One of the first behaviours I choose to train are Call overs and Recalls. I personally think it has so many great aspects to it just because it allows you to look at your animals from a closer range right away. On top of that you give every animal the chance to be trained what I think is very important. Through recalls you can start a great enrichment program as well. We will be talking about the emergency recalls, they are a little bit different than the usual Recalls or Call overs how I call them. With Emergency recalls you actually practise the most accurate scenarios that could happen in the animal’s environment. While Call overs you do not necessarily have to go through a full desensitisation plan for scenarios that could happen. The fun part is that we can connect any criteria to this behaviour, for example you can say come to me or come to a position, you can say males to the left and females to the right (what could help you with social feedings), it can even be part of your first group separation to close the first gates on your own. There are plenty of ways to train this behaviour, I listed a couple with my least favourite first and then the most favourite ones last.

1. The Keeper Mayhem 

We all know about the moment we have to catch an animal who lives in a group of 10 where we need 3 pick ups a tractor and 15 other keepers. Ok, maybe I over exaggerate but you know what I mean. Believe it or not we can teach our animals a recall this way. We make the outdoor enclosure less positive by adding machines and people the animals are afraid of. This is actually called positive punishment. When the animals go inside as reinforcement we remove the people and the machines what is negative reinforcement. When the animals start to respond quicker we start to move less. Slowly we add the signal and we have a safety signal. Timing is essential here. When we see the animals moving towards the designated position the machines we added should stop moving so the animals understand that “he when we go that way they stop pressuring us”. This is my least favourite but we have to consider this as an option now it has been done this way. I do not suggest this technique to be used.

2. Running the Wrong Direction

This might not necessarily be a strategy to train the actual recall but as first steps a very important one. I’ve been talking many times about flight animals and what could be more reinforcing for them etc. Well many animals believe it or not are actually flight animals. Most of the time we refer to antelopes but some carnivores prefer to flight as well. We have to get them to understand the connection between reinforcement and us. To get there we need to time our approximations very well. What works great is when the animal focusses on us we drop a piece of food in the exhibit, when the animal looks at us again we walk away. We now reinforced the animal to actually focus on us because believe it or not they observe as well. We then have to find the baseline how far we have to walk away for the animal to get to the reinforcement we dropped in the exhibit. When we discovered this, we take small steps to walk less far away to a point where we can add a signal and we have our first call over. This walking away is based on negative reinforcement. We go away what is reinforcing to the animal. I’ve used these strategies to get animals first to be comfortable with the trainer before using the next steps. Very effective.


3. Connecting the Dots

Ok, let’s say our animals are very comfortable around us just because they know through routines what we do. This is actually a big plus if this is the case because then the animals overcome their fears quicker when you have something what makes them more curious to come to us. At first, we start to plan reinforcement for the animals to be with us. Every time we reinforce we bring something new what we are sure of they enjoy. This could be anything, but don’t forget make sure if it’s a food source that its actually good for the animal. Reinforcement as we know could also be toys, rubdowns, more space, companions etc. When the animals discover the connection between reinforcement and us we start to introduce a signal. When the signal is set, we start to train them for an actual time criteria, what means when the signal is given they only have an x amount of time to be in control where the signal came from. When the animals are to late the chance of reinforcement will be gone. This does not mean we will not ask the behaviour again. When the animals are 90% correct in this particular time frame, you can start to challenge the animals by changing positions. The reason you want to do this is because you might have conditioned a position by accident instead of going coming where the signal is coming from. Every time the animals come, use your reinforcement schedule as response to them.


4. Our Best Friend Called “Routines”

We all know that we as modern zookeepers use a lot of routines in our daily work. I believe that routines are necessary to a certain extend but should be minimized as much as we can for the variety in a day we give to our animals. Being as unpredictable as possible gives a whole new view to animal behaviour, especially when they have their so called “free time”. Routines can help us in training a recall. This way of training such an emergency recall is actually the easiest way. A note is that you do not want to stay to long on one approximation because of potential occurring superstitious behaviour.

Many times, there are moments when you have to call the animals in or out of the exhibit for public display. These moments mostly happen at the same time of the day, set as a routine. The first step we are going to take is making the reason stronger for the animals to come in. This reflects to the time it takes after we ask the “old” signal. When we decided a particular time for the animals to respond to the signal, we start to tighten the criteria. We can do this with motivation strategies and with the Window of Opportunity. When the criteria is set we add the actual emergency signal. I want to point out that it’s important to change the reinforcement you give inside. This variation could be what they get, the amount they get and where they get it for example. Staying at one reinforcer might bring down your criteria due to the fact that the animals start to know what they will receive. If the animal has something better outside it might not go inside anymore.


When all of this is in place we are going to change the times of the day. Because we asked the routine and made it stronger we will ask this behaviour now 15 minutes after you normally do it. The animals will already be waiting for you and thus they will be successful. From here we start asking the recall multiple times. At the routine time and then 30 minutes later again. Now the challenge is to ask them 30 minutes earlier instead. When they get this you can change the times slowly over the whole day. The next steps could be taken into consideration and that is to make the signal mean go inside instead of come to you. We will use the gate system as training signal. When the recall signal is given the gates will open right after. We will ask the recall signal next to the indoor enclosure this time and so on till they always go inside on the signal whatever they are doing. I personally like to have the gate signal as second option. With emergencies you never know and always have to have a B plan as well.

The best part is coming when all of the previous steps are is established. It’s training them for situations and scenarios. Many times in the Zoo world I hear “well if they are full of food they won’t respond to the signal anymore” this comment is actually not true. When the variation inside is high enough the animal’s curiosity will overcome what they have at that moment. There for they will keep going. When we become too predictable then yes… they might not go. There for I want you guys to step away from using their favourite reinforcement at all times. It should be “maybe it’s my favourite food” and that’s why they are so curious to leave everything and keep on going inside. Our Bush dogs are responding so well now that we can calling them away from a food source.


Training situations and scenarios is part of the desensitization plan. Think about the potential scenarios that could occur and slowly train to these challenges. With small steps you challenge the animals to respond to the signal while distracting them. Tiny steps should be taken but differently all the time. The concept is whatever you are doing go inside.


This is a great example of how the recall can work for many different species. Copenhagen Zoo trained this behaviour with their rabbits.

See also: Whatever You Are Doing Come to a Set Position

Good luck everybody!!

Questions? Don’t hesitate to contact us.

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”



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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