In a modern zoo we often have many gregarious animals of either the same species or different species housed together in an exhibit. Each animal requires the same level of care, but what behaviours do we need to excel in individual care? Training animals for a variety of different behaviours both within and out of a group to ensure the highest level of welfare should be a priority.

What is our communication strategy?

I’m sure if you asked any zookeeper what super power they’d like to have it’d the ability to stop/slow time…or communicate with animals. But unfortunately we can’t just have a chat with our animals and expect them to understand what we want. We need to find various communication tools and an obvious one that comes to mind is the bridge stimulus, however, even with this tried and tested method, it’s not that straightforward. There are moments that a simple bridge will not work. For example, You ask one animal for a behaviour while the other animal has to sit on it’s station. The animal on the station starts to give you a behaviour you see as unwanted but the animal in front of you does the right asked behaviour. If we bridge we also tell the animal on the station it is doing well with the unwanted behaviour. How are we able to solve this? We can use, a point bridge, a tactile bridge, or even a different type of vocal bridge. This makes communication a lot stronger in a group scenario.

How do we get the animals focused on us?

There are a variety of techniques to teach animals to stay calm and under control. Stations are used for a variety of individuals, multiple trainers when working with multiple animals helps as well. Some places conditioned their animals to all have their own ’spot‘. It is all depending on the tools you have and what your exhibit looks like.

Name recognition is an option as well, instead of the whole group being asked to come, we just ask the one individual. While all the other individuals mind their own business and remain on their spots.

What do you need as a control behaviour?

When the animals are with you, it is good to have a stable control behaviour. For example, with a tiger it’s easier to have them in a lie down position, while a giraffe you would find it easier for them to stand. Dogs are trained for a sit or a lie down, just to help extend the control, while another animal is asked for a behaviour. Once the behaviour is complete, you go back to the control behaviour.

The control behaviour here is a lie down thats where the trainer starts from in every session.

How am I going to reinforce?

Before you start, we need to know which animal to reinforce first and last. It’s aN important detail to remember because this can make or break your session. Read our blog about cooperative feeding here. Teaching animals to accept each other is going to make a big change in working multiple animals. If you get it right, your animals will be calmer.

How do you make one animal understand it does something else to the other?

We have to start very easy. Let’s say the animals knows a target. We walk to one of the animals on their station and ask the target. The other animals will stay because the target is not presented to them. An easy start and all animals are doing the right thing right away.

If we take it a step further we have to teach the animal to understand it is their turn. This can be done by conditioning them for a name, a form, a colour, or even a point to the animal you need and ask them the behaviour you want them to do.

While one animal is asked to target, the other is reinforced for staying on the station not responding to the given signal.

Where do you place yourself and where do you place the animals?

Through proper placement and antecedent arrangement, you can set yourself up for success. If you have 10 animals and they are all in a single line, this will make you run back and forth To deliver reinforcement. If you have them in a half a circle around you, this saves you a lot of missed timed reinforcers. If you have a tunnel system it might work even easier, animals on the left and the right side. The more animals, the harder it will be, but placement has a big impact on the success of your training. Placement helps the timing of the reinforcer drastically.

With the right tools you are able to work with bigger groups of animals. We all want that 1 on 1 contact, but that’s not always possible. Thinking about what is needed and how you will present it is a key factor in working with a group. In many cases the animals will already show you where they are most comfortable. That’s the place to start from.

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!

1 Comment

Better Understanding Of Social Enrichment And Enriching Social Groups – ZOOSnippets · February 2, 2021 at 19:10

[…] and enrichment practices. For the extent of animal training, we will not discuss it here, but Zoospensefull has a helpful article about training animal groups. When enriching a group of animals, you need to […]

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