There are many discussions around the use of punishment in modern animal training. Some are in favour of punishment while others are not. Here at Zoospensefull we fall under the ’not’ category of using punishment. The reason being we think that as professional animal trainers we should always try to empower the animal and be able to understand what the animal wants, in order to work together. We know that working together improves the decision making of the animals we care for. 

Why is it important the animal makes its own decisions during a training session? 

In many articles of our articles we talk about the positive outcomes when we focus on reinforcement strategies. We want to work together, there shouldn’t be a hierarchy between animal and trainer, and in turn the animal should want to work with you. Giving the animal that power makes a more confident animal and builds a stronger relationship.

What is Apathy?

Apathy is a proven side effect with using punishment. We punish particular behaviours that we do not like, but if we never recognise what we would like, there is a higher chance that the animal takes this apathy with them to other behaviours as well.

“Apathy, a lack of responsiveness to something that might normally excite interest or emotion”

Essentially, when escape and/or aggression aren’t possible options, there is a general suppression of behaviour. If punishment is the main choice of consequence with many kinds of behaviour, there will not only be a decrease in that particular behaviour, but in behaviour generally. Which means the animal stops trying unless it is told to do so. 

A By-product of Punishment

Apathy is a by-product from punishment. In the book ’Learning and Behaviour’ by Paul Chance, an example they give is when a teacher ridicules children for asking ’stupid’ questions. Those children do not only stop asking questions, but start to be reluctant to answer questions or participate in other classroom activities. It is an interesting case when you think about this in behaviour modification. When the counter balance of reinforcement isn’t high enough we fall into this problem. This could explain why some animals are reluctant to make decisions but instead rely on their trainer to make the decision for them. 

Elephant Program at Kolmården Wildlife Park

The elephant keepers at Kolmården have only recently said that they see a difference in the confidence of the animals. Their protective contact program (Read Here) started a couple years ago with most of the individuals they house brought up in free contact. The changes the trainers see in their animals for the positive, is based on empowering of the choices the trainers like to see, it should be the animals decision. 

Photo Credit: Simon Jonsson

Apathy and Welfare

Punishment is still used and the dominant choice of consequence in many different training cultures and only because us people want to be in control. If we only step away from this idea and start to empower the individuals, we will start to have animals that are more joyful to work with. Goals are reached, with strong relationships which is a huge pro using reinforcement techniques. 

The biggest discussion one should have with themselves is if the relationship you’ve developed is because you suppressed the decisions the animal makes regarding his own will or because you respect the individual and there is an understanding built on positive experiences. We are at the end of the story trying to make the welfare better for the individual. This is a growing process and we will never be finished by doing so.


Apathy is part of a concept. A concept is where different situations are seen as similar or the same. For example teaching your animal the colour red, no matter the object or a particular smell, regardless of the where the smell is. The understanding of whatever is different in the environment, I need to do this task. Another example is the concept of put something inside. The animal is asked to get the ball and put it inside the bin, or the basket, or the closet. You can even challenge the animal to touch the target with their nose, or foot and right away to another body part. The animal now understands the concept of touching the target with which ever body part is asked for.

A concept of colour targets for each individual animal at Randers Regnskov, Denmark. Photo: Randers Regnskov Tropical Zoo, Denmark

A concept is where different situations are seen as similar or the same.

When you punish an animals behaviour and you do this to a couple different behaviours, the animal now becomes insecure. We punished a decision the animal has to make and therefore the animal doesn’t want make their own decision in any situation for fear of getting punished. This is because punishment became a concept of, trying means punishment, and this is called apathy. 

We Can’t Control Everything

We should step away of what we think is best and start reading our animal to see what they show us is best for them. We should give the control to the animal more often, instead of us deciding what the animal should do in situations we put them in. Just remember unwanted behaviour only exist in the our eyes. Think about it this way, you have an animal because you want it, not because the animal chooses you to be with. Training should be a welfare benefit for each individual in your care.

Any questions about apathy and the use of punishment? Send us an email or join our Facebook group. 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!


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