1. The know it all.

One of the worst parts is working with people that think they know everything. You know that I’ve been this way before and saw all the bad outcomes coming from it. It all happened when I worked with Sea Lions for about 2-3 years. I felt like I was a confident young man and this reflected to “I know it all” well… biggest mistake in my career. Over the years I worked with a lot of different trainers one better than the other. I’ve worked with trainers that had huge ego’s. The hardest part is not just themselves but what kind of reflection this has to the team. Very narrow minded unmotivational people, short term thinkers. They can actually give you the feeling you don’t excist. Very hard to work with. Don’t become this way. Luckily on an early stage I got put into place to get back on track. In the training world being open minded and flexible in choices is a key aspect in having success with your animals.

2. Bad reinforcement with bad timing.

The timing of reinforcement is extremely important I think we can all agree to this. It can break or make a behaviour. When having bad timing we can’t really say “well at least I reinforced”. Just because what you reinforced might be something different as what you wanted. Timing is practise and we shouldn’t take this for granted. When our timing is superb our animals will be to. Bad timing and bad reinforcement values could lead into superstitious behaviours without us knowing why. Practise your timing and listen to the animal.

3. No patience.

This is an important one. We wrote a blog on why the animal school you every day, what you can read HERE. Yes, you guessed it right its patience. Animal training is working your patience. We can’t talk with our animals the way we talk with each other we only can tell the animal good or bad. This takes patience and patience we need to practise. Having no patience is not good for your progression nor the animal.

4. Missing signals and responses.

Missing out on signals the animal gives you or not understanding why the animal gave you a reaction can get into frustration from the animal. This could lead to aggression. Not understanding the way classical conditioning works can kick you right back in the face. Signals happen all the time and so does classical conditioning. The trainer has to understand the links between what we do and the reaction. We need to observe all the time to predict potential scenarios for the good or the bad. This way we can be pro active and successful.

5. Anthropomorphism.

This is the best one yet. How many have people passed my career that blamed everything on the feelings we added to the animals. It’s one of the biggest mistakes. We miss so many signals from the animals if we label them with emotions humans have. Being open minded on why animals do their thing is important especially for the development for you as a trainer. Funny enough it’s very easy for us to communicate between each other using human emotions about animal situations we experienced. Should we take this in a training session? Please DON’T! You will fall into a spiral where the animal isn’t able to succeed or reach the goals.

6. Our expectations are too high and so are our approximations.

This one I experience very much with younger trainers. If it’s a mistake or being unexperienced that’s the question. Maybe from “experienced” trainers it’s a mistake. I’ve worked with people who actually blamed the animal “they would say the animal knows!” with as consequence; TIME OUT! Training should be based on the success rate of the individual animal and many times the animals will tell you what is too much or if they can do more. If I would ask you to fly an airplane would you do it? Would you fail? Most likely, so why would I ask? Plenty of us are focussed on the outcome of the behaviour and not about the history a behaviour has. The mistake is that trainers have to high expectations from the animals they work with. To be honest you can have an expectation but we should not be locked into it and be flexible to change it at the spot if necessary. To big approximations at a time can set you up for failure.

7. Inconsequent behaviour by the trainer.

The moment we ignore a behaviour one session and we reinforce it the other makes a connection with the animal very inconsistent same for when this time this signal means this while the other time it means that. Even if it for you make sense, what I doubt, for the animal it raises question marks. A common mistake what might actually quickly go into irritation, frustration followed by aggression. As trainers and especially in a team we should be very tight with our responses to the animals. Lately I had this talk about insecurities with trainers in situations. The biggest point I tried to make is just make a clear decision good or bad because at the end you gave the animal a clear consequence. If we give them an insecure 50/50 response it’s not very clear. Being consequent is a key factor in animal training! Tape yourself in your sessions and discover if you are inconsistent. After all we can only tell the animal good or ba, lets just make sure we all understand what good means by setting clear criteria for every behaviour.

8. Increasing superstitious behaviour.

This is a hard one. If the trainer doesn’t pay attention to this it is definitely a mistake. There are trainers who never pay attention to those small things. The problem is that you get animals who show a ton of behaviours that are unknowingly reinforced by the trainer. Superstitious behaviour can go into stereotypical behaviour there for we always have to pay attention to what we reinforce and observe what the animal does when we WANT to reinforce. When we bridge a behaviour, we don’t just bridge that behaviour, we bridge a lot of different movements the animal makes. The animal has to figure out which movement is the correct one. We can shape this with a training plan. Superstitious behaviour can occur at different moments in your session, as long as you know why and when it happens you are able to fix it.

9. Conditioned or Secondary reinforcer gets normalized.

Throughout my career is discovered this all too much. Trainers who use a secondary with the thought that it’s the most normal thing in the world. What happens now within 2 days the secondary reinforcement breaks down and you can start all over again. Animals do not see it as reinforcing anymore and motivation plummets down just because the trainer didn’t observe the effect of the secondary it currently uses. Be careful with secondaries. We need to maintain them.

10. Classical Conditioning, Whats that?

We give signals all the time when we work with the animals. To be honest when we think we don’t work with the animals we still give signals for the animals to know what’s happening. It’s up to us to understand the effect we have on the animals, their environment and what we do with our body’s that could trigger behaviour. A typical case of classical conditioning. If you don’t understand how this works you will fall into problem behaviours without you knowing where they came from. Animals connect scenarios and situations. Lately we started to train our bison’s and the new group of tigers. We observed quick enough that when we ended with the same type of reinforcer the animals wouldn’t accept the first reinforcers anymore and just wait for the better one. A typical case of animals connecting situations. Read another blog about Classical Condition HERE.

As an animal trainer its important to know the effects we have to the animals we work with. With a flexible mindset towards behaviour and the team we work in we are capable of becoming the best. Animal training is a growing profession and we should be open to the changes it goes through. Recognising why animals do their thing is part of good observation and learning about consequences and behaviours being linked to each other.

Is a mistake really a mistake?

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may only be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”  – B.F. Skinner

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”

Categories: Trainer Talk


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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