There are many reasons to use reinforcement over punishment. Easier said than done one may think, but the idea relies on ones observations. If you need to use forceful methods to reach a particular goal, you may be counter productive towards the goals you want to reach, or at least adopt a ‘short term’ thinker mindset. The goal of any zoological institution should be to raise and maintain the welfare of the animals. Welfare is an extremely complicated topic and therefore, we should focus solely on the behavioural aspect. This will help us better understand how to reach our goals when applying reinforcement methods and working together with the animals. But what does reinforcement actually do to our animals? 


  • Empowers the individual
  • Builds strong relationships
  • Gives the animal an option
  • Let’s the animal think on their own
  • Creates confident individuals
  • Builds opportunistic animals
  • Sees problem solving as something fun

Punishment is used in a range of animal training fields and there are still many reasons trainers choose to use it. At Zoospensefull we believe that punishment is a quick solution, with often fast and effective outcomes, however, what we can’t forget is that it has some very big implications. 


  • Decreases a positive relationship
  • Builds mental disorders
  • Activates aggressive tendencies on a higher rate
  • Creates unconfident animals
  • Makes the animal not want to make their own choice
  • Will block decisions 
  • Builds pessimistic animals
  • Sees problem solving as something negative
  • Very stressful
  • Insecurity 


In a zoological setting we ask animals to move around many times during the day from one part of exhibit to another. Keepers place themselves strategically behind the animals and pressure them by going closer to be able to get the animals moving. This type of strategy is called ‘herding’ and falls under the category of punishment. You prevent animals for staying where they are, decreases the behaviour (punishment) of standing still by adding (positive) yourself to move them to another place. This strategy is used often with birds and hoof stock.


A whip is used in traditional ways of riding a horse, including show jumping. A whip is added (positive) to make the horse jump if stops at the jump (punishment), it decreases the behaviour of stopping at the jump. Another example is when a horse is mugging for food, the response of the owner of the horse is to pull away the horses head directly. You added the pull (positive) to decrease them eating (punishment). 

Gentle Leaders with Dogs 

Gentle Leader, Source:

A Gentle Leader is a lead that is strapped around the dog’s muzzle connected to their collar. When the dog pulls ahead on the leash or when the trainer pulls back on the leash the animal automatically feels a lot of pressure on and around the mouth, that results in the animals head being pulled down. Adding (positive) the pressure of the Gentle Leader decreases the animal to pull (punishment) and reduces future pulling.

These are just a few examples of punishment, it is important to remember something is only as stressful as that animal deems it to be, not you as the trainer. Below are 5 strategies you can use to avoid using punishment.

1. DRI Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviour 

A Zoospensefull favourite, this strategy works fairly easily. When an animal does something you think is not acceptable, you can ask an incompatible behaviour that is acceptable for you to reinforce; instead of punish the behaviour you think is not acceptable. For example, I’ve worked with an animal that responded to cues she wasn’t sure of with launching at somebody in the surroundings, many times with a successful bite. To control this behaviour we conditioned this sea lion to a very strong lie down behaviour. This lie down behaviour became the DRI to the launching. Whenever the animal did not respond to the cue previously given and would launch at somebody we would ask the cue for lie down. She then would lie down directly and not launch or chase anymore and we had a chance to proceed with the session. 

2. Smaller Approximations

Take small approximations so the animal is succesfull at all times. You will need to make an approximation plan for each behaviour you would like to see. Many times the reason an animal is incorrect is due to our mistakes. We blame the animal directly but if you look at it closely, it is actually us who make too big of a step or it might have been that we didn’t observe well enough to place the signal at the right time. 99% of the time we make the animal preform the unwanted behaviour. Prepare your session, use antecedent arrangement and review your sessions or behaviours afterwards.

3. Antecedent Arrangement 

Set the animal up for success! Animals always gravitate to reinforcement, there is no animal that tries to elicit punishment. When an animal is not doing what you have asked, there is most likely is something in the environment that makes the animal respond the way it does. Before blaming the animal and using punishment, which we humans are very good at, it is advisable to look around. I remember a trainer telling me a story about an animal she had worked with for years and had built a positive strong relationship with. One day the animal didn’t really respond to her the way she was used to. Incorrect responses on many asked cues. The trainer started to try and find out what the problem was. Over time she discovered that the difference was  that she had bought some new shoes the day before. The animal had responded to this in such a way that the animal was fearful of the shoes. 

Looking into your environment before you enter with an animal will help you drastically with the success in your sessions.

4. Desensitisation & Counter Conditioning 

We can’t say it enough, teach your animal to get used to everything and anything. This will help the animal to become more of an opportunistic individual that sees new situations as fun and challenging instead of fearful and dangerous. This technique goes a very long way if done correctly. 

Counter conditioning: The use of Pavlovian (associative) conditioning to reverse the unwanted effects of prior conditioning. Source: Learning & Behavior 5th edition – Paul Chance

5. Observation

You will hear us talk a lot about observation. Observing your animals is an important, if not the most important part of animal training. If you learn to listen to your animal you find moments where you can reinforce behaviour you are looking for at all times. Animals show you behaviour all the time, we just have to recognize what we would like to see and apply reinforcement to make the behaviour happen more often. You want the animal to look to the left, then reinforce looking to the left. You don’t get the animal to look to the left, then replace your body to the left side of the animal and most likely the animal looks to the left. It’s a bit of observational skill to find out what works in each session. When you discover how to listen, you will have break through after break through.

Let’s look at the examples at the start of this blog post: 


Let’s get back to the herding example, you can try reinforcing the animals to come to us instead. Be in front of the animals and reinforce each interaction you have until you have the animals coming to you. Now instead of herding them from place to place, you can ask them to come with you from place to place. Proper observation and small approximations will increase your success rate.


If we think about the horse stopping at the jump. Instead of forcing the horse to jump we should ask ourselves why the animal doesn’t jump. A likely possibility is the reinforcement history that is not high enough. Work on your reinforcement history with the behaviour, build it and create positive motivation and interaction between yourself, the cue and the behaviour. Only then you will be successful.

Gentle Leaders with Dogs

Teach the dog it is more reinforcing not to pull than it is to pull. You can reach this by teaching the animal first to walk with you without a leash and later on with a leash. If the animal chooses to be with you, instead of leaving, you want to reinforce this directly. Build you duration and you can do this with the different ways described in this blog. When the dog pulls use a DRI or redirect the animal to something better but at the same time, catch the animal not pulling and reinforce before the dog starts to pull again. 

These are just a few examples of how easily punishment can be found in everyday life. Remembering the a small pull or little bit of pressure to you, may be far more damaging to your animal and more importantly your relationship with that animal. These alternative techniques to punishment work but so does punishment itself, at the end of the day it all comes down to the net welfare benefit to the animal and how skilled you are as a trainer.

Categories: Trainer Talk


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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