When we think about the animals in our care, the enrichment we provide is an important part of their lives. We believe that both a healthy mind and a healthy body are needed for an organism to thrive and enrichment is a perfect way to tick a lot of behavioural boxes. There can be many different goals when designing and providing enrichment. Often we are looking to increase activity levels, keep animals engaged for longer, or try to elicit species appropriate behaviours to increase their overall welfare. We do this by applying enrichment programs, often connected to challenges. Through good animal care, many of their needs are met and therefore the time spent on certain wild behaviours is drastically reduced. Provision of enrichment can have some side effects that we don’t always consider. Most of the time when we focus on how successful enrichment is, we are looking at whether the animals engage with the enrichment and if it worked how we intended it to. Here a few common, but perhaps less known side effects of enrichment. 

1. Enrichment Can Cause Aggressive Behaviours Between Individuals

When we add a new device into an exhibit with multiple individuals, we have to think about what this device will do for all animals present in the exhibit. If multiple individuals enjoy the device there is a higher chance of eliciting aggressive behaviour. Especially if the device is interesting for everyone. The aggressive behaviour could get self reinforced simply through interacting with the device. Stimulating enrichments can result in an increase in dopamine, or often food is involved which can lead to aggressive behaviour. Next time you discover that one animal is always chased away when adding a new device, this might be the reason. So it is important to add enough enrichment or perhaps enrichment that involves cooperation between individuals.

2. Strengthens or Weakens Areas

Animal connect situations together. This becomes easy when we as trainers become very predictable. Associative learning, also known as classical conditioning, is something that happens all the time. When we add the new device in a specific area in the exhibit we make that particular area more reinforcing. Which means we have to think ahead of time what effects this could have for the exhibit itself. Likewise if the device creates a negative experience for the animals, they could connect the area where the device is placed as negative. Classical conditioning is constant, we can use the placement of an enrichment device to get animals more comfortable and confident in their exhibit. This will help to get the animal to use more of their exhibit but only if the device is seen as reinforcing by the animal.

3. It Makes Animals Curious

If your enrichment program is dynamic and interesting it can result in an increase in the curiosity of your animals. As with most things you will need to find a balance between positive enrichment and perceived negative enrichment. We want the animal to discover by themselves and slowly make the devices bigger, stranger and harder. This will help animals deal with stressful situations and may lessen the time it takes for the animal to become desensitised or counter condition devices or situations. The animal will learn that new devices or challenges are fun not something to fear. By having a strong enrichment program and changing enrichment on a regular basis, the animal will have fewer negative reactions to changes in their environment.

We discovered with some young dolphins that the enrichment program implemented had a drastic change on the curiosity of the individuals. We observed that this made these young individuals more confident about new devices and more curious in training sessions. We started to use this as well with the fur seals and observed the same.

Enrichment used at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park, Sweden

4. Teaches Problem Solving

Well placed and built devices will teach animals how to problem solve. We can even shape their skills slowly to be able to complete more difficult tasks. Through making devices gradually more challenging, we teach the individuals to problem solve. If we have younger individuals and start this early, we immediately help them to develop confidence and skills in the future. When this happens complex enrichment will be more effective and easier to apply.

The Animal Training Center in Austria uses this with their labradors to make them more confident. They give these puppies many different challenges during their time at the center. Their success of placing these individuals in families is higher.

A labrador puppy conditioned to problem solve themselves at the Animal Training Center, Austria

5. The Individual Becomes Obsessive

Obsessive behaviour is one of the worst case scenarios, from a behaviour standpoint, that can occur during enrichment presentation. What happens is that an individual becomes obsessed and possessive towards a specific object or device added into the exhibit. Specific problems can occur when this happens, the device can end up posing a risk to the animal, the animal can become aggressive towards the keepers or other conspecifics. So how can we get the device back?

There are a couple options you can try:

  • We can try and distract with food or trick the animal. Both these options will take away the trust between you and the animal. Because ultimately the animal wants the toy that you just took away.
  • Tricking or distracting leads to bigger and more challenges in the future. The animal could not want to shift anymore or bring devices with it in the exhibit while being called.
  • But there is another option. Teaching your animal a retrieve is extremely helpful when we need to get items out of the exhibit.
Enrichment given back by a chimpanzee at Amersfoort Zoo

We have to keep practising this and apply a reinforcer that is good enough for the animal to trade. Many times in the case of obsession about a device giving the the device back after a proper retrieval is the best reinforcer. This builds a lot more trust in the future. 

Retrieval of a enrichment item at San Diego Zoo.

What are some side effects you have witnessed with enrichment? We’d love to hear from you. Do you have any questions about this topic? Send us an email! Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at info@zoospensefull.com or visit our website zoospensefull.com 

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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