As animal trainers we have to think about  many different subjects during our training sessions. I remember this from when I started, its not just “good behaviour, just reinforce” there is much more to it. After 7 years of my career I learned a strong and valuable lesson about training animals. It was in my killer whale time where they explained me this idea and why it was so important. Working with dangerous animals in semi protective contact is a very different ball game. You not only have to think about when the animals behave well but also where you are, where and what your exits are situated and who your spotter is etc. Lots to think about before the session and in the session but this is not all…

Motivation is one of the topics I’m very interested in. How can we have an effect on the motivation of the animals? We can change reinforcement and understand premack principle but there is so much more to just reinforce with an apple or banana. While working with killer whales I’ve learned with counting the behaviors you ask the animal to preform that your success rate and the motivation level of your animal can change drastically.

Most likely when you start your session you have planned what you would like to do, what your behavioral goal is and what your reinforcement will be given after reaching your goal. In the session itself many things can change and it’s sometimes hard to figure out why they do but what can help you is to count the behaviors that have a correct response and behaviors that have an incorrect response. The reason is simple, it tightens up your motivation strategies and you get better results. For example, what happens often is that when trainers ask a behavior and the animal gives an incorrect response the trainer asks the same behaviour again almost right away. When the animal is incorrect again we tend to just ask till the animal is correct. The biggest problem here is that after the animal was incorrect the motivation might drop a little bit and it might be more likely that the animal tries less hard the second third or even the fourth time. If we would count the behaviors the animal is correct or incorrect we have a better idea how the potential motivation level works for the animal we work with.

This reminds me of Morgan ” a deaf killer whale”, it seemed like it worked so much better when she would be incorrect on an asked behaviour to give her a another behavior where you would be sure that she would be correct right away by allowing her to perform a low criteria behavior. After this we asked her the behaviour she was incorrect with again and 9 out of 10 times she would perform this behavior very well. If we would ask the same behavior she was incorrect on the first time the success rate and her motivation really just had dropped with her.

Lately helping out the elephant team in our zoo they came with a challenge regarding one individual. They explained me that her patience level wasn’t how it was before. Of course this can have a lot of different reasons but as the training coordinator in the zoo I started with the small training changes we might need to make. While watching a session with her with one of her trainers, I discovered that they asked her many times the same criteria and didn’t focus on what she was actually doing correct. She was asked a target on her head, a lean in behavior (what means put your side to the fence) and she was asked for her foot. She wouldn’t stay for long and would become angry over time. She was asked again and again but was never really reinforced for the target on her head. What I explained was try to count the behaviors that she is successful with and the ones that are not going well. From there you decide to ask a very easy behavior so she will be successful again or you add some more difficulty because she is doing great.

Through counting those correct and incorrect behaviors you will have an effect on their motivation and frustration level. If an animal is succefull quick its more likely to repeat and truth behaviour again what means motivation goes up and being frustrated goes down. As long as the trainer picks it up quick enough.

Another big pro to counting your behaviors is you can apply variable ratio schedules. Reinforce wit primary after an x amount of correctly performed behaviors. This gives the animal more focus towards the trainer and the relationship will rise for both of the participants in the session.

I learned a lot after doing this. I’ve seen animals become better and it started to be more joyful to see animals trying to do it well for you. Nothing is better than seeing the animals excitement!

Counting can help you very much. Try it out!

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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