Aggression is very common in the animal world and is part of their natural behavioural repertoire. In spite of this, trainers often consider aggressive behaviour as unwanted. Animal trainers tend to have different views on whether aggressive behaviour needs to be extinguished or not. We can differentiate aggression between their own species or towards us trainers. An animal should be able to be an animal, but when it comes to animal training, we need to put certain rules in place. These rules are connected to a behaviour and are considered to be the criteria of the behaviour. Within training sessions we want to avoid aggressive tendencies so we use a variety of techniques to extinguish those and to reinforce other behaviours. So are we suppressing aggression?

What Is Flash Aggression?

Flash aggression is an aggressive outcome with no precursor detected. Most of the time when aggression occurs there will already have been many signals or precursors. Precursors are part of the communication structure between individuals. 

Aggression can occur for a number of reasons, for example when animals are in breeding season, when they experience medical issues, feeling insecurite or when being punished. Animals show precursors to tell us something. Dolphins tend to chuff or vocalise. Macaws get flushed around the face, raise their feathers and their pupils contract.

A bison positions himself a particular way and starts to breathe heavier. Sea lions assume a cobra pose before they bite. All these signs are precursors to the aggressive outbreak an animal could have. Each species has their own set of precursors and it‘s up to the trainer to recognise these signals. 

Reinforce Behaviour We Want To See In The Future

As trainers we tend to focus on the behaviours we want to see and work towards reinforcing these behaviours. The unwanted behaviours are either ignored and not paid attention to or redirected to a behaviour we want to see. This means precursors are often ignored too.

Who wants to reinforce the aggressive tendency of an animal? 

On the other hand we also want animals to be animals. We want to give them the widest behavioural repertoire for their species. Precursors and aggressive behaviours are part of this repertoire, even if we deem them to be unwanted behaviours.

Suppressing The Precursor

If a macaw shows the precursors of aggressive behaviour, for example positions itself in a certain way or their pupils are contracted, we’re expecting the behaviour to materialise. Because we see it coming we do not want to escalate this to an outbreak of aggressive behaviour aimed at us. The choice we make is to redirect the precursor with an incompatible behaviour incompatible to the precursor i.e. a target.

This means the precursor is not reinforced but the redirected behaviour, (the target) is. By ignoring the precursors, the macaw will gradually stop showing any precursors before a bite.

Teaching The Animal To Take It All Out

We can also look at this issue from another perspective. When working with Morgan the Killer Whale at Loro Parque we discovered quickly that she didn’t have high patience levels. This might have been due to poor communication between the trainers, but compared to the other killer whales hers seem to be much lower. One of the SeaWorld veterinarians was watching a session and after asked me whether or not it would be possible to teach Morgan to get out her frustration on signal. What an interesting thought.

This would involve a lot of trust both from Morgan and us. The most challenging part is to teach the concept of ‘I’m ready and my frustration is lowered down or even gone‘. We can only measure how successful we are by looking at behaviour and the question remains if an animal is aware of their own frustrations and are they conscious enough to understand.

Aggression Reflected Towards Us

It is pretty common when animals fight, especially around food. But when this food aggression occurs between a submissive and dominant animal, most likely the submissive animal won’t be able to get rid of its frustration. In these instances we don’t want to get close to a displaced animal because there is a high chance it will choose to take its frustration out on you.

The tigers direct their stressful situation towards the keeper by showing aggressive behaviour.

When flash aggression occurs we have to start looking into the suppression of precursors. The precursor to aggressive behaviour will still be there but more subtile which now means trainers have to pay even more attention to our animals. On the other hand we want training sessions that start and end well. The training session should be fun for both sides.

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!


Adrián Galán · April 15, 2020 at 18:17

Thanks for the quick reply. I take note of your advice and will write it carefully in my mind. If I find myself in this situation again, I will be able to apply them and contribute to solve the problem


PeterGiljam · April 15, 2020 at 15:56

Dear Adrian, Thank you for your question. What we have to do is look at from which distance the animals are still calm. If there is no way they will be calm we will respond the split second they do something else, for example look the other way. We respond by either walking away or tossing food. If you have such animals who are very aggressive I suggest to prepare food in another exhibit where the gates will be closed. Open the gates when they are slightly more calm. At the end of the story it is a lot of patience and well timed reinforcement. When an animal is this aggressive there is a big chance that they want you to leave and therefore this might be a higher value reinforcer. I remember in this instance (video) they reinforced lower intensity aggression and gradually they got rid of it. Good communication, a lot of patience and teamwork is needed to solve this challenge.

Adrián Galán · April 15, 2020 at 14:01

Taking the attached video as an example, in which aggressiveness is observed directed at the zoo keeper by two tigers … I would like to ask you a question, because I have experienced this situation and I would like to learn from it. How would this situation be faced? What is the decision that the zoo keeper has to take to avoid that frustration being directed towards him when he is going to feed the individuals? How could this behavior be corrected / modified?


PeterGiljam · April 13, 2020 at 21:53

Thank you Gabrielle! Hope you are well.

Gabrielle Harris · April 13, 2020 at 13:34

very interesting and important topic

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