When should we be predictable and when should we be unpredictable with our animals whether during training sessions or their daily care?

As trainers we want our training sessions to be dynamic and interesting to help motivate the animal but when training our animals when should we switch between being predictable to being unpredictable. We need to condition the animal to unpredictable changes but at the same time we want the animal to understand what to do through predictable approximations.

We want a bridge stimulus or a marker to be predictable to let the animal know reinforcement is coming but we want the type of reinforcer to be unpredictable to keep their motivation high.

A Predictable Show

The show we did in Marineland Canada had a predictable chain of behaviours. If the trainers left the animals would know what to do in their absence but this also meant that the behaviours weren’t very energetic. It seemed like the sea lions did it because they had to. Changing the duration of a behaviour and focusing on the responses of the asked signals, helped for some unpredictability in this predictable show. This resulted in more focus from the sea lion to the trainer.

Predictability in the Recall

In my career I’ve conditioned many animals for emergency recalls. We use recalls for the safety of the animals itself but also for the visitors and the keepers. When we start training a recall we produce a very predictable response for the animals. They come inside they get reinforced, it doesn’t matter how long it takes them to come. When we had this approximation we now stepped away from this predictable situation. We start changing the reinforcement with the amount, the size, the type of reinforcement and the position. The predictable part is that they know they get something but the unpredictable part is they do not have a clue what it will be this time. By adding this unpredictability you will see a big change in the motivation of the individual or the species.

Variety in the reinforcement, Changes behaviour.

Building Unpredictability

Unpredictability makes the animals interested in the scenario, they start to think about their choices and their curiosity increases their predictability of responding.

Many zookeepers talk a lot about the favourite reinforcer for the animals they work with. A favourite reinforcer is extremely predictable for the animal. This directly gives a choice to the animal to participate due to the predictability of the reinforcer. If all the animal gets is peanuts and today they don’t want peanuts then your predictability can cause you to be unsuccessful. This is the same with baiting and luring, by showing your reinforcement you give the power of the reinforcer away due to the predictability of the trainer.

Reinforcer is given away by showing the animal what you have.

Unpredictability doesn’t always work in our favour. Working with flight animals or animals that have a negative history with the zookeepers it is suggested to add reinforcement on a predictable schedule. The animals see you as negative and if on top of this they don’t know when you are coming they would be feeling very stressed. What if we put this on a predictable schedule?

Fearful Animals and Predictability

A study about predictability and punishment (Read HERE) said that when we put a punisher on a predictable schedule the animals are actually less stressed.

This suggests that a situation in which the organism does not know when (or if) an aversive event will occur may be a more aversive situation than one in which the organism does not know its intensity. 

Effects of Predictability of Shock Timing and Intensity on Aversive Responses – Feb. 2011

This helps with training of a species who are fearful of people. By making our actions predictable we can slowly change how the animal perceive us from punishing to reinforcing. Does this mean that when they see us as reinforcing that we stay predictable? No. When the link between us and good things is made we directly go to unpredictable scenarios. Change when the session is happening, what we do in this session, where we do this session and what we use as reinforcer.

Predictable Trainers Routines

Some people claim that certain animals need predictability in their lives. This is mainly based on the routine of the zookeeper. The question is not if some species need predictability but how these animals are conditioned to such predictable schedules. In my opinion this is complacency on our part towards the species in question.

Predictability helps with learning new tasks, desensitisation and counter conditioning. Predictability helps the animal to become more calm in cases like medical conditioned behaviours. Unpredictability builds motivation which means that unpredictability is needed for the participation of the animal. Both are needed for a well established training program.

What are your thoughts? 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!

1 Comment

Michael · June 26, 2020 at 16:12

Hi Peter, very well constructed post. Regards Michael

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