A scale can be considered a target platform

Im in love with using targets. We are using them for everything and all the time for shaping a various amount of behaviors. It’s the best tool after a bridge in my belief. Targets come in all shape and sizes. Training animals for match to sample might be as well just a different target point. A platform or scale might just be a target point. Your hand or a physical target pole is just a different target point. There are so many different ways to train behaviors but 9 out of 10 times there are targets involved but should we stop there? Often enough as trainers we train the animal to the point where we have desensitised the animals for scenarios and trained them for duration on the target. All criteria leading towards the final goal. But…


Do we really think that a target should be the end?


Last year in Scotland we talked about targets very often. One of the attendees at this symposium came with a lot of different type of targets and that’s where a more thorough discussion came into place. The idea having a target for every behavior is an idea we can go for. But the question arises when doing a training session do we need to bring an x number of different ones to ask different behaviors?

Bridge signal with a deaf killer whale at Loro Parque

At some facilities I worked at we had a great language system with our animals what was very simple and made a lot of sense for us and for the animals. Especially with the killer whales in Loro Parque. The signal system is easy and good to understand. Before a behavior is trained discussions and brainstorm meetings happened for the signal that should be connected to the behavior. If for example we needed a squirt behavior in a jump behavior we would ask both signal one after another and the animal would understand to connect those behaviours with its criteria’s together. It was a great way of working these animals especially for the variation we wanted to provide within our sessions. The discussion about a signal was very short because of the system that was implemented already.

Conditioning a jump with a beluga at Marineland of Canada

We use targets in different ways and different behaviours. To teach an animal to jump we don’t want to keep a target above their heads all the time. But what about medical behaviors? Many of us use targets for medical behaviours to help the animal to focus on a “target point” while another trainer uses a device such as an ultrasound probe. We ask them to target a spot and then train the duration and counter condition them to whatever will happen to them, this obviously step by step. But the target will always stay in place. This makes the animal focused on the target very much.

What works and that’s ok but did you ever think about the following…

As a person coming from the marine mammal world I discovered quick enough that targets shouldn’t be part of the end goal. We want to motivate the animals and use maximum variety for the animals we work with. Behaviors should be trained on a signal and not on a “target signal” but this is my opinion. The reason is that the focus of the animal actually goes up a lot more and there for the animal’s attention to the trainer. Ever thought about this… the last behavior you train on a target is what the animal connects as the history of the target. The issue here is that this never really changes unless you train the target away properly within your training plan. Now think again about having the target as part of your end behavior.

“Targets are very black and white for the trainer and the animals but having strong signals will have the same outcome and as add on it gives you more attention and focus back from the animal.”

At the zoo I work at we have 5 Asian Elephants. We work them all in protected contact what means that there is always a physical barrier in between the trainer and the elephant. One of the big changes we made in our system is using a target as an approximation. We train all different signals for different behaviors what allows us to have animals who are more focused to us just because they need to look at the trainer and listen to see if they will have the behavior correctly. It took a while to get the trainers to understand the idea of more focused animals. Targets are very black and white for the trainer and the animals but having strong signals will have the same outcome and as add on it gives you more attention and focus back from the animal. The current supervisor who used to work with African Elephants somewhere else only used targets he told me after a year “Peter now I see what you mean and it’s a big difference” just by working the way of changing the end goal. Focused animals are more likely to accept variation. Variation makes motivation happen.

Tonsak is one of the 2 an asian bull elephants at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park. Tonsak has a lot of attention towards the trainers in training sessions and seems that learning on its own is very reinforcing for him.

Target should be thought about in the training process. There should be a clear plan and reasoning why we keep them in the behavior and why we shouldn’t. It’s something to think about when you train a behavior. Important is to make a training plan and discover why you would and why you wouldn’t stay connecting to such a training tool. There are plenty Pro’s and Con’s to use them in the training process or as the end goal. In my time in the Netherlands my supervisor told me ones “Every target or person you add you have to train away”. This is a pretty valid point. Why adding extra targets if you don’t have to?

Something to think about when using a target!

Categories: Uncategorized


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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