When we talk about basic and foundation behaviours we most often think about a target, a call over, maybe separation or shifting of animals is part of your list, but there is a lot more to foundation. Here at Zoospensefull we are big fans of having a strong history with specific behaviours that you need in order to successfully train other behaviours, a topic we regularly talk about.

Responds well to dropped food

Or in this case, doesn’t respond. This is a behaviour that we forget often. I remember training sea lions to be on a stand with 3 platforms. The sea lions needed to understand their position on the platforms and accept each other. Before adding sea lions to the platform, I was teaching each individual to not jump down after dropped fish. Could you imagine the chaos if each sea lion went after the fish that dropped? An easy method to train this behaviour is to purposefully drop a piece of food on the floor and reinforce the animal directly, a lot more than the piece you just dropped, I f the animal ignores the fish. This will teach the individuals to not go after fallen food. An important behaviour when working with bigger groups of animals with a lower trainer to animal ratio.

Works for multiple trainers

We all love to have our favourite animals we work with. But the question is should we? Whenever we go around in the zoo we advocate that you shouldn’t have your own animal, but your own behaviour instead. This allows the animal to be far more enriched through training, instead of only when that particular person has time. Not just that, but what about if a medical issue occurs. You do not want to tell the vet, “well only one person works with this animal and they’re on holiday, so I can’t do anything”. An animal that can work with more then one trainer is as important as any other foundation behaviour you teach your animal. Jealousy will be prevented, a common issue you see in zoos between animals who prefer one trainer over the other.

Can work in tandem

An important one, we trainers like to work 1 on 1. It‘s easy and progression is made quickly but there are, in many cases, more animals in the session than trainers. Therefore, it is important to teach each individual to work together in one training session. We can ask behaviours together or as selected. This means that we have to teach both animals that they could be reinforced first or last and to allow this interaction between another trainer and animal. It is unfortunately not an option to throw a handful of food to one, so you can train the other. We don’t teach acceptance, we teach distraction. There might even be less focus from the one being trained. Tandem behaviours keeps training interesting and fresh for both individuals.

Cues fully faded

Each behaviour has to have its own cue and criteria. If this is not the case you need to stop, look at what is happening and replan. An animal that is focused and understands the cues and connected criteria fully is a joy to work with. When a signal is not clear yet, try to relax one criteria to lift up the other. Your last steps of teaching a behaviour should be behaviour discrimination. Using different cues to see if the animal can discriminate the different behaviours properly. A behaviour is unfortunately not finished if you only asked that cue. You have to start mixing for the animal to understand what means what.

Responds to cue immediately

How many times do you ask ‘target’ with a response from the animal after 5 seconds? Or when the animal is not focused, having to to ask a signal multiple times? We might not have a focused animal at all. We want the least amount of time between a requested behaviour, and its’ response. This is where we have to be careful, we don’t want to blame the animal or the species because it is ‘slow’. Many times we have reinforced this slow response, because we where focusing on the overall behaviour outcome (peak) and not the response to the cue. Want to get your animal to respond faster? Recognise times when they do and reinforce that moment.

Not reliant on food

Another huge one. We are very quick to only use food for sessions, because that brings most success. Not a bad choice, but you should not be reliant on food all the time. It’s important to teach secondary conditioned reinforcers. Conditioned reinforcers do not only give some variety in reinforcement but also builds relationships. There might even be moments when your animal doesn’t want food, but is willing to do a training session. What are you going to provide if food is not the first choice?

Responds well to change

We hear many stories about animals who are afraid of change, whether this be another trainer, enrichment device, etc. We can teach our animals not to be afraid of change by slowly adding different changes into their environment for the animal to desensitise to. Remember if you go small and slow you will promote curiosity, if you go too big and too fast you will have animals who are very sceptical and afraid. It can be a long process but when the animals are not afraid of change, you will progress in your training a lot faster.

When we look at foundation we have to look further than a target or a follow behaviour. There is a lot more to it and if we do not pay attention to the details it doesn’t really matter if you have a target or a follow behaviour.

Good luck.

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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