There are many skills a trainer needs to be successful in behaviour modification. This starts with the theory to then apply this in practise. Within the modification strategies on behaviour we learn how to manage a behaviour but do we learn enough about how to start to train a brand new behaviour? 

In my personal experience I had to learn a couple important skills to be able to understand how I can train a behaviour right from the beginning. What I needed to know is how to build a behaviour from the very first step and build up to my goal. The idea of shaping a behaviour from having nothing to a finished product has always fascinated me. 

Training animals all comes down to how creative you can be in the process. We want to look for a specific movement or behaviour the animal already performs so we are able to build from there. Well it is not that easy as it may seem. I’ve used many different behaviours to build up another behaviour. To do so I really had to think about what is going to happen to the behaviour the animal already knew which I’m now using. Will I loose it? Or will I accidentally build new criteria on an existing signal? 

Discriminate Situations

How I looked at these challenges was to use behaviours the animal already knew which I at the same time create a new situation where I kept the original and the new behaviour on 2 different cues. This helped me in the future and I didn’t have to change existing behaviours what so ever. This takes practise because to do so we need to understand how the environment functions towards the animal. Classical Conditioning is one of these important components which I considering all the time during the training process. The idea of associative learning allows me to add differences in the environment for the animal to discriminate situations. This could be objects, signals, or the environment as a whole. This allows the animals to discriminate 2 different situations with a similar behaviour. As long as I plan to keep these situations different it shouldn’t be difficult to help the animal discriminate 2 different situations. 

Pretty complicated it seems like but it is actually as easy as this, 1 behaviour I train in this corner on a mat, another behaviour I previously trained in another corner with another type of station. This already allows the animal to associate different situations. Two different corners and two different objects helps the animal to discriminate. As long as I don’t mix up these stations for example. We just have to maintain the different signals which can be the discrimination for the behaviours. 

Let’s say the animal understand when I ask to lift up their hoof when I give the signal. Now I want the animal to kick with his front leg. I already have the lift up the hoof behaviour. In this case I could use this but what I now have to think about is that I do not want a kicking animal when taking care of the hoof in a later stage. What about making the environment very different in comparison to the hoof behaviour the animal already knows. Let’s add a target to the nose and a hand to the hoof in a different area in the habitat. Let’s touch the hoof on the top side of the leg which might be a difference for the animal. To be successful I still have to ask the hoof behaviour once in a while in the environment where the animal has to have a calm hoof lifting behaviour. This is a way for me to use the hoof lifting which I can use for a kicking behaviour while maintaining the hoof care behaviour. 

How do we start a behaviour where the animal hasn’t performed any behaviour we like to use just yet? Let’s look at the following important viewpoints to have an answer on this question.

1: Shaping techniques. 

There are different shaping techniques we can consider to condition a new behaviour from the start. 

One is better than the other but we have to consider all of them because just like Dr. S. Friedman says “behaviour is the science of one” Which essentially means each individual has to be looked at individually. Which technique might work for one doesn’t work for the other. 

2: Consciousness 

Throughout the experience I’ve developed I discovered plenty of times that animals perform behaviours they aren’t always aware off consciously. When we shape 2 target for example one for the nose and one for the hip. The animal has to be aware that they can do 2 behaviours at the same time. Basically one motion is split up in 2 which we have to teach the animal to be aware of doing. 

We always said when training cetaceans that the animals already know how to jump, we just have to trigger this jump off happening consciously. Which basically means we have to teach the behaviour so the animal consciously knows which behaviour it is performing on which signal. 

This point of view is one of the most important ones I personally take into consideration. I mean the animal might show us a behaviour we like but is it conscious enough that it does so? 

The fur seal is conscious of touching the target and holding the eye open as 1 behaviour.

3: What is the most ethical and fastest way to train this behaviour?

We all want to train a behaviour as fast as we can but before we even start we actually should look into the most ethical ways. What is the best fit for this individual and what technique gives the animal the best welfare benefit in the process. Us trainers are very quickly to say lets just capture the behaviour or let’s use aversive because it is quick. Each off these 2 aren’t comparable but the reason I mention both of them is that they bring a lot of cons with them on the long run.

Capturing behaviour requires a lot of skills from the trainer. Not necessarily capturing or free shaping the behaviour but the process afterwards, generalising the signal and environment into deep detail. Punishment comes with a lot of cons not only from the training perspective but very much in the mental perspective from the animal which we unfortunately can’t always see but are there. 

The easiest way to start is using targets

With knowing these 3 topics there is 1 technique which is always my go to with any animal. This is  the use off a target. I use targets all the time. If you want the foot to be at a specific place, use a foot target, you want to have the hip to the left, use a hip target and so on. A strong foundation for your animal is to understand multiple body targets which allows you to train any behaviour on a high pace right from the start. Targets can also be positions which are helpful in some cases as well. 

Getting there isn’t super easy but let me give you some tips and tricks. 
  1. Start with a nose target. Put the nose target in different positions away from you. Let the animal climb onto a log to touch the target up high.This helps build the strength of the nose target and the understanding of this particular behaviour
  2. Start with a leg, preferably the front if we talk about 4 legged species. Animals seem to be more aware of their front legs in comparison to their rear legs. 
  3. Teach both nose and front foot target. 
  4. Try a hip target. 
  5. The rear leg target. 
  6. Combine targets again. 
  7. For a call over or recall use a position as target.
  8. Teach the animal left and right. The animal doesn’t know left if you only train right or vice versa. Having left and right targeting is going to help you in the conditioning process.

When you have a strong foundation on targets you can always start from a position right away. This helps you to train the animals step by step for the desired behaviour you are looking for. 

There are plenty more techniques we could use which are interesting to think about. One of them I use very often is building a predictable situation. If I ask the animal to touch a target on the far left side to teach a head turn. I build a predictable event by asking a target on the left side multiple times. The outcome will be that the animal will directly predict my actions and already performs part of the behaviour without me asking the target to the left side just yet. This technique is for me very helpful in many training situations. 

All these techniques help me to find the first steps to start conditioning a brand new behaviour. 

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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