We talk a lot about foundation behaviours here at Zoospensefull. The reason we talk so much about foundation behaviours is because these behaviours are important to progress your training and to set your animal up for success. Often at the beginning, foundation behaviours are easy to maintain but over time, as you progress training new behaviours, the maintenance of the foundation behaviours become more challenging and often get taken for granted. When we talk about foundation behaviours we mainly talk about behaviours like: 

  • Control
  • Call Over
  • Follow
  • Separation/Gating
  • Cooperative Feeding
  • Targeting
  • Stationing
  • Etc.
Lotte and Peter at Ouwehands Zoo, The Netherlands

Californian sea lions are an energetic species that are easy and fun to train. I have worked with sea lions for around 7 years and this is the species I started my training career with. One of the first sea lions I worked with was called Lotte. She was a beautiful little sea lion, so energetic and motivated that she had a hard time to calm down and remain calm in a training session. We had to teach her to behave calmly and remain calm during our sessions. The other sea lions we worked with were different from Lotte and which made me think how could we get our animals to be calm from the beginning. As a young trainer I often asked the why and how, which is important when understanding animal behaviour.

Let’s s talk this time about control, often something that is commonly overlooked when training. When we say control, we are referring to the animal being focused on you the trainer and paying attention waiting for the next information to be given. We see many trainers wanting to quickly teach their animals a lot of different behaviours, while the control behaviour is actually one of the most important behaviours needed. It sets your animal up to receive the information, which will directly help you progress in your sessions.

The tigers in this video have a control behaviour – a lie down. A very stable and well trained behaviour to help have more control during the session.

We have watched many training sessions where the lack of control is clear and it highlights that control behaviour has not been paid enough attention to. The moments where an animal waits for the next behaviour, reinforcement or other type of information is absent. In this absence the animal is often desperately seeking information, and begins offering the trainer different trials of behaviour. Afterwards this results in the animal being labelled as stressful, over excited, hungry, etc. What actually could be happening is a trainer has conditioned the animal to behave this way instead of calmly waiting for the next piece of information. 

Iris is not yet understanding to do “nothing” or wait for the next piece of info to come. She constantly provides the trainer with sticks.

We teach the animal to move it’s body all the time in search of reinforcement. For example, you ask an animal for a lie down, then an mouth open and then a spin around. If we continue with this pattern of behaviour, we begin to condition our animals to, as we’ve mentioned before, offer various behaviours to seek attention usually by way of reinforcement. Does this sound familiar? Often we think speed keeps the training dynamic and interesting for the animal but perhaps it’s time to slow down and see what your animal does in those few seconds between information.

Maggie offering behaviours to gain reinforcement without being cued.

Let’s take a look as the same behaviours and how you can work in the control behaviour. You ask your animal for a lie down, mouth open, and spin around. How this should play out is: control – reinforcement, lie down – reinforcement, control – reinforcement, mouth open – reinforcement, control – reinforcement, spin around – reinforcement, control – reinforcement.

The moments you ask the control behaviour can vary from 1 to 10 seconds, depending on how you trained it. Reinforcement can be primary or secondary and with secondary the use of a bridge such as a clicker, whistle or vocal signal to terminate the behaviour. In preparation for this blog we searched articles regarding the reinforcing moment in between behaviours, called Inter-trial Interval, the following explanation was provided.

Inter-Trial Interval

An inter-trial interval (ITI) is the time between separate trials (conditioning by presentation of stimuli) in behaviourist learning research. The ITI is usually measured at the beginning of a trial and lasts until the beginning of the following trial. 

In further searches we came across an article “Inter-trial Interval Duration and Learning in Autistic Children”. Below is an example that we believe explains it very well.

Length Of Inter-Trial Interval

For the purpose of this investigation ITI was defined as the period of time between the termination of the verbal consequence (e.g. “good”) for one trial, and the onset of an instruction (e.g. “Say ‘ahh’ “) for the following trial. In certain instances with child 2 (who received primary reinforcers in addition to verbal consequences), the child continued to consume the reinforcer (swallow the juice) during the ITI. Consumption was always completed before introduction of the following SD. When a child engaged in off task behaviour during the ITI, the scheduled SD was nevertheless presented at the scheduled time.

This was one of their conclusions:

the short intertrial intervals always produced higher levels of correct responding than the long intervals

Tane the Kea looking for his next bit of information.

To us these findings make a lot of sense, it all comes back to patience. It is a lot easier to be patient for 1 second than it is for 10 seconds. With animals we have to teach them like anybody else to be patient. The control behaviour between other behaviours will have a higher success rate when you keep them short than when you keep them long. Some animals have an attention span of even less than a second but that’s the moment where most likely the trainer hasn’t focused enough on the duration of the control behaviour they ask for.

To play devils advocate, you can teach multiple behaviours before focusing on control. Your control with the animal will improve afterwards because if you change the reinforcer, the behaviour and the length of the behaviour the animal will start to be focused and wait for a second to find out what you will do next. If you recognise this, you can extend from there. Asking other behaviours helps the control but doesn’t necessarily reinforce it. It only makes control happen and it is up to the trainer to capture that moment to build the control behaviour. 

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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