As animal trainers we have to think about many different things during our training sessions. It’s not just “good behaviour, reinforce” there is much more to it. As we train our animals we focus on the consequences to make sure the behaviour will happen again in the future. We know that when we reinforce behaviour, behaviour increases and we know by using punishment behaviour decreases. Within our training sessions we make a lot of different choices to help our animals have a successful outcome, one such choice is to count the behaviours both successful and unsuccessful.

Intelligence of animals in your training

Working with dangerous animals in semi-protective contact can be quite challenging, and killer whales are an intelligent species to work with and they put your training skills to the test. While working with killer whales, I’ve learnt when counting the behaviours you ask the animal to preform, that your success rate and the motivation level of your animal can change drastically. When you ask a behaviour and the animal fails due to uncontrollable circumstances in the environment, we aren’t able to reinforce the animal. When this happens two or three times in a row the motivation of the individual participation will decrease. This means that we have to count the successful and unsuccessful behaviours to be able to keep the animal motivated to be in our session and increase interest.

A common training session with many trainers.

Motivation increases by choosing the right response

Every time you have a failure as a response to a signal, motivation drops. Every time the animal succeeds motivation increases. We can respond differently to incorrect behaviours but they all have one thing in common and that is to get the animal to have a correct response again.

Option 1: We ask the incorrect behaviour again directly after.
Option 2: We ask another behaviour first and come back to ask the same behaviour again afterwards.
Option 3: We LRS then ask a behaviour with a high success rate and ask the previously incorrect again.
Option 4: We LRS and ask the incorrect behaviour again.

An LRS (Least Reinforcing Scenario) The trainer pauses 2 to 3 seconds following an incorrect response at the same point where reinforcement would have been applied following a correct response.

It depends on the animals which option works best. Personally I had most success with option three.

Let’s say you ask the animal to run around a tree. The animal fails, but eventually comes back. We reinforce the LRS, this tells the animal that ‘regardless of what happened you still have the motivation to proceed in the session, therefore, there is a chance of reinforcement’. After the LRS we ask a very easy, known behaviour: a target, give me your foot, paw or flipper, the animal is reinforced once again, which means that their motivation increases. Then we ask the behaviour ‘run around the tree’ again, but this time the animal succeeds. The build up back to success is due to counting the behaviours we asked. Every successful response from the animal gives it an opportunity to be reinforced, therefore, the animals motivation to keep going is extended.

The success of the animal in question

Whenever we give a signal we have to think about how successful the animal will be. When the animal doesn’t respond, we have to ask ourselves why this happened and act accordingly. Get into the options presented above and then move on. Many times trainers ask a behaviour multiple times over and over again. Motivation drastically declines and there is a high chance of frustration or not being interested to participate anymore, a decrease in motivation.

Counting the behaviours in your session, the ones you could reinforce and which ones you couldn’t, helps the success rate for yourself and the animal. Any incorrect behaviour where a reinforcer isn’t given decreases the motivation to participate, every correct behaviour increases the participation. Asking a behaviour multiple times without success decreases drastically and this makes it very difficult to get back on track again. In many cases it’s better to end your session on a positive note because the focus of the animal is completely gone due to the trainers choices.

Through counting those correct and incorrect behaviors you will have an effect on their motivation and frustration level. If an animal is successful quickly it’s more likely to repeat the behaviour again, which means its motivation goes up and frustration goes down. As long as the trainer picks it up quick enough.

Working with approximation plans and behaviours the animal already knows, your session will look like this. After an incorrect response you will ask an approximation or other behaviour to be able to reach success again. The animals motivation will be affected by a correct and an incorrect response.

You can learn a lot from counting behaviours. I’ve seen animals become better and it started to be more joyful to see animals trying to work together with you. Nothing is better than seeing the animals excitement!

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!


PeterGiljam · August 4, 2020 at 09:35

Thank you Sylvia! It works very well if you want better participation of your animal 🙂

Sylvia · July 27, 2020 at 13:26

What a great article with so much benefit from it 🙂

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