We asked if Tricia Dees, past president of the ABMA, could tell us a bit more about her experiences. She came with a great story where she shares some of her own thoughts in the challenges she has faced over time.

As trainers, we all know the value in going back to the basics.

Antecedent = Behavior = Consequence are the building blocks to shaping a behavior.

Before I begin, let me say that I believe the most important thing to remember throughout this is how well you know your animals.

If your reinforcer isn’t increasing the frequency of a behavior, then pick a different reinforcer.

When we go back to these basics, a lot of times we are able to fix our stumble and move the behavior forward.

As trainers, we all know those notorious behaviors that are stalled permanently, that “cannot be shaped.”

As trainers, we all want to tackle those challenging behaviors and put that notch on our belt.

This article will discuss coming at these behaviors from a different angle. Before I begin, let me say that I believe the most important thing to remember throughout this is how well you know your animals.  Relationship, reinforcement history—no matter what you call it, is pivotal before going beyond the positive reinforcement rules. By knowing your animal’s habits, propensities, and preferences, you will be successful in communicating with your animals.

Of course, safety is always paramount. Make sure you are never pushing your animals to the point of frustration or abulia.

This article will discuss going through some different methods of training a simple behavior: an animal to go up on a scale. The species here is a cetacean, but I don’t want the species to be a hang up for this.  I only say this so that so you know how difficult an aquatic or marine mammal going out of the water can be as difficult as getting a terrestrial animal to swim underwater.

Belugas Challenge

The largest of the pod came from a facility where he was required to exert less energy than the others. His jumps were of a lower criteria and his perimeter behaviors were not required to go all the way around the pool.  The behavior began with him simply having to put his head on the scale, then up to pectoral flippers. The behavior was progressing but stalled once it was time for him to put more than half his body up. When asked to go up on the scale, he would not exert the energy needed to get a bridge. The trainers would ask a few times, then either walk away or move on to another behavior. A run was added in to give him more motivation but did not work. He was not receiving bridges on more progressive approximations on the scale but never swam away during sessions, nor refused to come to the scale. The trainers theorized that it was more reinforcing for him to refuse to do the behavior than to emit the energy. Perhaps, if the animal would emit the behavior to get a bridge, he could be reinforced on the scale, creating a positive history. The sessions were long and uncomfortable for the trainers, but in the end, the animal never showed signs of frustration or aggression. He participated in 100% of the sessions and eventually completed the behavior.

Now, trainers feeling confident, attempted to tackle the scale behavior on a female member of the pod that has never gone up on the scale, all thirty years she had been at the facility! The same theory that worked for the male was started, but the female was showing signs of uninterest, splitting in sessions. This female has a history of being more willing to participate in training sessions that were more cerebral, more unorthodox.  This animal has a propensity of even interacting with more dynamic enrichment, including watching podcasts on an iPad. The trainers got creative once again and incorporated one of her other favored enrichment items that sinks at the bottom of the pool. With the history of the scale most likely having some level of aversive history, trainers theorized that utilizing the enrichment devices and creating a more engaging session could turn the scale’s history around. The female was taught to find the enrichment device, targeting to it with a stimulus, in any of her pools. These approximations were able to be done in any pool and was incorporated in a variety of sessions to make the reinforcement history as strong as possible. Eventually, the cone was placed on the scale and moved further and further back. The female was a willing participant in 100% of her sessions and is now completing the last step, pulling her tail up while on top of the scale. While not completed, we feel that this creative approach to the behavior will get her finally up on the scale!

Antecedent = Behavior = Consequence are the building blocks to shaping a behavior.

Again, we made sure to note any signs of discomfort these sessions could cause but in the end we found this unique approach for each animal allowed us success in those more challenging behaviors.  We hope this motivates you to attack these “problem behaviors” with your knowledge of your animals in your care as well as your imagination.

Tricia DeesABMA past president


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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