Should food be our main reinforcer?

I’m always wondering what’s going on in an animals mind when working with them. There is a curiosity in myself that makes me think about this although at the other hand looking at the complicated communication we are using between humans I’m wondering if we should know what an animal thinks exactly. We as humans like variation and we are not a big fan of complacency. If things become predictable we will get bored and we start to ask ourselfs questions like the life you are living , the job you have and what you want to do with your life etc.

I believe animals can get complacent as well what might be reflected through stereotypic behaviour or other problem behaviours. Humans are very good at being predictable because this gives us a certain safe foundation to stand on, but for motivation we actually need variety. If we would eat the exact same thing every single day then after a couple days if not the same day we will get bored of it and want something else. The outcome at the start will be different as the outcome at the end.

I believe in variability within the sessions we do with our animals. Outside of sessions we should do the same with enrichment programs. But does the variability really work? When working in the Netherlands we implemented an VRRV schedule ( and the animals responded very well to the changes of the reinforcement by showing more motivation for the sessions, we saw a definite increase in learning behavior. We are able to vary in many different ways within the training sessions we do with our animals, from different bridge moments to various toys/ food items, to giving them more space and so on. But there is one part I want to focus on here I mean we all know we can motivate animals by food reinforcers, although what if the animal is not hungry? Are we just not going to interact or train the animal at all?

What about if we look into what the animal exactly wants? There was a study done with horses to see their preferences of wearing a “jacket” when going outside. The animals could choose the jacket regarding the weather outside so they made their own decisions. Within our training sessions animals make a ton of decisions on their own. I think we as modern zookeepers have to open up our minds a bit more about what would be more reinforcing for the animals we work with.

The other day I was at the dolphinarium of Kolmårdens Djurpark. I had to retrain a spinbow with one of our dolphins. I trained a new history on this behaviour a while ago because back in the day they had captured this behaviour.  I asked 2 approximations and she did the criteria I was looking for again.My reinforcement was a jackpot (bucket of fish) but while giving the jackpot and ending the session right after I had the feeling that this wasn’t right. This was not the best reinforcement I could do for her. This animal loves playing in the water with a trainer and interacting in a very playfull way. This would’ve been a lot better then the bucket I provided.

Animals give us signals all the time what they enjoy, if this a rubdown, being with another individual or preforming their favourite behaviour. Of course we should know our species very well but we should look more into what the animal actually wants instead of thinking about, this is what they need to survive so they will see this as best and highest reinforcing value.If we find the more reinforcing techniques beside the food the variety is bigger and more affective what reflects to the motivation and the relationships we create with our animals.

There is a technique that is called the Premack Principle what is originally identified by David Premack in 1965. Photo: David Premack

Literature says that it means, “The principle that high-probability behavior reinforces low- probability behavior”. (IMATA Glossery, 2004) We can also explain it as, “more probable behaviors reinforce less probable behaviors” To make it very simple I’m going to give you a example: When we finish a behavior such as a spin around. This behavior will most likely have a high reinforcement value. When we start training a new behavior such as ultrasound we can use the high reinforcing behaviour such as the spin around as reinforcement for the ultrasound behaviour.

In other cases and proper observation we can discover what our animals want exactly and use this as reinforcers. When we observe an animal wanting to be with another individual we can ask a more challenging behaviour and reinforcing this behaviour by giving the other individual as reinforcement. This is another way of using the Premack Principle.

The Premack principle advanced and enriched the thinking about reinforcement in significant ways. With Premack principle any behavior could serve as a reinforcer provided that it is more likely than the previous performed. For higher levels of motivation to perform a particular behavior we can give a more desirable activity as a consequence. This will change the motivation of the animal completely especially if we are spot on with what the animal exactly wants in that particular moment.

Getting to know your animals is one thing… Understanding what they want is another.

Variability is the key and we can do this or with different types of food. Or we can step it up and start looking in what the animal desires at that moment. The balance of reinforcement mixed in there will give you animals that have more focus and want to learn with you.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”



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