At Zoospensefull we have worked with many zoos worldwide. One of our main objectives is to build a variety of successful training programmes. These programmes are both with free and protected contact animals. Even when we primarily train animals in a free contact scenario, we also recommend training animals to understand a protective contact system. Over time we have identified several benefits to training in protected contact that you do get with free contact training.

Trainer Safety

Safety is always an important topic regarding animal training. Before working with any animal, we look more into the health and safety implications for each species. Even when we understand an animal‘s behavioural repertoire, incidents are usually due to trainer error. Many potential safety risks can be solved through protective contact. It gives the trainer that extra level of safety. This is not the main reason we advocate protective contact strategies but it’s something we think every trainer should experience.

Target training with wild boars at Namsskogan Family Park, Norway

As trainers we need to understand behaviour and its consequences. If we understand why an animal elicits a certain behaviour, we can have a greater effect on it. Each behaviour serves a function. An animal will engage in a behaviour for a reason or purpose; we might not understand the why, but trying to understanding an animal’s motivation to perform the behaviour means we can effectively try to manage it.

What Makes a Protective Contact Programme Better for the Trainer?

Trainers need to understand the consequences of behaviour and especially how they can have a direct effect on the motivation of the animal to participate. When we are in free contact, it’s a lot easier to gain access to the animals because we can go right up to them. However, this is not always seen as a positive from the animals’ perspective. The fact that we can go to the animal doesn’t mean that the animal sees us as a motivational factor. This can be seen by animals behaving aggressively, mothers with their babies, or animals that are used to resource guarding.

When the trainer and the animal understand the strategy of protective contact there is a lot of positive effects happening for both parties.

For the Trainer: 

  1. The trainer develops a skillset mainly based on motivational procedures. This means, for example, when the animal decides to leave, we can’t always go after them. We have to motivate the animal to come back and stay with us. 
  2. The trainer becomes more focused on behaviour they want instead of responding to unwanted behaviour. 
  3. The trainer learns to be prepared for the success of the animal. 
  4. Antecedent arrangement becomes more important. We can only prepare the exhibit whenever the animals aren’t in them. This extends the skillset of the trainer in a pro active way.
  5. The trainer has to be creative in training a variety of different behaviours. 
  6. The balance of reinforcement has to be taken into consideration.
  7. The trainer practises the timing of their bridge a lot better and in more detail.
  8. Training opportunities for the trainer are extended.
The environment of the exhibit allows the trainers to find the best place in the exhibit for the highest chances of succes. Antecedent arrangement is thought of before starting the session.

For the Animal:

  1. The animal actually has more choice. The trainer can’t follow the animal. If you work with hoof stock for example, they are fed ad-lib; it’s a challenge to motivate them, but at the same time this creates more choices for the animal.
  2. The animal has more control in the decisions they make themselves.
  3. The animal is being empowered to do what they want to do.
  4. Errors don’t necessarily exist, which directly suggests animals always behave based off what is reinforcing for them.
  5. Protective contact is based a lot more on positive experiences for the animal.
  6. The animal is safe.
The Gorilla leaves the trainer to drink some water. We can’t do anything about it at that moment in time. It has control over his own decisions to do so. This means that we always work together with our animals which empowers them as well.

Depending on the safety regulations of the zoo, protective contact allows trainers who are on their own to still train their animals. At many of the collections we consult with, we often hear they do not have enough time to train. At one such collection we had a further discussion to see how we could effectively work training into the routine. The difficulty for this zoo, was that when the keeper was by herself, she couldn’t train due to safety restrictions. This wasn’t based on her time management or that she couldn’t do it due to lack of time; it was just down to multiple keepers being required. We helped her develop a protective contact programme, which enabled her to condition the animals for start of session signal and a follow behaviour fairly quickly.

Working in protective contact helps with some important foundation behaviours, like gating. From our experience, an animal will gate a lot easier when they understand the protective contact strategy and ensuring the balance of reinforcement in the area we want the animal to go to is higher. The accidental end of session signal (e.g. closing a gate) and terminating the session is decreased. An animal that understands protective contact, will separate and gate easier because they have experience with the session continuing after the gate has been closed.

Having the option to work in Protective Contact strengthens your gating behaviour as seen in this video with South African Fur Seals.

From our perspective their are many pros for the trainer and the animal. Therefore, here at Zoospensefull we believe that each animal whether free contact or protective contact should be conditioned to both. It is also important to remember just because an animal understands a behaviour in free contact does not guarantee they will in protective contact.

Want to learn more about common training signals? Make sure you join us for our Training Signals webinar. We will discuss start and end of session signals, different types of bridging and more! It will be on 22 July 2020 at 8pm CET. Don’t miss out! Get your tickets here. 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!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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