Recently I passed by the dolphinarium in Kolmårdens Wildlife Park, I haven’t been there for a while so its always fun to go and see the animals. A great enrichment plan was recently applied and the trainers were excited to tell me about it. I decided to stay afterwards and had a whole day of fun with the dolphins and the trainers.

While we were having our training sessions, goals and discussions I concluded, we are too busy with how we feel compared to what the animal does.

How did I get there you might wonder?

I love to see trainers in the zooI work at progress in their training because they will come to me and tell me with a lot of pride what goals they had reached. The sparkle people have and the happiness about what they did it’s just great. Sometimes it goes wrong… the animal broke from station, missed a behavior, started a fight, got frustrated, misbehaved, showed something different then thought off and so on. As trainers we can sometimes get upset about how the animal responds to us.

Let me tell you one thing… PEOPLE ITS OK!

Animals are not robots, so we have to accept that things can happen. We are part of the variety in reasons a behavior goes the wrong way. There can be many reasons to it the only thing we have to do is to discover what made the animal do the behavior it does. In a recent blog about superstitious behavior I talked about a tiger named Zima. She would jump half way up on the tigerbus we have in the exhibit. The trainers explained me the problem and I went to have a look.. I saw the behaviour happening and thought to myself this might as well be a conditioned behaviour by our trainers.

How did the behaviour get this way? It could be accidental reinforcement, but it could also be that the animal has an emotion in it’s body that has to get out and by jumping up on the roof she gets a response from the other animals. Could be a sign of dominance over the others? Maybe she wants all the reinforcement for herself or even all the attention. As you can see there can be so many reasons an animal behaves the way it does.

Trainers get experience over the years they work with their animals. Very skilled trainers start to learn by observation what the potential reason is the animal behaves a particular way and many extraordinary trainers actually come very close in reasoning the reason. They come with a quick plan and apply it directly. This experience you can’t give to somebody but it has to grow.

How would you fix a behavior that deteriorates?

There are many strategies to go for depending on the problem of the behavior. Applied extinction techniques, redirection techniques or plan capturing the behavior on purpose. There is a whole list of choices out there that could work what makes it a bit confusing. Susan Friedman has a great graph about this where you can see which way you can go after a problem behaviour has been observed.

At one point working in Orca Ocean in Loro Parque, Tenerife a senior trainer explained to me you don’t always do the same. Where I was like sorry what? Over time I had thoughts about this over and over and as of today I really understand where he came from back then. Animals predict all the time, they connect situations and discover patterns Ie Classical Conditioning. The training plans we set out the animal should not know. But sometimes the animals are a lot smarter than us due to the fact that our bodies always act the same way for a situation to happen.

To get back to the tiger, we have a couple options to go for in her case:

  1. Stop the session on a good note before it happens.
  2. After the occurring behavior we wait a couple seconds and reinforce the animal for being calm again.
  3. After the occurring behavior we wait a couple seconds and ask something else the animal knows.
  4. We redirect the animal directly when the behavior occurs.
  5. We reinforce the behavior with as goal to connect it to a signal.

Those are some options I had thought about after thinking what the reasons could be. To solutions sound pretty simple. Beside #5, we should always make the same option. Options 1-4 fit in the same box and will have the same outcome and that is decrease the occurring of the problem behavior.

#5 is the opposite, we will reinforce the behavior all the time she shows us the behavior. Till we add it on a signal and test her discrimination with being with us. This helps the behavior to decrease as well.

When a learned behavior breaks down the animal knows for years and years the best thing we can do is run through the steps that are made for the behavior. This way the animal gets a positive reminder how the behavior should be like.

Cockatoo training at Hamilton Zoo

Behavior can break down and that’s oke, as long as we keep on asking ourselves WHY did it happen? Because only then we can dig in ur toolbox to find the best response in that situation. We have to try and change the motivation of the animal to do one behavior over the other.

We can only change this by recognising what we are doing regarding the response we give to the behaviour. Sometimes we are even reinforcing the behaviour that we would actually like to get rid off.

Recently I was in Hamilton Zoo where they were training some cockatoos to go into a transport box. The lady asked me if I could come and watch. The showed me what she was doing and I thought it looked great. She had one animal comfortable in a transport box while the other showed interest in to do so. What happened after was a funny one because the female kept on walking out and back in. She asked me what this behaviour is… I observed her a little bit and what was happening was that the female goes outside then the reinforcement is presented in the transport box. She was conditioning the animal to go in and out on signal without her knowing it.

One of the solutions we talked about was reinforcing her to stay but a more creative one was asking the animal to open the transport box door and go inside. This would help the animal to understand to be inside. Afterwards the idea was to make them close their own door as well. This video shows you a Kea that opens the door and then walks in.

Changing the response we give the animal isn’t always easy. We have to recognise first what is going on in the session. When we recognise the errors we are able to fix them.




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!


PeterGiljam · December 9, 2018 at 16:59

Hi Danielle,

Thank you for the compliment. If im right, the blog you mean is about superstitious behaviour. That should be this one:

Let me know if it works.


Danielle Free · December 4, 2018 at 15:39

Hi Peter,

Another very interesting and useful post. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences.

In this blog you mentioned a tiger called Zima who you say you talked about in a previous blog but I can’t seem to find her in the blog you have linked to. Would you be able to direct me to it please?

Many thanks,

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