When training animals for a variety of behaviours, we are constantly trying to decrease one behaviour over another.

We tend to apply ‘differential reinforcement’ when animals exhibit unwanted responses and behaviours. If you dissect your training session, you will discover that you use one of the differential reinforcement techniques listed below.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviour (DRO) 

This technique is used a lot more often than you think.

DRO refers to reinforcing any behaviour other than the behaviour you are trying to get rid of. This behaviour could be compatible with the behaviour you are trying to extinguish. 

For example, a chimpanzee clapping its hands constantly can be seen as an unwanted behaviour. Therefore the chimpanzee will get reinforced for any behaviour other than that of clapping. If the chimpanzee looks to the left or to the right it will get reinforced. This way the clapping slowly extinguishes due to other behaviours being reinforced. 

Any other behaviour than clapping is reinforced.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviour (DRI)

This technique is a bit more complicated and is often used when animals show frustration or exhibit aggressive behaviours.

DRI is especially useful when trying to get rid of aggressive behaviour by reinforcing everything that’s incompatible with the unwanted behaviour. In this case we will not reinforce opening the animal’s mouth or stomping on the ground with their feet or hooves. Instead we will focus on other behaviours like walking away, laying down or another learned behaviour that is incompatible to anything deemed to be aggressive. 

As explained above DRI is a technique that reinforces a behaviour that’s not compatible with the unwanted behaviour. We can’t run and lay down at the same time. An animal can’t sit and stand up at the same time. The goal is to get rid of the unwanted behaviour.

Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviour (DRA)

A very interesting technique, it is used more often than we think. DRA is when we give the animal a choice to perform an alternative behaviour other than what it normally chooses. We teach the animal to do something else (alternative) in the same environment as we see the unwanted behaviour. 

For example we have a dog that barks at cars. We can, through DRA, teach the dog to make a different choice in this situation to receive reinforcement. In the book “Learning and Behavior” from Paul Chance it is even said that a DRA is arguably the most promising alternative to punishment

The bird flies onto the trainer’s back when entering the enclosure. The alternative behaviour is that the bird will fly to a station instead.

The main goal of all these strategies is that a behaviour you consider unwanted will be extinguished over time. As trainers we are constantly deciding which behaviours to reinforce and which behaviours we consider to be unwanted and how to get rid of them. We have to remember that unwanted behaviour is decided by us not by the animal. Animals respond to changes in their environment, these responses are always reinforcing for the animals otherwise the behaviour would disappear.

Any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general? Send us an email or join our Facebook group. 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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