Conscious or Unconscious Reinforcement, Anticipation or Stereotyping

Animal training is all about responding to behaviour but what if the behaviour that occurs is repetitive? With repetitive behaviour it is useful to try and identify if the behaviour is a result of conscious or unconscious reinforcement, anticipation or stereotyping. Stereotypical behaviours are thought to be caused by lack of suitable opportunities within an environment that inhibit the animals from satisfying their normal behavioural needs and usually consist of repetitive, restricted patterns of behaviour. Often stereotypic behaviour can be a result of the animal trying to cope with something but knowing the exact cause is where it becomes difficult. The strategy we at Zoospensefull apply is try to finding a predictable pattern.

It is up to us as trainers to figure out what the predictable events are that might be responsible for the behaviour to occur.

Chimpanzees Eating Their Own Faeces

Chimpanzees are extremely intelligent, complex, social creatures. When talking about possible unwanted or repetitive behaviours in chimp there are a few that are quite common: regurgitation and reingestion of food, rocking, over grooming and coprophagy (eating of faeces). It is not uncommon to hear of chimpanzees eating their own faeces. In this case the keepers tried to figure out why this behaviour was occurring and started by looking first at the chimpanzees nutrition and which foods they gave them. They discovered that whenever the chimps were given corn the behaviour of eating their faeces increased. Corn is an especially common food found undigested in stool. This is because corn has an outer shell comprised of cellulose and the body doesn’t have enzymes that specifically break down the cellulose.  So if often comes out the same way it went in. As a result the chimpanzees will eat it again. To reduce this behaviour the keepers decided to take corn out of their diets. 

The Pacing Elephant

Another example is of an elephant that would pace at a specific time each day. We observed this behaviour through the use of CCTV. We also used the CCTV to discover a predictable pattern happening every morning at exactly the same time. Each morning before the keepers arrived the lights would turn on automatically, after about 45 minutes the keeping staff would arrive and start to talk to the elephants and get changed. The predictable pattern of light and keepers arrival caused the elephant to pace.

In both examples predictable patterns were created by the keepers. It becomes more difficult when the pattern isn’t something you can see easily. Whenever this happens we have to understand our own behaviour and our own patterns to see what effect they have on the animals. How do we prepare before a feed or clean? What clues do we give before we start a task and how do the animals respond? Those are the first questions you want to be answered and it all comes back to observation. 

If we can’t find a pattern here, we are going to look at what makes the behaviour occur. Is it due to a food source the animal can see but can’t reach or is it prepared in enrichment and it will get it later on, but can see it lying there? Is it the value of a food source? If the animal lives in a group we need to ask ourselves is there enough for everybody? The animal who shows stereotypy might want a food source which is taken away by a group member and starts stereotyping as a coping behaviour. 

Anthropomorphic Thinking and Labelling

The hardest part of figuring out why the stereotypic behaviour is happening is keeping away from anthropomorphic thinking and labelling. Adding human emotions into the behaviours and animals we work with. The goal is to find the reason why such a behaviour happens and what the outcome is for the animal. 

Identifying a Pattern is Necessary

Identifying a particular pattern can be very helpful, remembering predictable patterns can be anything. Each morning the animal is always pacing in the off-display area in a specific corner of the den. This would be an example of a pattern. Other patterns can include the animal only shows their behaviour whenever we move a slide. The animal only shows this behaviour when it is in pain. We have to be open minded to what the animal is doing and why. 

Rocking Elephant

Predictable patterns build potential excitement. One elephant at a zoo where I helped out the team had a behaviour of rocking back and forth whenever she wasn’t being trained. We started to observe her and came to a conclusion that her behaviour was connected to boredom. Whenever she wasn’t trained it seemed like she wasn’t able to cope with the situation of doing something for herself. We saw a pattern that whenever she wasn’t able to make a decision she started the rocking. 

Our game plan was to teach her to do something for herself. We added a complex enrichment programme but this didn’t completely solve the issue. We decided to look at it differently and empower her to make different decisions. A training session would end and she would immediately begin rocking. We decided to use a training session as reinforcement for not rocking, which started with one second of no rocking. This was then built out into longer periods of time. We added an end of session signal and waited until she would leave, we then reinforced her for leaving and not rocking by placing the reinforcement in front of her.

The enrichment programme, training sessions, and end of session signals all helped to decrease the rocking behaviour. Currently she only starts rocking whenever she finds out something fun will happen. This means that she understand the predictable patterns of the keepers where she predicts events to happen. 

For you to understand where the stereotypic behaviour comes from, you need to find out the patterns within the behaviour. Sometimes you need to think outside the box to be able to find them. When you discover a pattern you are able to change it and measure its effect on the behaviour. Read more about working through stereotypical behaviour here.

Have you solved stereotypic behaviours? 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 an email to 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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