Training animals has been a passion of mine for such a long time. Practising what I learned from other trainers and from reading books has shaped me to become the trainer I am today. Zoospensefull’s main goal is to share the best practises for the animals we work with. We believe that everything we do should be a welfare benefit to our animals. This also means how we train behaviour to reach the goals we are looking for. 

Everybody that has or works with animals uses consequences to build behaviour. This can be deliberately or not but we do have a continuous effect on behaviour. Whenever animals behave a specific way there is an outcome which gives the animal the experience in their environment. When we start to train a new behaviour we focus on the consequences for the behaviour which either increases or decreases behaviour. There are many different ways to Rome when we train our animals for the goals we have. Some are better than others.

There are a variety of consequences that we use to train our animals. All of them are focused on either increasing or decreasing behaviour. For the best outcomes in behaviour we want to use reinforcement techniques as this is the best consequence we can give. What I find interesting is that you see trainers using both while conditioning the animals for a new behaviour. Some use the technique of applying a consequence which decreases one behaviour which makes another behaviour more likely to happen and when this behaviour happens we add a reinforcer.

Are we doing this deliberately or not at all? 

When we are horse riding in a traditional way we add pressure to steer the animal with the rein left or right. We want to decrease the chances of going straight by applying pressure to the direction we want to go. We then when the horse moves the correct direction we release the pressure at the moment does go the direction we want to go. We decrease behaviour to increase another behaviour to then apply the reinforcer. 

When we are at a farm or in a zoo many are likely to use herding. Herding is pretty common in the zoo or farms. When we herd animals we basically apply pressure by standing in a line behind the animals and start walking towards them in the direction we want them to go. The animals try to avoid us by running the opposite direction. We decrease the chances of animals going a direction we don’t want them to go. We release pressure when they go the right direction and add a reinforcer when they are finally there. 

While the animals are being herded to go in, the indoor exhibit is prepared with a food source for the animals. We can conclude that the timing of the behaviour we are looking for is not very good regarding the reinforcement.
Falcon eating on a glove. Photo Credit:

In traditional bird of prey training, the trainer has a bird on their arm, the trainer holds the jesses (the leather straps on the birds ankles). The bird tries to fly away but can’t. Holding the jesses decreases the chances of flying away and when it sits on the arm we apply a reinforcer, which is food, for being on the arm not trying to fly away. 

In all 3 of these cases we use one consequence to elicit the consequence we want to apply. It is effective but does it really give the best welfare benefit to the animal? We don’t think so!

Adding an action to decrease behaviour is called punishment which has a big effect on the mental state of the animal. The biggest one to mention is apathy. Apathy is where the animal doesn’t want to make their own decisions anymore due to punishing outcomes. They will take this with them in other occasions during their day to day lives. Imagine a child that wants to ask a question by raising his hand to the teacher, the response of the teacher is saying to the child “not now please” (which is considered a punisher). After a couple repetitions from the child trying to ask a question, the child doesn’t only stop asking questions to his teacher but as well to other people who do not have anything to do with this specific situation. They will not ask questions to his mother as much as before or to his dad and so on. This example directly takes away a huge part of the child’s ability in learning. It works the same way with the animals we work with.

But why are there still trainers choosing to train this way? 

Reason #1:

There are a couple reasons why this might be happening. Number 1 is that many animal caretakers don’t have the knowledge of behaviour modification and find it therefore very difficult to apply only reinforcing practises. It is hard to know how and where to start only using reinforcers. Therefore they will choose the easy way which has a direct connection with punishment practises because it is unfortunately very effective. But im sure any consultant will actually disagree with what is the easy way.

Reason #2:
A Fallow Deer conditioned for semi protective contact with reinforcement techniques.

The next reason is short term vs long term management. We want to solve the problem right now which unfortunately is where punishment is used. The lack of patience of the trainer keeps punishment to be the first choice. This is considered short term management. The outcome of working this way has on the long term way more complications in comparison to adding some extra time to solve a problem with reinforcement. IT seems to take longer but on the long run you get more time back which isn’t seen very often.

Reason #3:

The last reason is, it is very reinforcing for the trainer when a behaviour is finished. The faster the better it seems like. Trainers like to have behaviours trained quickly. Having a great start where you directly see part of the behaviour you want through applied pressure helps the process to reach the goal quickly. At least you would say so. After using this technique your next step would be reinforcement strategies. The fact that we first use punishment to then only use reinforcement doesn’t make it right to use punishment at first.

Shaping is a strategy we use where we add step by step plans to reach our goal. You go from having completely nothing to an animal preforming the finish behaviour. This comes with great patience, practise and trial and error from the trainer. Training animals is not all that easy as it seems. Starting to train a brand new behaviour is as challenging as it sounds, Where do you begin? How can we elicit the first approximation? What can I do to start off in a perfect way? All of those answers depend on the creativity, patience and willingness of the trainer to find the proper and most ethical way to train our animals. 

Just remember everything we do should be a welfare benefit to our animals!

Have fun training and think about your consequences 🙂 

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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