Here at Zoospensefull we talk a lot about criteria in behaviour. Criteria is nothing more than a rule or guideline made for a behaviour the animal is doing. Criteria is important to have, because it enables us to be more black and white with our animals. Criteria also enables us to better communicate what our behaviours look like to the animal and each other. If the criteria is set well and the animal understands what is expected, we will have more consistency in the behaviour because everybody understands what the behaviour looks like.

When we consult in zoological facilities or present at conferences, often the challenges we see most are around simple behaviours where there hasn’t been enough thought put into the criteria. Simple or foundation behaviours are often the building blocks that you need for further growth. Below is a list of these foundation behaviours and the criteria we use.

Start of Session Signal or Call Over

A call over is a signal that is used as “name recognition” or a start of session signal. The signal is given and the animals have to respond in a particular amount of time predetermined by the keepers. This time should not be written down as fast or slow. This time has to be written down as seconds or minutes.  

Start of session signal with the seals at Ouwehands Zoo, NL

Emergency Recall

Is a signal used for emergency purposes. The big difference between the call over and the recall is that a recall is periodically used. The recall also has a counter conditioning process that teaches the animals to respond in any potential dangerous situation. The time is decided by the team and depends on the size of the exhibit. The animals have to ignore everything in any scenario that is happening in their exhibit and come to the designated trainer or position within the time frame decided by the trainers.

A perfectly executed recall practise with the Asian Elephants at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park, Sweden. A trainer throws an object into the exhibit and the animals are called away right after they showed interest.


The animal or animals should stay calm and focused on the trainer they’re with. They have to stay with the trainer at all times until asked other behaviours or when the trainer in control makes the decision to stop the session. The most important part of this behaviour is that the animal has a calm and relaxed posture but is ready for any behaviour asked for by the trainer. The posture of the animal in the control period is decided by the trainer. This can be a lie down, sit, or any other form where the animal exhibits a relaxed body position.


Separation of an animal can happen in the same exhibit or towards another exhibit. The animals are moved away from each other. Both animals have to be calm, in control and ignore each other. They should be comfortable not being able to see each other.


A gate will close somewhere in the exhibit, with animals separated or not. They can’t move towards the gate and have to be in a controlled situation where the animal accepts the gate being closed.

Gating an Eagle Ray at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, Australia


One trainer has multiple animals in control. Another trainer is present around the exhibit. The trainer who has the animals in control points to the animal who they want to send to the other trainer and then points to the selected trainer. The animal who is pointed at should respond by moving to the selected trainer within 2 seconds after the signal is given. The animal who is not pointed at should stay in control and not move to the other trainer.

While one dolphin is being sent, the other animals have to stay with the trainer.


The animal has to stay at the position it is asked to stay. The animal can look at other places and can have another position as long as the animal stays at that position and ignores further situations happening around the animal. This behaviour has a minimum duration of 20 seconds.

Well executed stay behaviour from a South African Fur Seal at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park, Sweden


The animal follows the trainer to a different position around the exhibit. The trainer gives a signal before they move to another position with the animal. The animal responds within a second and follows the trainer to the other positions. When the trainer stops the animal should stop.


The target is present and the animal has to touch the target with their nose. When the target is present and the trainer has said target the animal has to touch the target within 2 seconds. Then has to stay on the target for 5 seconds until the bridge is given. The animal is not allowed to move during this 5 second period and biting the target or pushing the target is not allowed.

Target training with a fallow deer at Hamilton Zoo, New Zealand

A to B

The animal is sent from one trainer to the other with a signal. You essentially tell the animal that another trainer will receive you somewhere after the signal is given. This first signal always comes from the trainer who has the animal in control at that moment. The trainer has an open position and will choose the direction the animal has to go to. The animal responds within 2 seconds and moves towards the trainer in a direct line without being distracted on the way.

Having these criteria written down is as important as training these behaviours. We have to be clear with what we are asking from the animal. As you can see when writing down criteria, you want to write it without any variabilities. For example, if I were to write down – the animal has to run fast to come inside. Fast for you may be different for me and this creates areas of grey. We have to figure out how quick they can be and build our criteria on that time. For example, the animal has to be inside in 5 seconds time. 5 seconds is the same for everybody and therefore more black and white for the animal. Happy training!

If you’d like Zoospensefull to consult or present at your Zoo, then please get in touch either on our Facebook page or via email

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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What is the Criteria of Behaviour? - Zoospensefull · January 26, 2021 at 11:03

[…] 10 Foundation Behaviours & Their Criteria Categories: Trainer Talk […]

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