There are many behaviours needed for a well-established training program. Foundation behaviours such as call overs, control, and stations help your program to develop, and increase the level of your behaviours. If you are interested in our top 10 foundation behaviours and their criteria, read about them here. Foundations for medical behaviours are very important for a clear, positive outcome for the vet.

The Modern Zoo

Ultrasound training with a South African Fur Seal

The modern zoo conditions their animals for a variety of proactive medical procedures to ensure better care for their animals. Zookeepers are educated for behaviour modification techniques and animal training becomes part of the animals daily life. Interestingly, often many areas of behaviour modification do not involve the veterinarian. This presents major challenges during the conditioning of medical behaviours. We need to know what the vet bring with them and what is expected in terms of the procedure so we can properly prepare the behaviour.

Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning

In order to teach an animal the challenging medical behaviours we need the foundation that fits with these behaviours. We have to teach the animal that particular objects, situations and people are positive. We need to teach the animal that the situation that has been negative in the past is positive. The techniques used are called desensitisation and counter conditioning. We can’t forget that small little light that goes on and off, or the smell and feeling of the gel that has to be applied before the probe touches the animal. Even the vibration from the probe, there can be many details you wouldn’t think of that your animal might be nervous of. Any smell, sound, feeling and other extras has to be introduced in your training session for the animal to get used to.

Credit: Phil Waugh – Cheyenne Mountain Zoo


There are many different reasons to do an ultrasound, radiograph, blood sample or saliva sample with an animal. Ultrasound in often used to look for a baby, eggs, or follicles. Often animal is conditioned to show the side closest to where the baby might be. What would happen if the vet asks you to change the position to be able to see better? In many cases the animal is only conditioned to give one side not the other. This is a common issue we as trainers can overlook. We need to think about all the possible scenarios related to that behaviour. This is where getting the veterinarian staff involved is crucial for a successful program.

Both Sides

Animals need to be trained for a full body check, this means that the animal shows us their whole body, to allow us to see if everything is ok. Only training one side will not help with this goal. We’ve trained a fur seal for blood samples in his rear flipper, but for us to be more successful and give us more trials, we conditioned the animal to be able to do this in both his rear flippers.

Below in this video the dog is conditioned for a radiograph, the dog is conditioned to be on his left and right side. This way we can get the whole picture and see both of his legs and shoulder area.

Body Check

Within the foundation for medical procedures we talk about a body check. Body checks will differ between species. But in theory the behaviours are:

  • Open your mouth for X amount of time
  • Give me all of your feet
  • Show me your belly from the L and the R
  • Show me your back
  • Check their sides
  • Genitals

With apes you can go a lot further, shoulders, elbows, chest, fore head and so on are common behaviours. There is a bit of a difference when you work in protective contact or free contact but the idea is exactly the same. It is important to have an animal that you can look at from close distance, that you can touch and feel. This way you can take better care of the animals.

A body check is important and if the animal is conditioned for it, you are all set for the vet to come down and to train further behaviours such as accepting a stethoscope seen in this video with the Gorilla.

The body position here is very important. If he doesn’t target his hands and puts his chest forward we are not able to do this medical behaviour.


Duration in medical behaviours is another important part the animal needs to succeed. The veterinarian needs time to be able to do a proper ultrasound and not have an animal that can only show their left side for a maximum of 10 seconds. Depending on what the vet is looking for you need a lot longer. The animal needs to be use to being in a position for X amount of time. Same for a radiographs, injections, blood samples or even taking temperature. Read this article to teach your animal duration.


To condition an animal for a medical behaviour you need strong foundation behaviours and a strong positive history on body positioning. Depending on the procedure and the veterinarians needs, we have to be proactive and teach the animals to accept and be okay with a lot of things. To cover the environmental changes we have to teach the animal that, as long as you are calm and relaxed, you have a huge chance of reinforcement. Step by step we teach the animal to be calm in any situation, then we add in the expected duration. If you have these behaviours you will set yourself up to succeed in the medical procedures you have to do with your animal.

For this behaviour to succeed, Maji has to be use to multiple people, apparatus, laptop, the screen, vibrations of the probe, the sounds, target, station, and this all being under water holding his breath.

In many cases we do not think about what is exactly needed from the animal to get a proper medical behaviour. When done well we take their welfare to a new level which should be the goal for every modern zoo.

It is important to remember what exactly is needed for you and the animal to succeed. Don’t forget you also need to maintain the behaviour. A blood sample or any other medical behaviour is not trained to just do once, or by chance, you want to do it whenever you need to and do it well.

Have fun! 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!



PeterGiljam · February 3, 2020 at 15:03

Thank you Pauline!!

Pauline Keil · February 3, 2020 at 10:49

Fantastic blog, well done Peter!!

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