A couple months ago I went to Israel with one of my friends. We had to do a workshop for Jerusalem Zoo where they invited many other keepers from other parks. The outcome was great 36 people in total from about 7 different parks. As preparation for this symposium we had to make 8 different presentations. From an introduction about ourselves to a talk about communication etc. One of the presentations I had to make was about motivation and reinforcement techniques

I thought im making a route through the consequences skinner came up with to the motivation subjects used today that fit in skinners diagrams with a connecting workshop. I showed my presentation to my friend and he had a couple questions. To mention that his background isn’t the same as mine so for him looking at such a presentation might be a learning curve already. Anyway we get to a slide what says Variation is the key, be black and white in your variation, I could see question marks in his eyes. He asked me right away “Peter what do you mean? Isn’t that a bit controversial?” I replied with yes, it is and that’s the goal. I want to make people think and I want them to figure out what I mean exactly and if it makes sense to them. This way we get a more in dept conversation between the keepers.

In 2009 I attended the IMATA conference in Atlanta. Great conference in the center of Atlanta at Georgia Aquarium. Previous to the conference there is always a lecture given. Mostly by K. Ramirez but this time it was with Ocean Embassy M. Simmons and T. Feucht. Great Lecture that took everything back to the basics to more advanced. Really enjoyed this course. The great part was that they were nonstop pointing out to plan everything you do. This way its easier for you to connect the outcome of the animals.

Let me explain, planning your gives you more efficiency, planning your week, same thing and planning you month as well. They added on other topic. This was based on the VRRV concept. The VRRV means Variable Ratio Reinforcement Variety what is my favorite reinforcement schedule when done well. Especially when the animals understand the idea the outcome is so great that it reflects back to your relationship you develop with your animals. It just comes down to vary when you reinforce, vary where you reinforce and vary what you reinforce with. When you think about those 3 points you will do pretty good.

VRRV – Variable Ratio of Reinforcement Variety;

  • Variable Ratio = Randomly changing the DELIVERY of reinforcement
  • Reinforcement Variety = Randomly changing the TYPE of reinforcement
VRRV Strengthens and maintains behavior most effectively

I was working at this point at Ouwehands Zoo in the Netherlands, A place where they gave me space for growth. When coming back from that conference in 2009 I had quite some ideas and one of them was… Can we control the learning curve of the animal by being more black and white with the variety we give? And so it started. I made a system that allowed us to keep track of how well the animals were doing in their training by focusing on their step and on the reinforcement. I made a system that allowed us to see when we should make a step forward and how we should reinforce them. For example, if the animal did step 2 good 3 times in a row you should go to the next step. The animal basically has to do this step 3 times so whenever the animal fails the third try you stay on this step, whenever the animals fails 2 times after it was successful 2 times you should take a step back and so on. I think it worked well but as of today I won’t do it like this no more just because the animal will actually tell you when its ready to move on.

But there was something good about this structure and that was the planning of the reinforcement. We made a list with Primary’s and Secondaries. This way we could plan this time I reinforce Primary 2 (what could be fish rain) with Secondary 4 (what could be running around). We would write this down and apply it in the session. The session after we would look at where we were and add another reinforcer.

We planned the reinforcement previous to the session what made this structure very black and white for us but very variable for the animals. We saw a big change in focus and wanting to participate and learn. We started to train better and faster with animals who were very much fun to work with.

Motivation can come in many different ways. It’s up to us to recognize what works best for each individual. Just make sure the animal does the behavior for more than only a jackpot.

A couple weeks ago I organised a training course in the zoo for one of our new hoof stock members. Its a 2 hour course where I go through the basic animal training topics I think is necessary for the person to understand and start training the animals on his or her department. One of the topics mentioned is variety. As you probably have seen I’m a variety person. We get to the point in the presentation where I start to talk about variety and how it works. All of a sudden I see some light coming in by my “student” and he starts to explain me a story. The last zoo he has worked with was a well respected zoo in England. They have a training program for their giraffes and they do quite a lot of behaviours with them. He says I had never trained the giraffes but what was interesting to see is that if we wouldn’t have pellets with us they would not do the behaviour we asked them to do. He says to me is this what you mean with why variation is important? I said YES you got it!

The whole point is that you want animals to do the behaviour on any reinforcement you have with you. Otherwise you are stuck and can’t give the variety you want them to give. Motivating animals is not just finding their favourite and use this all the time.

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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