Cover Photo: Successful animal training is about Communication and Motivation. Trainer: Anette Olsson, photographer: Björn Johansson. Orsa Björnpark.

Is the animal you’re training responding to your requests?

Doing the behaviour, as it were?

Marie Erlandsson teaching one of the Amur Tigers to lay down on its side at Kolmården Wildlife Park

Great! That means two things.

  • You’ve successfully communicated what you want the animal to do, and
  • The animal is motivated to do what you ask.

After all, communication and motivation are key to successful animal training.

But, what if the animal isn’t doing what you ask? That happens, too.

Well, that could also mean two things.

  • You haven’t yet successfully communicated what you want the animal to do, or
  • The animal knows what you want, but isn’t motivated to do what you ask

In other words, in order for behaviour to occur, you need to address both 1) and 2).

It’s all about communication AND motivation.

Getting one of them right is not enough.

In this 2-part blog post, I’ll dissect some of the factors influencing the animal’s motivation. So, let’s assume that you are communicating well, so the animal understands the task (this would involve criteria setting, good timing, and being familiar with the seven ways of getting behaviour, and successfully teaching cues, for instance).

But maybe the animal isn’t so motivated, and you’re not seeing the desired behaviour.

Let’s bring in the Yay-and-Nay Balance to shed some light on what might be going on.

The Yay-and-Nay balance. Factors increasing the probability of the animal doing the behaviour (the Yay-side) are the reinforcers you’re offering, and your relationship to that particular individual. Factors decreasing the probability of the animal performing the behaviour (the Nay-side) are distractors or aversive stimuli present in the current environment.


In every training context, in order for the animal to choose to go along with your wishes, the Yay-side must trump the Nay-side.

On the Yay-side of this motivation balance, I can think of two important, and related, concepts:

Reinforcers, and relationships.

The Yay-side – reinforcers

Let’s start with reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are stimuli and events that the animal is willing to work to get access to, without prior learning. They are innately reinforcing.

Most people will agree that food items are good reinforcers. But in order to stack the deck in your favour, you should consider all the other primary reinforcers, too.

The following film is an excerpt from my online course Getting Behaviour – the Foundations of Animal Training (it’s chapter 9 from Module 2, to be specific).

In this video I discuss primary reinforcers from two perspectives: how you can use them when training, and how they can interfere with your training (when they act as distractors; this actually falls on the Nay-part of the balance scale). Reinforcers vary in their efficacy depending on the animal’s mood, health, distractions, satiation and familiarity.

The Yay-side: relationships

Can you get behaviour from an animal you don’t know?

Sure you can.

Under ideal conditions.

If the environment is well set up, and you’re offering great reinforcers, that’s enough to shift the scales in your favour, and the Yay-side “wins”. The animal does what you asks.

If the reinforcers are good enough, you’ll get behaviour.

But if there are distractors or aversives around, an unfamiliar trainer might be unsuccessful getting the animal to collaborate. The Nay-side “wins”.

In certain contexts, and with no established relationship, those reinforcers may not be enough to tip the scales.

But – change the trainer for a familiar person, and the animal complies. The Yay-side “wins”.

Relationships are one of your assets in animal training.

What is a relationship, then, and how do you build one?

Think of a relationship as an accumulated history of reinforcement. You build that trust account gradually, by predictably associating yourself with fabulous outcomes.

You build a relationship by being the bringer of all those primary reinforcers. The animal learns over time that great things happen next to you: food and fun, cuddles and comfort.

This is one of the many reasons that you don’t want to use punishment in your training: using aversives could lead to avoidance, aggression and a disrupted human-animal bond.

Motivating the animal is all about stacking the Yay-side in your favour by optimizing reinforcers and relationships, as well as addressing and minimizing the potential distractors and aversives on the Nay-side.

More about the Nay-side in part 2 of this blog post, over at the ILLIS-blog.


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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