In 2005 I started to work at Ouwehands Zoo in the Netherlands. I worked under a great supervisor who taught me a lot over the years to come. One of his key points I never forget is to train animals to be used for anything and everything. He explained me that you should overdo it all the time. I was wondering what he meant by this and asked further. He said to me you know when I throw a brush all over the place, when would that happen? With another surprised look I answered, Never? He said a brush could just fall on the ground and if the animals are ok with the throwing they will for sure be oke with it just falling. He had a point but I got to wonder if this really works this way. While working In Ouwehands Zoo he showed me this technique many times. From then on I took this idea everywhere over the course of my career.

Desensitization: The process of using time or experience to change an animal’s perception of a stimulus from a value, either reinforcing or punishing, to neutral or no value. If reinforcement is not used, this is referred to as passive desensitization (or habituation) while active desensitization utilizes primary reinforcement and is also referred to as counter conditioning.

All of us are getting very good at training animals for a various amount of medical behaviors such as eye checks, blood samples, radiographies etc. We train so many different and cool challenging behaviours. All of these behaviours have something in common, they need 2 important approximations. 1 is duration, 1 is desensitization, both as important and challenging for the trainer. Lets talk about desensitization challenge.

Lets pick an animals, lets say we train an antelope. Lets say this animal does not have any previous training history. The first behaviour we need is teaching the animal that we are “good” the trainer is reinforcing for you. Believe it or not desensitization started already. With Classical Conditioning we make us being the reinforcing subject. From there we can go too other objects we need such as targets, other environments or other animals. All of them have one thing in common and that is “Getting the animal used to objects”.

At Kolmårdens Djurpark they trained their Giraffe to do a radiography of its jaw. The team started with a target followed with the duration on the target, we discovered that its easier for the animal too position his nose under the target instead of straight against it or on top of it. After this we wanted a calm animal on the target to be able to get into the duration. The duration is important for the veterinarian to be able to make a proper photo. When the duration on the target is set we put a proper signal to the target on a distance what makes the animal understand the target better, this makes the target stronger. After this approximation we add a platform where we want to have the animal to lay his head on. A new object is introduced quickly because we trained the target strong enough the animal overcomes the new object pretty fast. Here as well we build a strong history on the platform and on the target together with the duration. When these steps are established we add the objects for the radiography step by step. We add people and the clothes used at such a procedure. As you can see the target and duration will stay the same, what changes is the environment and there for we use a lot of desensitization to make this work. Without desensitization we couldn’t do it. Here is a video about the outcome.

I found a video from Adele Shaw training her horse to get used to a saddle patch. The horse should stay in control while the patch does the work. What means that control is the same and the environment changes. She teaches the horse to be calm whatever happens with the patch in her environment. It could be that the animal was afraid of this at first. There for desensitization is also known as counter conditioning. It’s an important part in every training session. Great video by Adele Shaw

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Having animals in presentations in one of the ways Zoo’s educate the audience about the animals, wildlife, and nature etc. To have animals in such presentations they need to be trained for many different scenarios that could happen during such presentations. As the people know who are doing presentations you can’t control people and the situation completely. What we can do is train our animals to stay calm in any situation that could happen. That’s what is important in presentations. The basic step of being calm even though the environment is challenging helps the animal to be trained for further behaviors in such places. One way of doing it is this way… (Yes that is me dancing around!)

Over doing it helps the animal being more comfortable on the long run and in many different situations. Slow steps make’s your animal confident in what you want the animal to do. If we would change the idea of objects, sounds, and the environment all the time the animal will start to understand “where ever I am I just need to be calm with the trainer” if you reach this goal you won a lot of trust in your animal. A relationship helps you drastically in training medical behaviors such as blood samples, injections, mouth swaps etc. Just because the only challenge you have next is duration what is another topic.

Trainers have to know the animal well enough to discover what the animal’s thinks is challenging. All animals are different and this should be looked at closely when training  for counter conditioning with your animal. In my experiences I find desensitization as a concept a great tool to help the animal understanding that everything is fine in any situation.

You get a lot out of it at the end and a lot comes back from the animal.

Now we train animals for more and more medical behaviors, think about what to condition them to and your training is going a lot smoother afterwards.

Have fun Training!

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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