The other day I received 2 books from Gabrielle Harris who works at Ushaka SeaWorld in South Africa (Read her guest blog HERE). The explained a situation where she tried to train a horse but the horse had trained her instead. The animal had given her a lesson and in her book she said that this was the moment she discovered that the animal was teaching me something.

While working in the Netherlands I’ve made a reinforcement schedule documentation system what connected to when to go a step further in your plan. The idea was for us to get a system into when to move on and when to progress in the behavior you are training. This worked pretty well. We saw a line of improvement.

Training animals isn’t always easy. Lately i discover more and more that trainers find it very difficult to decide when to move on in your successive approximation plans. 50% of my talks with the teams is about consequences and the other about when to move on to the next steps. I’ve trained many behaviours in the last 10 years but explaining how, when and why you should evolve is a very hard question just because its depending on the animal.

1. Listen to what the animal has to say

I certainly do not mean listening to your colleagues (although please do that to) what I mean is to the animal. Within your training session the animals talk to you all the time and they actually do this with showing this by behavior. When you understand how to listen making the decision for the next approximation will be a lot easier and you know what? When you are stuck sometimes the animal already gave you the answer of what to do next to reach your goal. The animal will let you know, this was to much, lets do it again or I need some more help.

2. The 2 – 3 time rule

Conditioning animals for the behavior you want to have is a science. Every animal is different, they learn different and they enjoy different things. All of this we have to take into consideration. Two times in my journey I discovered animals who seemed to participate due to the learning curve in the training. How was this possible I always asked myself but if you look at from the successive approximation angle if the animal has a high rate of success in the training and you move on quickly and the animal can handle the pace you discover that your animal might change mentally for the better.

I always go for the 2 – 3 correct responses on my approximations. This allows me to move on quick, build a good history on the behavior and most importantly for the animal not to think that the goal is reached. Try out the 2 to 3 times rule and see how it goes.

3. Easy and small approximations

One of the best help I had during my journey was the people pushing me to make approximation plans. They kept on telling me make one for your behavior it will be easier for you. They were right, when making such a plan you discover what could be a challenge on the way and you become very pro-active.

As mentioned before each individual is different and there for each size of approximation. When you have easy small ones progression is made a lot faster and you can hop straight to the next step pretty quickly. Small steps gives you an easier understanding of when to move on.

4. Regression is OK!

This one is actually reflecting to ourselves and not to the animal we work with. As trainers we are very focused on the end goal. We think that a step back is regression in the behavior and there for we label it as a bad training session. The zoo I work at we talk a lot about this topic. Because we all know that behaviours can break down and that’s ok. The most important part is where are we in the behavior and what did we do when we saw it happening.

Taking that one steps back once in a while helps the history of the behavior. Its ok to do so and actually im a person that would cheer for you when you do so. It helps the animal to understand the building blocks very well. Find a baseline when the behavior breaks down but never ask and ask and ask without changing something for the success of the animal.

Asking once and you get an incorrect response, you can ask something or you try again when you get an incorrect response again it’s a lot better to try to help the animal with a step back instead of pushing it and now you have to start all over again.

A great point that Gabrielle Harris made in a resent presentation at the 2018 IMATA conference in Portugal was about optimistic animals and this is what she said:

Welfare indicators are the animals expectation that things will go right. We can measure this by their engagement in our training sessions. Succes creates optimism.

Very well said I think because if we make the right choices for the animal and the animal will have more success the engagement of the animal will go up. You will over time see this in many other choices they need to make in their lives.

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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