Training animals requires a lot of communication from both sides. We are not able to talk with our animals but we can build a language that will connect the animal and the trainer. Clear communication is important, to start, we need the animal to understand what a bridge means and have them see us as a positive. It may sound funny, but how are you able to train an animal that runs away from you? 

With a bridge stimulus such as a whistle, clicker, another vocal sound or even a hand signal you can tell the animal that it did a good job and reached the criteria you have asked for. To be able to know what we ask for, we need to set a criteria to the behaviour. How do you know what the criteria is? 

Hand signal used as a bridge

Criteria is nothing more than a guideline or rule connected to a behaviour. This guideline is set by the trainer. Criteria helps you be black and white with the animal you are training, and this clear communication between the two of you is vital. How do you know what you need as criteria? This is where it becomes a little bit more challenging. 

Building Your Shaping Plan

The Setup

First we need to add which species or individual we are talking about, working in a team format this is especially important. Then we add the behaviour we will be training and the date the plan is made. This way we know the progressions we have made over time. 

A filled in approximation plan

Set a Clear Goal

Often we don’t think about this enough. Setting a goal helps you to go further in your plan. Just remember this goal is not the criteria you look for. The goal is clipping claws. I’m able to clip all the nails from the animal. Very simple. It becomes more detailed in the part where we talk about criteria. 

The reason you want to put down the goal, is to have a better understanding of how your plan will look afterwards. 

Set the Criteria (define what you want)

What does the behaviour look like? What does the animal have to do and in which position? Does the animal need a particular duration within the behaviour? Does the animal need to respond quickly? Those are all questions that you add in the criteria of the behaviour. 

Let’s take claw clipping with an Eurasian eagle owl – the animal has to sit still and relax on a station, the animal lets the trainer manipulate the nails while clipping them. The animal can’t sit down and the duration will be about 5 seconds for each nail.

Another example is a lean in with an elephant protective contact – the animal has to respond to the signal directly and moves their hip in the direction I ask them. The animal will then stand in a 90 degree position in front of us. The duration of standing in this position will be 1 minute.

A spin around with a sea lion – the animal responds to the signal when given and spins to the left all the way around. While the animal spins around, the animal needs to remain in front of trainer during the behaviour and can’t move either left or right. 1 signal means spin until the bridge is heard.

Those are all examples of criteria that you expect from the animal. Now we know the goal and the criteria, we have to decide what signal we will be using. 

The Signal to the Behaviour

There is always a signal in place for an animal to do a particular behaviour. This signal can be anything. Wave your hand for the animal to wave its flipper, saying ‘lie down’ for a dog to lie down, or making a step forward for the elephant to move left or right. A signal can be anything. We can become very creative here.

The Break Down Part

This is the fun but challenging part. How are you able to break a behaviour into steps? What will help you is to think about what you have already. Can you work from there?

Think about a loaf of bread and each slice is an approximation to your goal. 

When we try to teach animals to come to us who see us as neutral, the first step is to look at us. The second step is make a motion (whatever that motion is) towards the trainer and so on. 

For younger trainers this is a pretty hard step but it’s worth it. This way you think the behaviour through completely and you even think about challenges potentially coming your way. In those steps we have to think about how successful we can make the animal. Small steps will do it, starting at a particular position will help as well. Think about a sealion, training a more advanced behaviour, might be easier closer to the water for the animal to be more comfortable. 

Let’s Teach the Animal to Go on the Scale

Rhea reaching the criteria and is reinforced accordingly
  1. Look at the scale
  2. Touch the scale
  3. Walk passed the scale
  4. 1 foot on the scale
  5. 2 front feet on the scale
  6. And so on

As you can see those are all very small steps for the animal to have success all the time. 

It can happen that the animal is stuck on a particular approximation and doesn’t understand the next one. This is no problem. A shaping plan develops itself all the time. The goal is to work together with the animal, using their own skills to be able to reach their goal. You might discover that for one animal this plan worked perfectly, while for the other animal of the same group, you had to modify the plan a little to make it work for that individual. 

The Motivation

What I like to do is add in a motivation schedule in the training plan. This means that we first have to list down what we are able to give to the animal and what the animal enjoys. We all go directly to a food source, which isn’t a problem but it is important to not get stuck with 1 source. Try to vary the reinforcement as much as you can. This keeps the motivation very high. 

Before I start to train the animal, I will plan the reinforcement I will give, when I reach a new step in the plan. Through record keeping the session, I can discover if I’m using the same all the time. A step I think is necessary.

The first collection I worked at, we tried to think more about our reinforcement variety. We would plan our session with what we would give the animal. It’s a small change but a big difference for the animal. Over time we saw a difference in learning from the animal and we increased the strength of the history of a behaviour. 

Currently I’m working with the carnivore team that trains their Amur Tigers. The group we had before didn’t have a variable reinforcement schedule, they would get a similar way of reinforcing all the time. With this new group we changed the reinforcement schedule completely. At the start the keepers were sceptical but after a year, they have seen the difference in motivation of the animals and the increase interest they have. 

Read our other blog post about 5 reasons you should write a shaping plan RIGHT HERE!


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 28, 2020 at 17:28

Dear Sandra,

Thank you for your comment! Did you know we are doing a live webinar on the 7th of January about the basics of protective contact? Check out the webinar section. 🙂

Sandra Poppema · December 28, 2020 at 17:13

Thanks Peter for writing this article. I especially love the short videos. Watching other species being trained always give me new ideas that I can implement in training horses. Especially with zoo animals because they are often trained with protective contact.

PeterGiljam · February 6, 2020 at 10:44

Ok 🙂 Let me know what else you need!

Michael · February 6, 2020 at 10:17

Many thanks Peter for the speedy reply. If I right click on the box and then click view image I can see a one-page training plan. I intend on sharing your well-argued piece on the facebook site of a dog obedience club.

PeterGiljam · February 6, 2020 at 09:13

Michael, Thank you for the question. Let me know if it works otherwise send us an email and I will send you one.

Michael · February 6, 2020 at 07:23

The filled in training plan cannot be seen. Could you please update the link? Thanks in advance.

Conditioning For A Transport Box - Zoospensefull · July 13, 2023 at 21:12

[…] why are we training this behaviour? We need a well thought through goal and we have to make our shaping plan. We have to think about the reinforcers we can give the animal. We also need to remember about that […]

Building An Animal Training Program – ZOOSnippets · February 2, 2021 at 18:50

[…] in which behaviour the animal knows and which one is currently in training. We make an empty approximation plan for trainers to fill in when they will be training a new behaviour, this will help them to be […]

A review of Karen Pryors 10 Laws of Shaping - Zoospensefull · January 26, 2021 at 11:02

[…] Staying ahead of your subject is not only important for the animal, but even more so for the trainer. The trainer is ready to reinforce the moment when the animal jumps forward a couple steps. Just because the trainer knows what the plan is and maybe what the trainer is looking for in future steps in deep detail. Click here to find out how to build a shaping plan! […]

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.