out towards somebody or someone. You might be next and there for a golden rule is set for your own safety. This was being said with the killer whales but it might as well work with the rest of the animal kingdom, wouldn’t it? Humans do the exact same thing… When we had a bad day or our boss got mad at us and we can’t do anything back it will be likely that we “squawk” to one of our co-workers, family or in some cases our own pets or kids at home. Even though they didn’t do anything wrong towards you.

We have to observe what is going on when we work our animals or even when we don’t. To come back to our Takins, when we are training a recall we start having the problem that the male just wants it all. What means that he becomes food possessed and therefor chases the other 2 Takins away because he wants it all. Another form of aggression but here the animal just wants the others to leave so the dominant animal has all the food. 9 out of 10 times this works unfortunately.

Photo Credit: Elan Antelope vs Watussi Cattle – William Walldén

We as trainers have to look where the potential aggressive outbursts come from and why they show this behaviour to be able solve it. We might need to work on our relationships with the animals, we might need to work on the trust we want to give the animals or we might need to use co-operative feeding to help the animals work together or be together.

Finding the reasons animals are aggressive is the first step of looking at a solution. I want to point out that aggression in our eyes is always a bad thing and thus undesirable but for some this is natural behaviour and I want you to think about this for a second… Training away natural behaviour might be a challenge and sometimes not the best option. Look at it this way there is always a motivation of animals doing what they do, if this is mating, aggression, displacement or excessive sleeping, there is always a motivation behaviour happens how it happens. We just have to shape the animals choices towards higher motivational values so the other behaviours are less likely to occur… in this case Aggression!


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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