Over the years I have learned a lot about behaviour and why it occurs. There is always a reason a behaviour occurs, and there is often motivation connected to behaviour. The fact that there are most likely emotions, and even thoughts and feelings, coming alongside most behaviour is obvious. The problem we have here is that we are unable to measure these grey areas that are presented with behaviour.

There are many grey areas we shouldn’t be focussing on.

Photo: John Bryant / Getty Images

Use smell for example. An animal smells a reinforcer i’m about to use and now doesn’t want to do the asked behaviour. The grey area really is that we don’t know what the animal smells, but we assume it’s smelt the reinforcer. It could just be the smelly trainer, who knows. We actually have no idea what the animal smells, we also don’t know to what extent they are affected by the smell. There are a lot of questions to be asked in this case. We could think exactly the same for ‘what does the animal see’ for example.

We have no idea what the animal truly sees, but we do know they see something. But what we can do, is put the animal in an environment where we hope the animal is smelling a specific smell we are looking for, or is going to see the object we want them to see. Take a diabetic alert dog for example. Very well trained animals that are searching for that specific smell they are trained for. 

I recall a situation when a beluga was being trained outside with a white target. The beluga wasn’t able to touch the targetuntil the trainer painted a black X on the target.

Take away the unknowns!


The whole point of the matter is that when we train our animals, we have to take away as many options and unknowns as possible, for us to understand why the animal is behaving the way it does. Which change in environment makes this behaviour happen? Or we can look at it this way, what triggers the motivation of performing our wanted behaviour over the other behaviour the animal chose to do?

When I worked with a sea lion in Canada, Cleveland, she always had an incorrect response on my signal by running to somebody else to then bite them on their leg. Of course not something you want, but the question is what made her do this? What was the motivation? We would never know. The only thing I knew is that I have to put her in an environment where it is more likely she practices another behaviour, shifting her motivation the other way. In this case it was the timing and the amount of reinforcer which changed that balance. I replaced one behaviour over the other by focusing on the animals’ motivation. 

The Bull in Musth.

One day an elephant trainer came to me with some questions. I had given him, and the team, a variety of different courses about animal training. He understood the theory but was stuck with the challenge of training an elephant bull in musth. He explained when a bull is in musth there is no way you can get any connection with the bull. I explained to him that it is not about what you want, it is about what motivates the animals. With this being the case can you have something which balances the motivation towards you instead? He understood and went away to give it a try. 

Observe the animal to see what it wants.

It is all about how well you can observe the animal you are working with to see what the animal prefers doing. Can we then use this as their own motivation to reinforce the animal for something else? We are able to do this. This theory is called the pre-mack principle. Want to know more about the premark principle? CLICK HERE. You reinforce a behaviour which is less likely to happen with a behaviour that is more likely to happen. This can increase the motivation of preference in behaviour. For example an animal prefers to play instead of lying down. Why not reinforce the intention of lying down with playing? Now the motivation of wanting to lie down goes up drastically. 

At the end of the day, training is all about searching for the behaviour we are looking for, putting the animal in the environment where it is most likely performing the behaviour you want (Want to know more about antecedent arrangement? CLICK HERE) and changing the motivation to a behaviour you want the animal to perform. 

The environment is prepared to give the sheep more success.

Get rid of the labels, this will only make you regress.

We have to take away all the labels. This was the same for when I had the chance to coach a team of trainers working with birds of prey. We decided to work completely choice based. The trainers were very motivated to do so and they built a successful program which still stands. A situation popped up where a bird just flew off. This team was in a forest area and when they would fly their birds of prey there would always be chances of the birds flying off into the trees. The discussion came up why this was happening. Was the bird scared? Bored maybe? Looking for other reinforcers? Wanting to see the view? We had no idea. We could talk about this for months but if we look at the facts that we knew, the bird was in the tree which was more motivating than being with the trainer. Otherwise the bird would be with the trainer.

We took the problem and the trainers started to work on their reinforcement methods, where they used different food types and variable amounts. The reinforcement wasn’t shown previous to the asked behaviour which was normal at first. Want to know more about Baiting? CLICK HERE. We only showed the reinforcer whenever the animal responded to the signal. The trainers slowly became more motivating to the birds than the trees.

The best part was that the trainers could then use flying into a tree as reinforcers. They would allow the birds to go into the tree after an asked behaviour. This helped and strengthened the dialogue between the trainers and their birds. They did walks through the park while the birds were following the trainer. Great to see the difference in behaviour and especially the relationship the trainers developed over time. 

A trainer walks with the a Harris hawk through the zoo.

Taking all the labels away is very difficult but if you as a trainer are able to understand that behaviour only happens due to a reinforcer, you start to look differently at behaviour. You start to wonder what motivates the animal to perform this behaviour? And you start to think about how you can find something which is more motivating to the animal than what it is doing at that point. 

Animals only react to what is reinforcing to them.

When you get there, the world of training with empowering, and only empowering, techniques is yours!

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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