At Zoospensefull we hear many stories from keepers about animals being anxious or extremely insecure and thought it’d be a great topic to write about. The biggest challenge with insecure animals or animals with anxiety is that these are labels. We have put a name to explain what we think is going on, but the problem is that although useful in hypothesising, these labels don’t actually describe the behaviour. This means we can’t really measure it and therefore struggle to change it. There are so many behaviours happening within an animal that is anxious or insecure, that makes it very difficult to help, but how is an insecure animal even created?

Uppsala university
Wolves are nervous attentive animals

To be pro-active we should try and find what creates anxious situations for our animals, and what we have to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again. There has been plenty of research done around creating anxiety, which gives us an idea how this could work with animals. Below is one study involving stress and anxiety.

A signal is connected to a threat, in this case an electric shock, which tells the animal when the signal is given, an electric shock will be produced, while when a signal is not given a shock is not produced. Read the study here.

According to the safety-signal hy- pothesis, when an organism can predict threat because it is sig- naled by a cue, the absence of the threat signal comes to predict the absence of danger, that is, safety.

The study concluded that there is more stress or anxiety present when there was not a signal connected to the electric shock than when there was. The organism doesn’t know it’s coming and therefore, become anxious and insecure at the prospect of an electric shock. The organism doesn’t know when he or she is safe or when he or she is shocked by electricity. The not knowing creates the fear.

Let’s put this example into some potential everyday situations with our animals. First of all, we are not able to be 100% sure about how our animals feel. Unless you are Dr. Doolittle we can’t guarantee that we understand our animals 100%. Regardless of our level of understanding, we know how animals are likely to respond in different environments. Animals, like humans, gravitate towards what is reinforcing for them, in one way or another.

This might be complicated in some cases but let me tell you a conversation that I had with one of my friends. We discussed the topic of traditional horse riding, and I explained that I’m not huge fan of it, unless it is trained in an ethical way. The reason that I’m not a supporter is because of the equipment that is used, most, if not all, based on traditional practises. He replied “When I show the bridle, the horse opens it’s mouth, so therefore he must like it”. My question to him was, but what if the horse doesn’t open its mouth? If the animal doesn’t open its mouth, most likely the horse is forced to open its mouth, so the bridle can be put it in. So logically, of course the horse will open their mouth, because it is better than forcing the bridle in to their mouth. Animals do what is reinforcing to them, the biggest question in this case is if we conditioned the horse to make a choice between having a bridle or not, would they still choose to have it?

Sometimes during our zoo consultations we discover that trainers use positive punishment methods combined with positive reinforcement methods. Remembering that positive reinforcement adds something to the environment that increases the behaviour, while positive punishment adds something in the environment that decreases behaviour. When the use of both methods is apparent we explain to the teams that they should use one or the other, most importantly, if they chose positive reinforcement then the whole team will use it. The same if the punishment method is chosen, although we at Zoospensefull do not suggest the use of punishment.

The reason for only using one method is fairly simple. Let’s imagine that I ask you to get me something and sometimes I reinforce you and sometimes I punish you. What would our relationship look like? Most likely you will become very unsure around me, because you don’t know how I’ll respond. If your training is off balance, which in most cases with inexperienced, inpatient animal trainers who use more punishment than reinforcement; you begin to see animals who are insecure, fearful and start showing behaviours of an uncomfortable animal. These issues can develop very quickly, it is important to be consistent in how we act to give the animal clear information about what we want from them. We are a huge fan of using reinforcement strategies just because the pros vastly out way the cons. We get animals who want to engage, actively seek trainers out, work together and have the motivation to think with you.

By only using punishment methods, you aren’t telling the animal what to do, instead the animal has to figure this out, which often results in further punishment. Your relationship will be fractured and you run the risk of creating a fearful, easily frustrated animals that can become aggressive quickly. Even if you were to put punishment on a predictable schedule expecting less fearful animals, the negative effects of punishment are many. There are better ways to teach an animal behaviours and any training programme should always have a welfare benefit for the animal. Punishment doesn’t fit in modern zookeeping.

Let’s say you have animals who think you are the worst person in the world, either because of past practices or inconsistency in the team or even past trainers who had a different idealogy. The animal will try to avoid you. In a zoological setting this is often the case with flight animals. We discovered that using predictablitiy for us (the aversive) to come to the animals helps us turn the table around. The animal is predicting you to be there because you come at the same time everyday. This helps the animal to be ready for you and most likely stress levels are lower. If you apply positive reinforcement and leave at the right time, over time the animals start to connect you to more positive experiences and that’s essentially what you as trainers are looking for.

But what happens when you have a sick animal and it has to be caught. This is highly uncomfortable and punishing not ony to the animal in question, but also for the group it lives with. We suggest using different trainers who do not have the same connection with the animals as you. We also suggest you use a different time in the day, to give the animals the chance to discriminate everything between this specific scenario and what you try to achieve.

The biggest message here is, animal training should be a net welfare benefit to the animal, using positive punishment and positive reinforcement techniques simultaneously builds fearful and insecure animals.

Punishment does not tell the animal what to do.

If you’d like Zoospensefull to consult at your zoo, either in person or via Skype, please get in touch

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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