One of the most important foundation behaviours to have at home and in the zoo, is the ability to separate your animals into other areas. Not only does this enable you to clean exhibits, enclosure maintenance, rotate paddocks, isolate animals for veterinarian procedures, but also create exciting enrichment programmes. With all these important benefits, separating animals seems to be one of the most challenging behaviours for trainers to work with.

What are we conditioning when separating animals?

Separating animals is based on the trust between the trainer and the animal. The step of the gate closing and be separated from the group or from an area which is more reinforcing, is not easy. The challenges with separations go a lot further than accepting a gate to be closed. To be able to reach our goals we have to overcome some challenges:

  • Separate an individual from a well established group.
  • The well established group accepting the individual to be separated.
  • Balance of reinforcement in different environments.
  • The gate being closed.
  • The time the individual is separated. 
  • The time the individual is on its own.

One of the biggest challenges seems to be when the animal is on its own. In many cases, regardless whether it is at home or in a zoo setting, often when the gate is being conditioned and we finally can close the gate we think our goal has been reached. However, this is where the biggest problem can occur, separation anxiety. 

Separation anxiety happens more often than we think with household pets, especially dogs, but what is it exactly? 

Separation Anxiety – a condition where a dog becomes emotionally distraught when separated from a specific person or persons, or when left alone.

– Nicole Wilde “Don’t Leave Me” 

In Nicole‘s book she points out that not all situations are a result of separation anxiety. Many cases there are dogs that are left with another person or another dog and the dog will be pretty calm, in this case it is a case of isolation distress. 

How will this work in the zoo?

In a modern zoo setting we want our animal to interact with each other more than they interact with us humans, with a household that has a dog this is very differently. Therefore, isolation distress is a better explanation of what we often experience in zoological facilities when we try to separate animals. Most often we concentrate on animals being separated from a social group. We focus a lot on the individual being separated and not on the rest of the group accepting this individual being separated. 

DeterminIng if one animal doesn’t want to be separated from the other can be difficult. It is important to get both parties involved in separation conditioning the same situation.

Elephants communicate on a very low frequency we humans can’t hear. We only see the outcome of the communication the animals by behaviour, which can be a challenge. We conditioned the individuals to be separated from each other which was a lot harder as we thought. We started with small steps moving gates around while they were reinforced, which led us to be successful.

It took a while to reach this goal because of the challenges of a herd of elephants.

The steps after were important because we had to build a specific trust and use predictability. By using predictability it help the trust building with the animals. What I mean by predicability is we ask an animal to go into an area and come back right away, so we conditioned the elephant that when you go in, you will come back out.

We saw the same when training dolphins. When one individual didn’t want to be separated, either because the trust wasn’t there with the trainer, one area was more reinforcing than the other or the individual wanted to be with another, we solved it using predicability.

We also used other animals by asking another individual to separate and come back right away, multiple times, this showed the other animals that we wouldn’t actually separate. In this case we asked the individual we were working on to go in and come back as well to reach the step closer to closing a gate. 

The stress after a gate is closed

Many times trainers would close a gate right away and leave the individual by itself. This can create isolation distress. Some signs of isolation distress include:

  • The inability to gain the focus of the animal.
  • Repetitive behaviour possible due to stress.
  • Vocalising.
  • Aggression.
  • Walking or swimming in the same pattern.

Depending on the degree of the stress or severity of response of the animal will inform you what to do. When the animal show distress many of us will open the gate immediately, but this will reinforce the stressful behaviour and the issue might reoccur the next time you try a separation.

What do you want to do? 

If the animal begins showing isolation distress we went too fast in closing the gate. We have to take into consideration the animals comfort level and make sure our steps are small enough. There has to be a level of trust between you and the animal to successfully separate them. Closing a gate doesn’t mean the animal has to be on the other side of the gate, the animal can be in a comfortable area together with his group and still be conditioned for gates to be opened and closed. Many of you will say this is not the goal, which is true but it is a successful approximation for the animal to understand the gate will open again. 

The very first steps of a separation happens in the same exhibit. Teaching individuals to walk away from each other.

Slowly we move the animal back and forth from where the individual has to be. Slowly we teach the animal the gate closes but will open again. This step is important for the future because in further steps we tell the animal when the gate closes you get the chance of reinforcement and on top of that the gate opens. If you are here we start to extend the time between when the gate is closed and reopens again. Now we condition the individual that is it okay to be on your own. 

Being able to shut an animal away is not where the behaviour ends because if we leave it there, the individual will, after a short time, become distressed. We haven’t conditioned the animal to be alone for any duration, or to be comfortable on its own without us being there. We can’t forget what a huge effect separation has on the behaviour of an animal, especially a social one. 

In household animals this can escalate to separation anxiety because people really think most of the time the animal should just learn, or the animal should know, and through repetitive action it will get used to it. All these statements will make the problem even worse over time. 

When you have problems with the animal not wanting to separate anymore, you most likely never conditioned that being by yourself for a while is fun and ok. You most of the time have not had the time to observe the animal because if it is in a group setting there is a high chance that the the individual showed you that he or she didn’t want to separate. 

The opposite can be true as well. While one is separated the rest of the group might become stressed afterwards. Reinforcing the other side for allowing one to separate is as important in social groups. Video Source: Marine Science Center, Rostock

With dolphins and killer whales we are constantly looking at the comfort levels of all individuals regardless who would be separated. We observed them and if we felt we couldn’t close the gate, we would go back an approximation and make sure everything was okay for the animals. At the end the animal doesn’t know that you will close the gate and open it immediately. But if you have built up that predicability and trust with the animal they will accept the closing of the gate. If you can’t be trusted and believe me this is sad to say, but this is very much the case, the animal will not separate. 

Isolation distress happens very often in the zoo. By smaller steps, proper observation before, during and after the session, we can reach our goals faster. Predictability will help the trust you have with the animal and taking small steps will make you excel in your separations. 

Good luck! 

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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