In 2008 I started with my travel addiction. Seeing other places is just wonderful. I’m fortunate that I know quite some friends who share the same passion I have in the field and that actually allowed me to visit many different Zoos and Aquariums over the years. Throughout that time, I was able to shadow most of the trainers at these facilities what helped me to become the person I am today. I always brought questions with me what I wanted to know or wanted to see. One of the discussions that popped up at one of the facilities I was had to do with capturing behaviours.


Should you capture a behaviour? Or is it better to shape the behaviour?


Once, I had trow a lot of toys in the pool of one of our sea lions. What I thought was nice but the sea lion decided differently and was a bit afraid of all the novelty in her exhibit. I decided to get some reinforcement for her and stand next to her pool. My goal of the session was to let her bring me all the toys back by just capturing the moment. After 10 minutes I reached my goal. The only thing i did was let her figure out what to do and me confirming her choices at that moment by bridging and reinforcing them. It wasn’t only great for the purpose of the animal but I thought myself to sharpen up the timing of my bridge also. Cool to see when the bridge is established well how the animals respond to that particular sound like we used.

Many of us would capture the behaviour because it is actually easier to get this way. I believe this is a short term thinking process from the trainer, don’t get me wrong. Let me explain why I think this way. First, we have to think about the pros of capturing. The behaviour occurs already so a full shaping plan we don’t need. You might get the behaviour a lot quicker and you won’t have the potential issues with unnecessary training problems you might get on the way. The Cons to capturing, you might capture an emotion with the behaviour that you don’t want, for example when we talk about giraffes, the question came to me to train the giraffes a target spot for their foot. A small log on the floor, they asked me if they should capture them kicking it to be able to get them to target it. My response was no, when giraffes are agitated they can kick, when they are aggressive they will kick as well and the last thing we want is capturing that emotion as well. On the long term its not a smart move. Im always focussed on the history of a behaviour instead of the actual outcome. When the history is build strong and well the behaviour will be outstanding. Another big con to capturing behaviour is when the behaviour breaks down you can’t go a step back because there is no step back.

Its obviously great to see animals perform a behaviour you would like to have. The great part is that you can unfold the behaviour by training it step by step. What if one day the animal loses its criteria or even the whole behaviour? Are you going to replicate the whole scenario where you captured the behaviour or are you just using one session to go a step back and get the whole behaviour back on track?

Although, Capturing can be very cool if the animal understand the concept of the idea. I’m actually referring to innovate behaviours. When working in Marineland of Canada we did this with our walruses. We would give a signal what meant “Show me something” and they would just randomly show us a behaviour they learned previously. With some rules in place where they can’t repeat particular behaviours after for example 5 or 10 different ones the animals came up with the funniest behaviours all the time. Great way to interact with the animals. Innovation is not hard to teach your animals. It all depends what you see as a different behaviour. You can wait for the animal to wave or you can reinforce them looking to the left. It depends how high you set the bar from the start how much success you will get.

Even though most of the time I think shaping is the way to go, building the history will take some time to find the best plan for the animals we work with. A training plan is not a set plan we should hold on to. Shaping plans can change midstream. The same shaping plan for another individual might not even work.

We used to have one of our animals at the dolphinarium that would do a beautiful high spinbow (a jump in the air where the animals spins around horizontally and lands with their rostrum back in the water) but one day she would be completely lost not knowing what to do. It could happen to anyone. But we as trainers were like hmm.. how was this trained? We were fairly new in the company and discovered that this behaviour was captured. Instead of trying many different scenarios we just decided to teach her the history that comes with the same behaviour. This worked so well that for now the time we put in there comes back when we lose some criteria’s within the behaviour.

Even if we are so excited about a behaviour the animal shows us we do need to consider shaping or capturing. We should not act out of excitement and start capturing right away. Sometimes capturing is the right choice most of the time its not. The reason, its not about the outcome and show the world what you did but its about the strong history you build behind the behaviour you want to show the world.

Capturing behaviour is fun as long as there all well thought reasons behind why you made this choice. I have lots of fun capturing behaviours and sometimes its just better to do so.

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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