In almost all groups of animals there is a hierarchy. Some species in captivity are “unnaturally” in a group configuration, such as tigers or polar bears. When animals are displayed in unnatural group configurations they will still have a hierarchy between them. Some hierarchies are not easily visible but some definitely are. Us as trainers need to recognise, which individual is where in the hierarchy, to have a more successful training session. Knowing this can give you a head start in ensuring the success of your training sessions. The hardest part is that a hierarchy can change overnight, but it can change even when a food source is added.

Could We Have An Effect On Their Hierarchy?

When we start to work the animals in the group we need to understand a couple things:

  • Who has which place in the group?
  • How quickly can the dynamics change?
  • How does the group function?
  • How does the group communicate with each other?

What do we need:

  • We need to have the animals understand us and see us as a trustable resource.
  • We need to know the variation we can give them within the reinforcement we have available.
  • They animals need to understand a call over/come on signal.

Even when we think we understand the group hierarchy, adding a high value reinforcer can result in sudden changing in the dynamics and a different animal can appear in front of us. They show us, suddenly, that they have a higher status in the group than we first thought. These unexpected and immediate changes are what makes training animals in groups even more challenging. In order to be successful this means that we have to be observant at all the times and not assume we understand the group dynamics because things can change within a split second.

Hierarchy Changes When A Food Source Is Present

Timing is crucial with cooperative feeding, in many collections something as simple as incorrect timing of “feeding” can change the hierarchy drastically. For example in the hoof stock world, you see animals who want everything even though there is enough for everyone. It’s interesting to see how their behaviour changes when a high value reinforcer comes in to place.

One of the animals we trained for a recall was the Mishmi Takin, there were 2 adult females and a big male named Hobbit. Hobbit had the weakest relationship with his trainers and it seemed like he saw us more as a threat than reinforcing. During training we wanted to provide them with a lot of reinforcement when they come. Very quickly Hobbit wanted to have all the food, regardless of the value. We decided that we should spread the reinforcement out a bit more so everybody has the chance to receive reinforcement. The male kept on attacking the females when food was present, while if we wouldn’t be there adding high value reinforcement everything would be fine.

The big Takin on the left is Hobbit. You can see that the others are. very attentive to him.

Food Source Has A Big Effect On The Group

At the Alpine Ibex we had a similar challenge. After proper observation we discovered that the males seem to control the group. The theory is that if we can control the big males, we are able to control the rest of the group. We saw that the pellets as reinforcers had a huge effect on the hierarchy of the group. The solution we came up with was to construct boxes for the males. This allows them to have a bit more control over their own space and gave the Ibex the chance to all be successful without being chased away. Read more about the Ibex research project here.

Conditioning The Opposite Choice

The Amur tigers at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park were not used to feeding in a group, the resulting behaviour was the tigers fighting each other for food. We then worked with their behaviour choices and looked at the behaviour the animals show us, between them and the others in the group. When a tiger looked back at us instead of challenging another cat we gave them more reinforcement. It has been so successful that we don’t have to make many changes to the way we feed our tigers, we just had to pay close attention to the hierarchy when food is added to the environment. All of the aggressive or challenging behaviour was due to the competition for food, by teaching the tigers that everyone will get their share if you wait patiently that decreased.

Tigers are trained for the right choice.

Capybaras And Tapirs

We had another challenge, in our South America exhibit. The exhibit houses 5 different species including capybaras and tapirs. The male capybara seems to have something against the male tapir or vice versa. It has been observed that the capybara chases the tapir. Within a mixed species exhibit you can definitely see a hierarchy between species, especially when they have a similar feeding time. Some animals are allowed to eat first and others have to wait. In this case of the capybara and the tapir it’s always a fight between who gets what. The animals at the South America department are socialised well with keepers. The easiest thought we had was reinforcing the right behaviour with food. But in this case we discovered with adding food we actually make the problem worse due to the fact that the hierarchy can change for the worse. The team decided to use a conditioned reinforcer instead of food. The conditioned reinforcer was petting as capybara really enjoy rubdowns. Whenever they see acceptable behaviour from the Capybara, they gave him a rubdown. They have observed an increase in calm behaviour towards each other, which indicates it has been working well.

Tapirs and Capybaras respond very well to tactile interaction as a reinforcer and can be used to solve behavioural challenges.

Observation Is Key!

Observe your animals when they have their own time. Observe the behaviours between individuals and species. Ask a call over whenever the individuals show proper behaviour (a call over reinforces previous behaviour happening). Reinforce for the right choices. When doing all of this well, you see a change in behaviour. You strengthen relationships between species and individuals!

Do you have any questions about this topic? Let us know by sending an email to 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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