Imagine this, you are taking care of animals in a zoo, some in free contact (animals you enter the enclosure with) and some in protective contact. The exhibits are pretty big. You decide to train your animals, but then think, where do I start to get my animal to understand that the session is starting?

A start of session signal is a very helpful tool to teach the animal that we are starting a training session. It sounds very easy but in reality this behaviour is rarely thought about by trainers.

As a consultant I will often ask a Zoo which behaviours it would like to have their animals trained for. Most of the time the lists are very long and quite ambitious. Behaviours such as voluntary urine samples, ultrasounds, radiography, the list goes on and on. This is the moment I stop and ask the team; great goals but what do you need to reach these? Most of the time everybody is confused and they look at me with a questioning expression on their faces wondering what I mean. I ask again and slowly people start to respond. Answers like, ‘maybe you need a target’, ‘maybe food or another trainer to help you?’ All perfectly good answers but when my response is ‘an animal’ everybody laughs and tells me this is obvious.

Start of session with Nutrias at the Animal Training Centre, Austria.

The whole idea of having an animal for you to train is sometimes forgotten. Plenty of times you see training programs with species at a department with very unclear communication between the team mates and towards the animals. The animal doesn’t know when we start or when we end, the trainer gives unclear or insecure body language because they’re not sure if they are doing it right, or if the animal even responds to the signals presented by the trainer. The team hasn’t talked about how to start a session and how to communicate with the animal, so everybody does things their own way. During this time behavioural challenges from the animals pile up.


While I was helping in another zoo I asked the keepers whether they had a signal that tells the animal the session is starting. Many of their exhibits are those where animals surround you when you walk in to clean. One of the exhibits has 2 male goats. One of the males, I had seen a couple months before, was very sceptical of interacting with one of the trainers. Coming back after such a long period, and looking at their progression, I was amazed with the work they had done. I then asked how animal knows the session is starting? She responded “well the animal looks at me and that tells me the animal is ready to start”. I questioned this further asking if that meant the animal has a start of session signal for the trainers. She explained this was correct, which I thought was a great method and very creative, but then I thought about it a little further. If I walk in this exhibit and I’m going to clean, and the animal looks at me, what am I supposed to do? The trainer then realised how confusing this can be for both the animal and trainer. I told her it’s a great idea to implement such a concept, but maybe you want to have a signal that doesn’t interfere with signals the animal naturally displays. This way you can go in to the enclosure without giving or receiving cues that could be confusing and frustrating to both you and the animal.

Back at the Zoo, I’m working with a keeper who’s training a small pig to spin in a circle. The trainer walked to the animal and started to train, eventually the animal left her, either out of boredom or frustration. The start of session signal was the trainer having a target in the exhibit. I asked her, what if I’m in the exhibit and find a target, I’m cleaning up and the animal is still there, the animal might think we’re starting to train.

Target is needed to make the pig spin around.

The importance of a start of session signal is especially important when you work in protective contact with the animals. Or even semi protected contact. We want to give a signal for the animal to come to us and we will start a session with you. This way there is a discrimination between me being around the exhibit or me being around and wanting to start a training session. I find it important in a zoological setting to have a clear signal for the animal or the trainer. Communication is strengthened immediately and this helps the confidence of both parties.

One of the training sessions I’ve been involved in often was where we opportunistically reinforce the animals for what they are doing. We would either hide ourselves or pretend that we were doing something else, only reinforcing when we saw the animal playing with a toy or being calm together, without actually starting a session. It is a great way to teach animals to be calm together or to get them creative with an enrichment device. If you and your feeding pouch are already a clear start of session signal for this animal, then this style of session would be impossible. I personally think that these type of sessions are great add-ons for the animal to learn to cope with their environment.

Pauline Keil from the whispering horse shows in this video how she works with her horses. The start of session signal is her showing up with her food pouch. The horse will come to her directly. Do you want to know more about her work follow her on facebook #WhisperingHorseTrainer and visit her website

There are many different signals you can use, due to my background with marine mammals many times we use a hand slap on the water meaning all animals to come to us to begin the training session. Other signals we use often can be a 3 seconds whistle on the bridge, their own name, tapping on the wall or using a shaker. Some departments have a specific vocal whistle and so on. It doesn’t necessarily matter what signal you use but the important part is that you and the animal understand that a session has started. On the other hand, many trainers already use one because the animal observes you in such a way that they will understand the session is now starting. I believe it creates too much confusion for both trainer and animal not to use one at all. For all trainers to be on the same page, and then be black and white with the animal, we want a clear signal.

Start of session signal with the Harbour Seals at Ouwehands Zoo, The Netherlands.

When working in an exhibit with bigger animals, where there is no option to be in protective contact, especially when cleaning needs to happen, a start of session signal can be the discrimination between safety, and having all animals surround you. The idea here is to ignore the animals when you are cleaning and when you want them to come, give the designated signal. To make this work all trainers on the team have to understand the criteria of what we want from the animals. Many times this is a bigger challenge than just conditioning a start of session signal.

Setting a clear signal, applying clear communication within the team, and responding the proper way on good and bad responses will extend your training sessions to higher grounds. Communication is the key between you and other team members and between you and the animals.

Good luck!


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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