As animal trainers we continually communicate with our animals, through verbal and nonverbal communication. The things we say, our tone, gestures, body language, and facial expressions all play an important part in how we communicate. We want to empower our animals by using positive reinforcement strategies and we teach them different cues mean different behaviours. Clear communication goes a very long way in improving your success and relationship with the animals. 

Have you ever tried to communicate with someone that spoke a different language than you? Depending on the topic, understanding and effectively communicating can be very difficult. But usually over time you will figure out through associations with certain objects or scenarios that communication is possible. Context and antecedent arrangement helps a lot in these situations. To be able to make our animals understand what we want, we have to look at criteria. 

Criteria is a set guideline for a behaviour

What Does Criteria Look Like?

Before we start to train a new behaviour we have to think about how this behaviour looks? Each and every possible movement should be written down, because this is part of our criteria. We should have the criteria written out before we start to train a behaviour. If you as a trainer don’t understand which criteria fits with each signal, then you can run into problems. 

When the behaviour is finished and fully trained, it should reach all the criteria that was outlined in your plan. If the animal doesn’t understand which criteria fits with which signal, it can become confusing and frustrating for the animal and the trainer. Remember some behaviours are more complicated than others, for example a call over behaviour doesn’t have as much criteria as a saliva sample.

Call Over: 

  • Respond to the signal within two seconds.
  • Come to the trainer’s position in ten seconds.
  • Accept the other animals to be with you.

Saliva Sample with an Elephant:

  • Stand in front of the trainer in a straight angle.
  • Trunk is presented where the trainer presents their hand.
  • Water is pored in the trunk, elephant stays in the same position.
  • Trunk is going up, straight above their head, water stays inside the trunk.
  • Trunk is given back to the trainer at the position the trainer asks.
  • When the trainer says “blow” the water is blown out into a cup.

There are many more details within a saliva sample compare to a call over behaviour. The criteria is based on the safety of the trainer and the safety of the animal, especially with bigger animals such as elephants, we have to carefully think about what we want and how we want the behaviour to look. At Zoospensefull we are a big fan of simplicity, we want clear communication with the animals we work with and the criteria should be the main focus to reach this goal. 

The other day I had a conversation with a trainer regarding a behaviour that’s commonly done with horses, this behaviour is called lunging. Lunging is when a horse runs around in a circle and the trainer focuses on the biomechanics of the horse. One circle you might want the hip to come up a bit more and the next circle their head or their backs. This usually means that when one area is asked the other isn’t focused on anymore. One circle the hip movement is rewarded with a click from a clicker (animal has to keep going) while the next circle it is being clicked for the back to go up. We can conclude that there is a high chance that the criteria or what behaviour is being asked is not clear for the horse.


In order to be better, stronger communicators we need to be clear on the criteria and behaviour we want. We can train a behaviour that teaches the horse to run in a circle at a specific speed around an object, this might be one behaviour. Another behaviour might be, run in a circle and when I give the cue ‘hip’ the hip moves simultaneously while the criteria of running in circles is reached as well. The same for the back movement, this is what we call a concept. The horse has to understand how to combine behaviours we ask. To be able to achieve this we have to teach the horse step-by-step what each behaviour looks like to give them a higher chance of succeeding.

Another possible option to achieve this goal is that each circle has its own criteria. When I ask signal number one, this means running in a circle. Signal number two means run in a circle with your hip in a specific position and signal number three means run a circle with your back in a specific position. By training it this way our communication with the horse becomes a lot more black and white.

Every behaviour has criteria, and can be explained by the way it looks. To be able to be successful we have to teach each step of the criteria to the animal. We then have to apply it in the environment where we would like the behaviour to occur. We can’t ask a hip movement if the horse doesn’t understand or know what move your hip means. In order to understand what it means we have to first teach the behaviour and connect this behaviour with a signal. We can then apply it to the situation we want.

Criteria of Selections

If you work in a group scenario, asking one animal to move to another position has several steps compared to the animals not being asked to move. It is different but important. We ask one animal by pointing at the individual to go to anther position, the criteria is:

  • The whole group focuses on the trainer by looking at the trainer.
  • The animal who is pointed at, responds to the signal.
  • The animal goes in the direction of the point signal.
  • This individual responds within one second.

We also want the rest of the group to wait. This isn’t always easy and has to be conditioned properly from the start. But what we ask these other individuals for is:

  • Stay when another animal leaves.
  • Focus on the trainer for further information.

To make criteria stronger we have to reinforce it. When criteria is not reached 100%, this is where the trainer’s skills comes in. Usually we ask the behaviour one more time to see what the exact issue was, maybe it was something we couldn’t control. If the animal doesn’t reach criteria again, we take action and start looking at how it has been conditioned. We then take a step back and retrain the criteria of the behaviour to get the behaviour back to the original standard . 

As trainers we have to understand what it is we are asking our animals to do. How are behaviour looks is an important question we need to consider before we begin training the behaviour. Our goal is to be successful all the time, if we don’t know the criteria we do not set ourselves or the animals up for success. The same can be said when we observe the animal and we know the animal is unlikely reach criteria and still ask the behaviour.

Knowing the criteria or what the behaviour looks like, you set yourself up for success. Remember every behaviour has its own criteria! 

Want to know more about foundation behaviours and their criteria? See also this article:

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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