Cover Photo: WONG MAYE-E/AP/TT

As trainers we condition a lot of different behaviours, but sometimes we want to get rid of a behaviour instead. Teaching an animal a new behaviour is a lot easier than teaching the animal to not do a particular behaviour anymore. There are several strategies that help you when trying to get rid of unwanted behaviour.

Stop Reinforcing

In the studies around the science of behaviour conducted by B.F. Skinner he had many projects with many different species. One of these projects involved a rat pressing a lever for reinforcement. The behaviour of pressing the lever was reinforced many times. The question proposed became, what the effect would be, if the rat was no longer reinforced for pressing the lever. The theory would be that the rat would press the lever less and less until the behaviour stopped.

The outcome is predicted to be that the rat will stop pressing the lever but what actually happened was an increase in lever pressing before a huge decline in lever pressing occurred. The peak in lever pressing and decline after is called an extinction burst. 

This could explain why when working animals in a large team with poor communication skills it could lead to an accidental extinguish of a behaviour. The animal might start to show different responses to an asked signal. Extinction occurs when no reinforcement is present for an asked behaviour. There is a decline in response and the animal will actually start showing different responses to an asked signal. Most likely due to the animals search for a behaviour that would result in reinforcement. 

Incorrect use can result in an aggressive outcome. Research has shown that in the case of the rat, the rat started to bite the lever and can elicit aggression towards counterparts in the same exhibit. So is it possible to get rid of behaviour? The short answer is yes, but we as trainers should focus on how we can make the extinction happen, while still creating a positive experience for the animal. 

Conditioning Another Choice in the Same Environment

If we decide that particular behaviours are unwanted, we have to look at the environment what elicits the behaviour. If we know that this behaviour happens, in this particular environment, with these particular cues, we are able to start making approximations towards the goal of extinguishing unwanted behaviours. We teach the animal to make another choice in that same situation. Therefore, it is more important to know why the behaviour is there in the first place, what is the cue of that behaviour happening and what is the outcome for the animal. Only then do we have the information to properly address the behaviour. Essentially, you replace one behaviour with another one that has a stronger reinforcement history.

The bisons are reinforced for making the choice to cooperate instead of showing any aggressive intension

Adding a Signal

Another option used to extinguish unwanted behaviour is probably the opposite of what we would think, we reinforce the unwanted behaviour more. This way it happens more often which helps us to add a cue. If I get a cue connected to the unwanted behaviour, we now reinforce the animal for only performing the unwanted behaviour when the cue is presented. At the same time we reinforce the animal for not performing the behaviour. Afterwards, when the cue is strong we now only ask the behaviour once in a while to maintain the response. The outcome will be a huge decrease in this unwanted behaviour. The con of this strategy is when there is a strong emotional response connected to the behaviour. For example, when I worked with Sydney a young Californian sea lion, she started a behaviour of biting bars and screaming at the same time. I decided to capture the behaviour and put a signal to it, the challenge I got into was when I reinforced this behaviour, the behaviour increased in intensity and the amount. I added a signal quickly and tried to reinforce calm behaviour afterwards, this became a huge challenge as Sydney had developed this behaviour as a coping meganism for a change in the environment. I tried to get rid of it by putting it on a cue but it became a bigger challenge then I expected. 

Sydney in Marineland of Canada

This technique works well but has to be thought through before you start, especially if you know that the behaviour will first increase drastically. This could potentially have a big effect on the health of the animal.

Change the Signal and the History

Let’s say the animal performs a behaviour on cue but the behaviour was not trained by any of the current trainers. The behaviour over time breaks down, but the information about how the behaviour was trained is unknown. In this case it might just be better to train this behaviour from the start and add another signal to it. This is a lot easier and sometimes your best choice. The signal that was connected to the right behaviour is poisoned and the control we have over this is not there. By starting off with a new signal is best solution because now you have control over the history of this behaviour on this new signal. 

Any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general? 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!


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.