Cover Photo: Kirstin Anderson Hanson – Shape training with Cormorants Website:

Training animals to understand shapes can be a very useful behaviour. We can make our training sessions more fun and interesting for our animals as well as the training becomes more enriching when we work with shapes and colours. Conditioning shapes and colours is not new in the animal training world. It has been proven over and over again, that many animals can discriminate shapes and certain colours. Shapes are essentially the same as targets, they are visual cues that an animal has to discriminate.

Using Shapes to Promote Exercise at Bearizona

There are many different reasons why a facility might decide to train shapes. At Bearizona they use a shape to exercise their big cats, they use this behaviour in their presentations to show how a panther moves. This highlights certain aspects of the animals behaviour and is a great educational component of the presentation.

Bageera at Bearizona
Target at Bearizona Wildlife Park – Dave O’Connel

Separations with Shapes at Kolmården Zoo

At Kolmården Zoo they had a different idea to add a variety in the way they train separations with their fur seals. Another signal was used to make the fur seals search for their shape. The goal was to make them think as they had to find their shape to be able to be separated. To be able to reach this goal the fur seals had to learn their shape and discriminate their own shape from the others.

To train shapes we have to think about more than just introducing a shape as a target, for example, discrimination is an important factor when training a shape. What if we add different shapes, would the animal still be able to recognize their shape ? What about the location? You might have trained a specific location by focusing too much on touching the shape. To be able to see if the animal really understands their shape we should change the amount of shapes presented and the location. Generalisation is an important aspect of training a shape or a colour. It doesn’t mean when the animal touches the shape as a target the behaviour is finished. We are training animals to be able to discriminate a similar object in the same setting.

Colours Instead of Shapes

There are some places who use different colours instead of shapes. Colours are more difficult as we aren’t always sure if the species can see in colour. Some species only see specific colours while other species only see different shades of grey. This can lead to a bit of confusion for the animal.

At Randers Regnskov Denmark they trained their alligators to station for easier management of the individual animals. This is a very cool strategy to train a group of animals when you have multiple animals and one trainer.

Rangers Regnskov, Denmark – Brian Rasmussen

Teaching a Position to Be Fed

Shark exhibit at OdySea – Arizona

Some facilities use shapes that are connected to positions. At the OdySea in Arizona they trained different shark species to come to different areas in the pool. These areas all have a different shape and each shape is connected to a different species of shark in the aquarium. This gives more control over the individuals and their health. Especially when your team is small, this is a fantastic way to feed and check your animals.

Different species of sharks in different positions at OdySea.

Training shapes and colours can help you and your in a variety of scenarios. It is up to you with what you want to connect the objects with. You can even make it mean a concept, for example when you touch this shape the slide will open and when you touch this shape the slide will close. This gives the animals more control over their environment and stimulates them cognitively. Group management becomes easier and more stable. It gives animals variation and using shapes can make your days more effective.

Want to learn more about this and other topics? Sign yourself up for the upcoming webinar Cooperative Care and Medical Emergency Situations on the 29th of October from 8PM CET. Check out our website for more information and other 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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