One of the first behaviours we suggest to train are call overs. For us, a call over is a behaviour that when a cue or signal is given the animal comes to the trainer. This behaviour has so many great applications to it; call overs help when counting animals in a large exhibit, it allows you to get a closer look at your animals for visual and health checks and means you can have animals present for a training session. Today we will be talking about the emergency recalls, which are a bit different than the call overs.

What is an emergency recall?

The emergency recall is a signal that elicits the behaviour of the individual or group of animals to come to a set position. The animals have to ignore everything in their exhibit and be at the set position in a specific amount of time. Often this location is into an indoor enclosure or den area. The idea is that in an emergency, for example, someone being in an enclosure with a dangerous animal.

When training call overs you do not necessarily have to go through a full desensitisation plan for scenarios that could happen like you do with recalls, but it is helpful to generalise your call over to create a strong response. There are plenty of ways to train emergency recalls, we have listed our methods from least to most preferred.

1. Pushing the animals

One trainer calls the animals to come inside and as a response the trainers start to herd the animals to the indoor exhibit. While the animals start going inside the trainers behind the animals stop pressing and the animals are reinforced. The trainer signalling the animals gives the animals a reinforcer. 


  • Animals will go inside.


  • You need X amount of trainers depending on the number of animals.
  • The relationship is effected due to insecure consequences.
  • Chances of aggressive behaviour from the individuals are higher.
  • Takes a lot of time and effort.
  • Punishment and negative reinforcement are used to get behaviour.

2. Using hunger

A very simple and easy way is using hunger as a motivation technique. But using hunger comes with its own set of problems. Often when using hunger aggression can be a direct result either towards you the keeper or to other individuals in the group. When the food is given the animals fight a lot more than usual, as each individual maybe be more manic to get their food. The chances of a successful response might be higher but the focus of the animals might not be where you‘d like it to be.


  • Quick response.
  • Motivation is high.
  • Criteria is reached easy at the start.


  • When the animals are full you can’t train.
  • Quick to show aggressive behaviour.
  • Behaviour problems come in faster.
  • Could be seen to compromise welfare.
  • Desensitisation only works when they are hungry.

3. Routines

Every zookeeper has their own routines when working sections or runs. There are discussions around if are good for the animals but they do have a big pro. The animals are able to predict future situations due to our use of routines, this predictability creates the most black and white understanding for the animals about a situation. We can help by adding some rules into a routine, such as a group of animals have to be at a specific position at exactly 4 in the afternoon everyday. The animals eventually understand this routine and begin to show up. This is the moment we add a signal and begin to change the time. The use of routines can be a very effective method. 


  • Easy to establish for the trainer.
  • Situations that are easily connected for the animals.
  • No time is lost.


  • Anticipatory behaviour happens a lot faster.
  • It is harder to get rid of the routine afterwards.
  • Stereotypy can become a problem if not assessed early enough.

4. The smartest and best way

First we connect us to a reinforcer. This might sometimes be a struggle but there are techniques to help you. When this connection is established we will apply direct variation in the reinforcement we give to the animals. This helps to create curiosity which increases the animals motivation to want to be with us or go to a specific position. 

The desensitisation will be much easier when variety is already implemented. This makes the animal want to know what’s happening when they can’t see the reinforcer coming. Whenever the animals start to come in within a specific time, which is fairly easy to establish when applying these variation strategies, we start the desensitisation process. Step by step we work our way to a real life situation, even though we can’t test it’s effectiveness 100% (depending on what is going on) we try to come as close as we can.


  • Establishes a very strong behaviour.
  • Gives the trainer higher changes of success.
  • Welfare is rising in many different areas.
  • Animals can have outside access a lot more often as they can be recalled reliably.
  • Ignoring potential emergency situations is easier due to variation applied.


  • Time consuming depending on species and motivation.
  • Team has to work well together.
  • It needs some planning and preparations and therefore it takes time.


Conditioning your animals for an emergency recall is very important especially in a modern zoo. Visitors step over fences for the perfect selfie, children could fall into the exhibit if parents aren’t paying close attention or visitors don’t understand the potential danger of certain animals. In circumstances like these the persons life is more important than the animals and unfortunately the outcome for the animal is death but by training a strong emergency recall we can give animals a second chance in these situations. 

Training this behaviour needs planning and understanding of behaviour. The team has to be on the same page and the leadership of the zoo has to understand its importance. Everything should be a welfare benefit to the animal and that accounts for each situation we or visitors might put the animals in.

Keep an eye out for our webinar about how to train emergency recalls. There will be two webinars in the coming weeks, part one around motivation strategies and second about creating a strong response. Don’t miss out! If you have 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 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!

1 Comment

Chloe Reynolds · February 8, 2024 at 01:25

Hey. Will this course become available again?

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.