The relationship with the animals we care for is important for further learning. We need the animals we work with to want to participate in training sessions. Often before starting a session we use a start of session signal and that tells the animal you’re ready. But what about when the animal is seeking to start the session? We need to use enrichment and well planned training sessions where the animal can discriminate when we train and when we don’t.

Foraging Pigs


Within zoological facilities we talk a lot about how we can reach the behaviour diversity of our animals in their exhibit. “In a (semi-) natural environment, pigs spend more than half of their active time on foraging and eating, of which mostly grazing, rooting and nosing” – Read more about pig feeding behaviour here.

Knowing what behaviours our animals commonly express allows us to identify and understand appropriate behaviour diversity. When working with animals who spending much of their time foraging, it makes sense why animals start to seek us out during the day. Especially when we use primary reinforcement (food) as the main connection between us and the animal during training sessions. This tells the animal where they can get more food. 

Seeking Behaviour in Cetaceans

Trainer directly reinforces the seeking behaviour.

When we choose to interact with juvenile animals seeking our attention, we run the risk of breaking the pattern of behaviour diversity (interaction with conspecifics) and natural occurring behaviours. This can have an impact on the welfare of an individual especially within a group. Remembering to look at what Impact this behaviour has for the animal now and in the future. Interacting and feeling needed by an animal is a great feeling but their behaviour diversity is decreasing when we interact with seeking animals. 

Like with many animal working with killer whales is based on a strong positive relationship. It can take up to 3 months to build a strong relationship to be able to see progression in training sessions. Often we were so busy making sure our relationships were good, that we would respond to the animals seeking for the interaction, such as play sessions that were initiated from their end. We even had Killer whales that started to make “happy” vocalisations in order to get our attention. We would respond by playing with them or petting them. During a team meeting the conversation around vocalisations was brought up, our manager explained, if we kept interacting when they vocalised the vocalisations would likely get louder and soon very annoying. 

Asian Elephants Understanding the Session

While working with the elephant team we encountered a similar challenge. Elephants spend a large portion of their activity budget foraging, at the zoo they are also trained often throughout the day. Everything is based on positive reinforcement techniques. The reinforcement we use with elephants is mainly food and based off what is appropriate for their diet. The food that is used is mostly only available in these training sessions. 

Whenever they start the session, they call their name and start separating the elephants to be able to give them the care individual care they require and work on reaching their specific training goals. The elephants are trained one at a time and the elephants not being trained have to keep themselves entertained which can be a challenge. The elephants would push the gates if they weren’t first or would start to rock. Read more about Kolmårdens Zoo Elephant Program here.

We decided to make changes to try and reduce this seeking behaviour. We changed which animal was trained daily to create unpredictability in who would go first and where they would be trained. At the same time we would train the elephants any behaviour that was opposite to seeking attention from a trainer. Whenever the elephants decided to do something for themselves we would either apply enrichment or reinforce them by scatter feeding. This drastically changed the behaviour of the elephants rocking, or pushing gates or any other unwanted behaviour. We had to give them other choices instead of seeking attention from the trainers.

In a study done by Dr. Clegg it is mentioned that, various studies suggest that animals in poorer welfare situations show higher or excessive levels of anticipation for positive events. Read her study here.

Hand Raising Animals

Hand-reared animals lack social behaviours between its own species. This is when successful re-introduction is very hard to do. In the beginning we think we should do everything we can to save the individual but over time the animal becomes so dependent on the trainer that introducing this individual to other animals successfully is nearly impossible. With hand-rearing there are generally two avenues you can take, either you can take the new born and raise it yourself, which we do not recommend or you can raise the individual while they are still in the group. This is a bit more complex and requires the baby to first understand where the milk comes from. Often after the initial part the animal is returned at a very early stage and we start feeding the baby while it is in the group. The good part of this is that the baby learns the behaviour diversity of the species.

The Dog and Horse World

Owning a dog is a full time job and it means we are training all the time whether you like it or not. What we can apply here is to teach the dog tell us when it is ready for an active training session. We say active because in theory you are training your dog the whole day. Active training sessions is when we train a completely new behaviour such as a spin around or claw clip. We can teach the dog a start of session signal from their perspective, or how Eva Bertilsson from CarpeMomentum calls it ‘a start button behaviour’. The dog will tell us when he is ready to start or ready to preform a specific behaviour. This gives the dog more control over the environment and seeking is actually decreased because everything happens on the dogs terms. Peggy Hogan from Clicker Training Horses shows start button behaviours with her horses in the video bellow. This way of training gives the animal a lot more control and therefore will seek less.

Before you interact with an animal you might want to ask yourself do I want to reinforce this seeking behaviour? What is in it for the animal and what are the pros and cons of doing this? Does this have an effect on their species specific behavioural diversity? We should always seek for the greatest natural behaviour diversity from the animals we work with! This enhances their welfare and that is ultimately what we want.

Any questions about this topic? 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.