In the past years I started to look more and more into how I can create a pattern to build the motivation of the animal to preform a specific behaviour. It might sound complicated but it is not what you think. Without us knowing we create patterns continuously. As we know animals observe us better than we can observe them. They understand our pattern way before we understand theirs. 

Find It Out!

Goat training @ the Animal Training Center, AT

The trick is to figure out which pattern we have created with our body language to the animals that predict which behaviour we are going to ask our learners. I remember training some dolphins in Sweden where I tried to find out which body movement I made is part of the hand signals I had and what the animals would respond to. 

Let me explain, for example you ask a dog to sit. You walk a couple meters backwards, ask the dog to come to you by using a hand signal, a vocal signal and at the same time you bend forward. The question now is to which signal did the dog respond? All 3? Or just one of them? 

To excel in our training we have to understand as trainers to which movements, sounds or objects the animals respond to preform the behaviour. Just like the ABC structure. Getting back to the dolphins, what I was trying to figure out is if I would break the pattern of telling the dolphin in advance this behaviour is what I’m going to ask you would this had effect on the motivation of the dolphins learning within our session?

Creating Frustration or Motivation?

When we asked for a front flip for example, part of the signal was a step to the right. Then quickly a hand signal would follow. This means that the step to the right predicts the hand signal which sends the dolphin to do the asked behaviour. What If I pretend to ask this behaviour by stepping to the right and not asking the hand signal? Would the dolphin become frustrated over time because I’m unclear? Or would the dolphin become motivated due to the fact that I broke a predictable pattern the dolphin had created thinking about what is going to happen in the future? 

The outcome was interesting, I got more engagement in the session with the dolphins breaking this pattern. I started to apply this with more behaviours where I figured out all the predictable movements which were leading to the final signal. I started to pretend to ask behaviours more often and reinforce the dolphin for the engagement afterwards with ball play, jumping in the water, fish or gelatine. This created an unpredictable pattern which reflected into high engagement in my sessions and even to behaviours with higher criteria’s as usual.

Shall We Keep These Patterns?

But the question is if it would hurt to keep predictable patterns in your training? No, of course it wouldn’t. Actually whenever we train a behaviour we make a pattern to help the animal to think with us for the next approximation to reach the goal. For example, I open a door and ask you to go through. When you go through I reinforce you. I ask you to come back. Then I ask you again the exact same thing, go through the door after I opened the door. The 3rd time most likely I only have to open the door and you walk through. I’ve created a predictable pattern for you. You are successful In guessing what I want from you due to the pattern I’ve created for you. 

We don’t want to create frustration!

This is what is continuously happening during our training sessions. From approximation to approximation, signals predict a criteria. It can happen when the animal starts to feel frustrated when you break these patterns. The reasons are 9 out of 10 times that the animal has observed you doing something different which they do not understand. This difference you are not conscious about doing but does break the pattern of the animal trying to understand what you want from them. Thats where an animal will become irritated, frustrated and show aggressive behaviour or walks away. To excel in your training, find out what triggers the behaviour in the environment. 

Anything in the environment helps to create behaviour. In previous articles, webinars and courses we talk about this all the time. Antecedent arrangement, setting up the environment for a specific behaviour more likely to happen. Part of the environment is you and any other object. This means that If I understand the reason an animal preforms a specific behaviour and which signal (might this be a tree in the habitat, a target in your hand or a bucket in a corner) connects to this the behaviour occurring I can change behaviour rapidly. This because I found out what the patterns created are. 

Change The Environment By Understanding The Patterns

When we know the pattern we can slowly change the environment. Slowly taking something away out of the environment which I’m fairly sure about it doesn’t have a big effect on the behaviour I like to see. Such as taking away the leaves on the ground, cutting a part of the grass, adding a small new log etc. All I’m doing is slowly narrowing down a signal which eventually is the discrimination between all the other signals and the signal you want it to be. 

Patterns are hugely important in our training. If we understand these predictable patterns we created we can change behaviour more rapidly. The best part is that shy, fearful or animals that have a lot of aggressive behaviour are more willing to participate when they understand the patterns I created for them. When the animal that is scared of you understand at 2 o clock, from that door, the trainer comes and puts the apples in that corner to then leave through the same door, the animals stress decreases drastically during the day.

Moral of the story, as trainers we create patterns all the time. Use them to teach, use them to create motivation!

We have been using this strategy often and with success working with shy or fearful animal. Want to know how or learn about how we can create or get rid of patterns join our upcoming webinar on the 25ht of June, 2021 at 8:30PM CET!

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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