Cover Photo Credit: Kelli Ingles

The ability to select individual animals out of a group is a useful behaviour to have and is one we call selection. The selection behaviour allows the trainer to have multiple animals, generally on stations, and be able to ask an individual animal to respond to another specific behaviour. There are several foundation behaviours that will help you succeed during the conditioning of the selection behaviour. These behaviours are not necessities, because we can train this behaviour completely from scratch if required, but as with most behaviours, having the animals to see you as reinforcing and them eating from your hand is a great first step.

The foundation behaviours that will help you in training a selection behaviour are:

  • Name recognition
  • Control
  • A-B
  • Target
  • Station
  • Another small easy behaviour of your choice

As with most training there are many different ways to train this behaviour, here are a couple ways we use here at Zoospensefull.

Strategy No. 1:

The first one uses two different trainers. A reason why one would choose to use two trainers is to best manage the hierarchy between the individuals you are going to train. The first trainers role is to train the animal that is highest in the hierarchy. The second trainer takes the lowest animal in the hierarchy. Both trainers will be next to each other, whenever the lower in rank animal is reinforced, the higher animal will be reinforced also but more, this is called cooperative feeding. On completion of the session the trainer that is working with the lowest rank individual will finish a few seconds before the trainer with the tiger ranked animal. The reason we do this is because we do not want the animal higher in hierarchy to make any move towards the lower ranked one and therefore, reinforce itself.

The animal on the right is Malibu and is the higher ranked animal. This individual had to learn to accept the other animals joining her on the seats and working together.

As part of the next step we ask the animals on their stations, this time the second trainer points the animal to the first trainer. The first trainer receives the lower ranked animal and reinforces both the lower and the higher ranked animals ensuring the higher ranked individual receives more. They then send the animal back to the second trainer. Start to extend the time and being adding the animals one at a time. One of the tips we can offer you is a small, but very important detail. You want to avoid the animals challenging each other in any way. Whenever you drop food by accident, reinforce the animals more when they stay on their station, but remember the hierarchy when reinforcing the animals for staying. This will lower the likelihood the animals will want to displace each other.

By training this way it already gives you an A-B within your selection. Begin with two animals on their stations, and ask one animal a target behaviour but reinforce both animals. One animal you reinforce for not responding to and staying on the station, while the other you reinforce for the target behaviour. You will then vary this between the two animals. After this step is complete you can start asking more challenging behaviours. For example you ask one animal off and then directly back on the station. Remembering to reinforce the animal for not responding and staying on the station. After this step is complete you are going to extend the duration. You ask one animal to come off the station, reinforce both animals, then either ask the other to come off the station or ask the animal back on the station. From here you can add an animal, or extend your behaviours.

The next steps are taken in this video with those 2 birds.

If you have a name recognition behaviour this will help you to tell the animal you ask to do a specific behaviour and teach the other animal to stay. If this behaviour isn’t yet trained you can begin the ground work by utilising some of the steps highlighted above and introduce the animals name as a cue.

Strategy No. 2:

You have 3 animals that already know a station. Place the stations about 2 meters apart in front of you. Reinforce both animals at the same time, then one after the other. Alway remember who is the one highest in hierarchy and know that this can change over night. When you have both animals established on the stations you introduce a target and follow the same steps as strategy no. 1. From here you build out again, leading in to more complicated behaviours. The whole idea is that the animals understand when it is their turn. If training alone, your timing has to be precise and correct for both animals. The reinforcement delivery has to be tight and placed well. It takes some practice but when you get it, you’ll know.

Whether working with primates or with birds the process is the same. The challenging part will be when you ask one animal to come to you and the other one has to stay. We add in cooperative feeding techniques because animals can become ‘jealous’. What we have to do is tell the animal that it is good or even better to stay on your station when you are not asked.

3 European Lynx being station trained at Kolmården Wildlife Park in Sweden

When this is all set, you should have animals that have strong station behaviour and developing behaviours with individuals will now be possible. A strong station behaviour helps you when you are working alone and you want to progress with various behaviours. Another tip is to think about the placement of your stations, because this can make things a lot easier for you. For example placing stations in front of you in half a circle gives you more control over all individuals, making reinforcement placement much easier. Compared with having them in one line a meter apart, you might be running back and forth.

Selection is essential in group training and helps all individuals. It gives more control in the group and allows you to develop each individual. Their foundation gains a stronger reinforcement history and it’s great practice for the trainer to get better at bridging, environmental observation and reinforcement timing.

Want help with group training or cooperative feeding at your zoo?

Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at or visit our website

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!


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.