Negative Reinforcement; A Go or a No Go?

I grew in a household together with my brother. We are actually only 1,5 year difference. We lived in a village where we could play outside. It was that time when you jumped in mudpools etc. Best time of our lives. But.. you probably know how it goes when 2 brothers grow up. Yes we fought quite often but surprisingly that completely changed around the age of 12-13. We started to develop similar interest what helped our relationship what has been an amazing journey after.. While that problem was solved I was dealing with something completely personal. I had this insane fear of needles. I don’t know exactly why but the reason might have been because the doctor didn’t give us stickers or candy back then.

This actually went to a point where I didn’t want to go to a doctor anymore. I was frightened about needles. For me not going was the highest reinforcement I could potentially provide myself. Over the years I started to discover that sometimes for my own health it is necessary to get samples or help with potential higher levels of pain. But o my was I happy when that needle left again. Happy when that needle was gone so my body would be a bit more relax for what would come after.

If we take this in perspective, I would connect this bad experience with the doctor. What means I wouldn’t go to him anymore what would reinforce me very much. When I really had to I pulled myself together to go there and was happier when the needle left me. What would be negative reinforcement by the doctor towards me. I hope sticking that needle was not positive reinforcement for him. Plenty of us would be afraid otherwise.

Lets look at this with working with animals. There are many ways we can reinforce our animals and a lot of us use the word positive reinforcement in a way that they believe that they are 100% positive reinforcement trainers. My question is, is this actually possible? Over the time I’ve seen many trainers and many different training strategies. One better as the other but greatly enough they would reach the same goals on a pretty high pace. I see myself as an operant conditioning trainer and now you might think right away “aren’t we all?” Yes we are but within Operant Conditioning I try to put my focus on “Catch them doing it right” what means whenever I see a desirable behaviour in my training session I want to let the animal know that they are on the right track or that they reached the goal. What means that I try my hardest to ignore all the behaviours that I consider incorrect or undesirable. There are scenarios where you just can’t find the moments the animal is good and this is where you want to pull them out of the scenario. We can do this by redirection.

Now this blog focusses on negative reinforcement I won’t go further into the other strategies used that fall under Operant Conditioning. For negative reinforcement something aversive has to happen to be able to make it a negative reinforcer. In my case the needle or if my behaviour pulled through to the doctor we should take the doctor away. Well lets go back to our animals. We can be the ones that are adding aversive stimuli in our sessions such as things the animals are afraid of due to negative experiences. When animals decide to stay focussed with the trainer while the aversive stimuli will come I can take this away as reinforce for the animal to stay focusses instead. What happens often in Medical behaviours such as blood sampling where the needle could be very uncomfortable or even hurt.

But what about the aversive stimuli where we weren’t attached directly to an aversive event? Let me give you an example. We have quite some social animals in our zoo such as Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Lions, Camels, Kulans, Meerkats, Dolphins, Fur Seals and so on. Within social families and structures fights will happen. Some animals will challenge the dominant leader of the group or some animals will get to close to a mother with their offspring. Some animals will fight for the moment they are able to eat and some will fight for the best sleeping places. Those moments are temporary and won’t happen all the time. As trainers we do try to manage those social groups as good as we can.

Fighting happens but shouldn’t be to much, especially if this could reflect to the health of the animals. So lets say that these aversive events come from animal to animal. Of course we can say we put them in that situation to begin with and I fully agree. But do the animals think the same in this scenario? I’m not sure about that and would we ever know? What I do know is that if there are multiple fights in a group of animals with the same 2 individuals we can actually make them work together. When we are successful we can reinforce the submissive animal by taking away the dominant animal who started the fight. Who would be the dominant and who would be the submissive? Observation will tell us. For the submissive animal this will be negative reinforcement and helps the trust of the trainer and working together with the others what helps the social structure in the group.

At one point I wrote a blog about how we made our gibbons more comfortable with us. We used negative reinforcement to make them trust us more and that reflected to more comfortable animals. We are now to the point that they accept positive reinforcement. They were flight animals because their history said that humans did this to them. There are animals who are flight animals by nature (antelope species) where we actually don’t even have to use punishment because they would run away on their own due to their instinctual behaviour. That means that when we would leave they would feel more comfortable what makes us negative reinforcement.

My question to you: Is Negative Reinforcement that bad to use if you look at it from another angle? Are we the factor what makes Negative Reinforcement having a positive effect on the animals?

When I use this strategy I mostly use this with combination of Pre-mack principles, and positive reinforcement to reach higher grounds in my goals. Its about the difference we make for the animal what counts.

Relationship building starts with how you see their world.


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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