There are many ways to train a completely new behaviour. One of these techniques is capturing. Capturing is a technique where the animal spontaneously preforms the behaviour and we reinforce directly. We capture the behaviour by making it occur more often to then add a signal to it. 

Capturing is a quick way of conditioning new behaviours with the animals you are working with. Let’s have a deeper look into this technique. Back in the day, many dolphin shows where based on behaviours that were captured. As trainers we didn’t know as much as we do now and a show was high on the priority list. There are stories that trainers used to sit alongside the pool and just wait until the behaviour they were looking for happened, they would then reinforce in the hopes that the behaviour would occur more often. 

Capturing is still commonly used with the same goal as the story above, to get the behaviour as fast as possible and put it on a cue. It is a clever idea but it‘s not always that easy. What we have to look into is how an animal is conditioned to a behaviour and if the technique we use, such as capturing, is really the right choice in that moment. 

Arctic fox training at Namskoggan Familie Park, Norway

Pros of capturing: 

  • Teaches you importance of your timing of the bridge
  • You get behaviour happening very quickly
  • The animal is very engaged in the session
  • It is great mental enrichment

Cons of capturing:

  • There is no history 
  • The animal will preform the behaviour very often
  • Some behaviours you aren’t able to capture
  • You have to capture off cue as well

Regardless of the great pros capturing has, I want to mention that the cons are a lot stronger. The first reason:

There is No History 

When building a behaviour the history is very important. If there is no history to the behaviour we can’t go back a step. We haven’t built each step the way we do with targeting. If the behaviour deteriorates we have to replicate the situation to capture the behaviour again, which can be very difficult. Behaviour happens spontaneously, therefore there is no history. This directly means that maintaining this behaviour is a lot more difficult.

You Elicit Behaviour to Happen Very Quickly

As we know, if we reinforce behaviour, the behaviour will come back more frequently. Capturing a spontaneous behaviour makes the behaviour happen more often. If the animal hasn’t connected the right cue yet to the behaviour, this behaviour could happen all the time and in some cases, such as a vocalisation, could be a very annoying behaviour.

Some Behaviours You Aren’t Able to Capture

This technique won’t help with all behaviours. For example we are not able to capture a one flipper stand with a sea lion or a blood sample behaviour with a parrot. This technique works only with specific behaviours the animal is able to preform on its own. E.g. natural occurring behaviours.

You Have to Capture Off Cue As Well

This is a forgotten part because as easy as it is to capture a behaviour spontaneously, it is harder to get the animal not to do it anymore. Remember that when we capture a behaviour and the animal doesn’t 100% understand the signal yet, the animal will preform the behaviour without a signal as well. We want to capture the animal being calm, which can be a pretty challenging part of this technique we can not over look. 

The 4 Shaping Techniques All Together

Capturing is part of 4 different techniques we can use to shape behaviour. We have Targeting (read more about it HERE), Mimicking (read more about it HERE), Modelling (read more about it HERE) and Capturing. While shaping an animal for a new behaviour in many cases some techniques are used simultaneously. For example teaching an animal to touch the target we need to capture looking at the target and slowly moving forward to the target. When we teach a mouth open with modelling we have to capture the moment when the animal starts moving themselves. When we train a baby orca a blood sample position, we add the mother beside the baby to do the same behaviour. Mimicry, sometimes modelling or targeting and capturing are used in this case. 

When an animal walks towards us and we give the animal attention, we are capturing behaviour. When an animal is pacing and we decide to stop this behaviour by interfering, we might capture the pacing behaviour. When an animal is aggressive and you leave the animal or the area there is a chance that we might capture this aggression.

Pacing elephant reinforced by trainers.

We are responding to behaviour all the time, through reinforcing the animals. Remembering reinforcement is not only food we can reinforce through interaction, separation, acknowledgment and remembering our behaviour impacts their behaviour. Taking all this into consideration we capture more behaviour than we think. 

The technique of capturing has to be thought of well in advance because capturing can also lead to more welfare complications. But if understood well it is a great tool to use!

What behaviours have you captured? 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 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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