As trainers, which include zookeepers and other animal care professionals, we often have a very close relationship with the animals we care for. Sometimes present for their birth, watching them grow up and mature, reproduce and even caring for them in their golden years results in a very strong, often emotional connection. Looking after an animal day in day out, ensuring their needs are met and their welfare is high, is one of the top priorities of a keeper. This close, often loving relationship also comes with some problems. Trainers are too quick to make assumptions about how the animals feel in any given situation. 

We don’t know about feelings

We can all agree that animals have feelings towards different situations, individuals and other animals, but we are not able to definitively conclude what they feel and when. We only can see through their behaviour what is going on. Emotions and behaviour go hand in hand and behaviour is what we can measure, not feelings. Let us say you find a coworker or a friend crying, there could be a lot of different feelings happening at the same time, which as a passer-by, we won’t understand. You can cry because you are happy, you are in pain, you are scared, cry out of empathy, stress or just because you see something you never thought you would. For example, that bird that was never able to fly who now flies two meters. Even when the person explains to you how they feel, we still don’t know exactly what they mean as we all experience feelings differently.

Adding human feelings to animals

I remember a training programme at a zoo where the keepers were convinced that the animals are feeling a specific way. They explained how two different animals have a specific feeling towards one another and how this specific individual was feeling in the group and so on. All of this speculation actually blocked the potential of the animals they were working with. Reviewing their programme as a consultant, I observed the trainers reinforcing a lot of incorrect behaviour followed by “No, not that, but here you have your reinforcer” or “come on you know this, come on now, don’t be lazy” or asking for a behaviour multiple times. The question is, won’t these assumptions just block the learning for the trainer and the learner completely? 

Looking at behaviour objectively we can only determine that reinforcement increases behaviour and punishment decreases behaviour. Animals having conflicts between each other should be left to solve them by themselves and we should not act towards them as if we are part of their hierarchy. This is common outdated practice. We do know how to minimise challenges in the group by applying empowering training and reinforcement strategies.

Behaviour is coming back due to predictable events

As a consultant I’m always looking at behaviour and the likelihood of it returning. Many times it does return without the trainers realising. Through predictable events, animals respond to what they perceive is coming next. As trainers we might think that when the animal is spending time with us, they must like us or that one ’favourite’ animal that you have which comes to you all the time? Do we feel they like us or is the animal just with you because it is reinforced for the behaviour it shows and has figured this out through predictable events? 

Being objective makes you a better trainer. Instead of saying which feeling causes this behaviour? We should ask ourselves which environment causes the behavior? Because only then we can come to subjects where we can look into solution. 

Taking away labels

At a zoo I used to work at, we tried to elevate the training programme with the elephants but the trainers couldn’t step away from ‘some individuals are in their mood again’. While we tried to understand what ‘mood’ meant I personally came to the conclusion that this specific label was something placed in situations where the trainers didn’t understand what was happening. They blamed the animals feelings for their behaviour, instead of looking at the behaviour objectively to be able to try and solve the issue. 

A couple questions to ask ourselves are:

  • What was the change in the animals environment?
  • Was a new trainer working this animal? 
  • Are all the criteria asked for the behaviors the same for all trainers? 
  • Is the animal hurt? 
  • Have we accidentally reinforced different behaviour? 
  • Is the reinforcer as effective as we think it is? 
  • Are there reinforcer we give without us knowing we give them? 

The list keeps going. The whole idea is to take away all variables before we make a statement of how this animal might be feeling. If you get through all these points, you most likely won’t label this animal a specific way because you came to a solution long before it becomes necessary. 

Adding some rules changes the way we see behaviour

In the first story the animals we were discussing were chimpanzees. One chimpanzee was labelled as the ‘weakest’ and lowest in hierarchy. What actually happened was that the trainers went in the training sessions thinking this animal was the lowest or weakest. Therefore, they responded in a way where they called the individual in question multiple times. Reinforced for slowly coming into the dens and gave this individual excuses that the trainers thought to be true. The reinforcement was very little and always the same, everything was very predictable because it was believed that this is what the chimpanzees needed.

From an objective standpoint

If we look at this objectively this specific individual was reinforced for responding after being called multiple times, which had conditioned the individual to come when they felt like it. Apart from this, the trainers were happy she would ‘do something’ which now meant that the trainers reinforced her for responding to the multiple signals given. All of this together made their programme very grey to the chimpanzees. Without the trainers knowing, they developed a system based on what they thought they knew about the chimpanzees feelings. 

Stepping away from these thoughts of feelings the animal training coordinator at the park discovered that the issues present in the hierarchy had been conditioned. They started to look at the situation objectively and discovered pretty quickly that this “submissive” individual wasn’t all that submissive and was perfectly comfortable with any other chimpanzee in the group. The coordinator decided to apply cooperative feeding and took away the predictability of the same food reinforcer. This had a positive impact on the success of the training system. They also made sure that the chimpanzees responded to the first signal given and not asked countless times. 

By adding some rules to the training system and objective behaviour management, there was a direct change in behaviour. 

It is ok to love your animals, but being grey in your training system makes your relationship and the actions you take insufficient. To develop our animals we have to look at them objectively, which does not mean they do not have feelings or emotions, but we need something we can measure. We can’t measure feelings, feelings are assumptions we don’t know enough about. 

If you want to develop yourself as a trainer and keep growing, we have to look into what the changes are in the environment, and what elicits the specific behaviour we see. Only then we can have an effect on our animals in a positive way. 

Check out our website for more information and webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at upskilling your basics, take a look 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!


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