Shaping Motivation with Schedules

Motivation is one of the main topics I’m very interesting in. I look at people on the streets and wonder what people think. What is there motivation the way they live their life? I had this great talk with a friend of mine while doing a self organised deer safari. I live in Sweden for a while now and I’m very
intrigued by its nature and the animals that are living in Sweden’s forests. Sweden has an amazing variety of wildlife and both my friend and me just love the wildlife. So we decided to go on another Deer Safari, we call it Deer Safari but at the end we are just happy to see all different kind of animals. After taking of with the 3 of us from a village where one of us lives with 5 minutes in and we see our first animal, this huge eagle in the tree tops just outside this village we came from. We stopped and looked at the bird for a while. The bird was still pretty far away there for we tried with our phones to see if we could zoom in. Didn’t really work, I decided to climb the fence and get closer to this magnificent creature to a point where it flew away. It was so huge and so beautiful that it made us excited for the next 2 hours of our safari. We drove for quite a while and we passed some fields with some incredibly beautiful deers. In Sweden we have Roe Deers, Fallow Deers and Red Deers. They were very far away but fun to watch. At one point we didn’t really see anything anymore and we couldn’t come as close as 500 m when we did see something. It became boring after a while, especially when you do not get rewarded for you safari trip. As great of a philosopher, friend, manager, animal trainer my friend is she said you know what this is exactly why this is so exciting! I looked at her with question marks in my eyes and she looks back at me and says its just like a casino, we do not know when we get to see animals or a get a jackpot by seeing ravens or a big European Moose. I thought hmm wait a second you are right that’s what makes this trip exciting. On top of that this should make you more alert for the smallest things that could come. Further down our safari trip we saw all of a sudden 2 beautiful small roedeers along the road. We stopped and just looked at them and so did they till they left back into the fields. A little further we came across a small hill with 4 big Deers standing there looking at us with these huge antlers. I was wondering what they would think. There was this nice hill next to the field where the deers were grazing. I decided to walk around and look what was behind the hill. The animals run away for just 10 meters till they came to a stand still and looked back. I climbed the hill, with a big surprise they were still there grazing. 4 beautiful animals with big antlers eating and starring at me for enough time to make some photos. What an experience. Who knew this was going to happen?

Such reinforcement we got in our deer safari is also known as a schedule of reinforcement. We do not know when we will get rewarded for going on a deer safari and what we will get as reinforcement. Our motivation stays high up because of variable reinforcement we get from it. As mentioned in earlier blogs there is more then what motivation is. We deal with intrinsic motivation what comes from our self directed thoughts where we feel a particular satisfaction for our own good. We also deal with extrinsic motivators what means that we add a reinforcement to a particular accomplishment what ever this reinforcement will be. Schedules of reinforcement fall more into the extrinsic part of the motivational factors. We add things in the environment of the animal that the animal experiences as rewarding. Although with enough practise we could increase the intrinsic motivation of animals as well.

Photo: Kolmårdens Zoo – Various food Reinforcers

Reinforcement schedules is not something new. Its used in the marine mammal world for a very long time what actually is based on Operant Conditioning by B.F. Skinner. B.F. Skinner had this beautiful quote back in the 50s where he said: “The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important then the amount”. Focussing on how you give the reinforcement you will see a big difference in the animals when they just do not know what they will receive as reinforcer after a correct behaviour. At least the science says so. Does this work as well with terrestrial animals, you might ask yourself or any other type of animal? I need to tell you that YES OF COURSE IT DOES! Its only a little harder to find ways to do this when the animals eat all they long in the cases of most terrestrial animals. As Steve Jobs always mentioned “think simple”.

Now looking into what a terrestrial animal eats and what fits in the Zoos nutrition plans we can vary our reinforcement pretty much already. For our Giraffes we use, Willow, Leaves of various types of Salads, Pellets, Carrots and Cauliflower leafs. Just with these primary reinforcers we can be extremely variable already. With a various reinforcement schedule we can have a higher motivation level now the animals do not know what they will receive. Eventually you want to add more secondary reinforcements (Conditioned reinforcers) so the schedule becomes even more variable. Look at the Lions in San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Safari Park – Back Scratcher


I really enjoy to have fun with the VRRV schedule. I do think that this is the biggest variation we can give to the animals. I’ve tried to practise this technique over the last years of training animals with a variety of species. With making record systems to keep up with the variety to be as variable as possible to count out how many behaviours I was asking. Trying to let the animal show me what reinforcement it likes most at that moment gave me a whole new perspective to animal training as well. It’s great to experience the options. Lets go back to basic quick because what does a VRRV exactly mean?

VRRV: Varable Ratio

Variable Ratio is nothing more then reinforcing after an X amount of correct behaviours asked by the trainer. Now im not talking about a bridge as a reinforcer in this schedule although we do use a bridge to let the animal know good job and this is considered a secondary reinforcer but it will not be followed by further reinforcement. How it works is that the animal will get rewarded after 2 correct behaviours, then after 5, then after 1 and so on. We have to count the amount of behaviour we ask to not fall in a pattern. I want to point out that we have to condition our animals to accept doing an X amount of behaviours first before receiving a good reinforcer. Most of the time when the animal is not conditioned to do an X amount of behaviours before receiving a reinforcement frustration could come in. It is important to condition your animal to this technique at first. This technique is called a Variable Ratio schedule.


VRRV: Reinforcement Variety

This is one of the fun parts. We can be very creative here. What we have to think of is that we have to make sure we do not fall into patterns. If you become very good at it you do not give any precursors to the animals with your body language. Its one big game. If implemented correctly you will see a Increase in learning, an Increase in Relationships and an Increase in correct behaviours. The animals will even lift up the criteria on their own due to the variation we give as afterwards when a behaviour is done correctly.



When you put VR and RV together you will have Variable Ratio of Reinforcement Variety. What gives the animals the maximum amount of variation in the reinforcement and behaviour ratio. Your criteria is going to rise drastically and the focus will be better as before. When you start to lose the attention of the animal you might want to ask yourself am I really doing a VRRV schedule? Or am I to Predictable in my schedule? VRRV is nothing more then Pro-active Behaviour Management. The animals learn with you, They become less afraid of scenarios now they value out what they could receive for it, The relationship with you pumps up to another level and the fun you will have on the work floor will be outstanding.

Another schedule whats been used very often is a Fixed Ratio schedule. This schedule gives the animal reinforcement after a same amount of behaviours are preformed correctly. This is used in many different scenarios. Easiest to recognize is in research training sessions. A Fixed Ratio Schedule is not a chained behaviour. The behaviours asked in a Fixed Ratio Schedule are different all the time.

VRRV is an amazing tool to have in your toolbox and will 100% help you to step out of your comfort zone when training your animals. A funny practical tip is believe it or not you do not have to feed your animals all the time. The motivation is not going backwards when you don’t. I even believe that with  not reinforcing a behaviour will increase the motivation of the animal now that also came as a surprise. Of course if you become predictable with this you will fall into behavioural problems. VRRV only works when you are unpredictable in everything you do. Try instead of planning your training sessions with the steps you are going to make what reinforcement you are going to give!



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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