Only half way through my career I learned a valuable lesson about behaviour. Which actually came from on trainer I met during my career in Spain. She told me whenever I find a moment to observe the animals outside a training session. Observe what they do and who they do it with. How do they move and how do they behave in different situations and interact with other animals or trainers. It was interesting to listen to her because I was always very busy with the science of behaviour modification which I applied to the animals behaviour instead of the actual behaviour the animals were showing us in their spare time. 

Years later working in another country with very different animals I had these continuous flashbacks about what she had told me in the past. Working in a zoo setting with so many different species you had to start looking at their behaviour to figure out how the species worked all together. Chimpanzees are a very different league in comparison to tigers. Same accounts for hoofstock such as rhinos or fallow deers. Not only did I train the animals myself but to be successful I should be focussed more on the teams going same direction. 

The Himalayan Mountain Goats

My phone went off, I was asked to come to one of the departments where they were training Himalayan Mountain Goats. They explained me that the goal was to call them towards the trainer to be able to shift them from exhibit to exhibit. The goats had 3 different habitats they could be shifted too. The challenge came when the animals didn’t respond to the given signal the way the trainers wanted them to respond. The problem? The team. Each person did different things in the same situation. The animals weren’t able to figure out what the trainers wanted and the behaviour they were looking for slowly disappeared. All we had to do in the team is speak the same language to the animals. When we did so, the problem was solved. 

The interpretation was that the animals were playing with the specific trainers to find out how far they could go. With one trainer she believed that the animals just didn’t like her. Now interestingly this was obviously not the case. It is easy to label when we don’t know why the animals behave the way they do. We want to understand and add a label to it so we can explain their behaviour and get in pease with the situation regardless if our label is right or wrong. 

When the trainers started to apply the same strategy, behaviour started to change.

Begging Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees are different, they share just like us many different facial expressions and body language which they use to communicate with one another. To be able to build a training program according to the goals we had we first had to understand the group of animals. Luckily the team were very good at this. They actually understood that teamwork makes the dreamwork when they talk about behaviour interpretation. They agreed with one another who was supposed to be dominant animal and who was the most submissive one and so on. But just like other animals I was wondering if the interpretation was actually the right one. 

At the start of working with this group of chmpanzees we saw a lot of so called begging behaviour. The keepers kept on throwing food at them and told me that they always begged for food especially specific individuals who have done so for years. Some were clapping and waving to receive their tomatos while other made the “come to me” signal. The keepers interpreted this behaviour as attention seeking which they didn’t really know what to do with. When we took away all the emotions and labels we pressed upon these behaviour and we only look at increasing behaviour through reinforcements. All we had to do is understand that behaviour increased when we time the reinforcer properly. When we took that part away and started to reinforce behaviours we likes to see all of a sudden the clapping, waving, attention seeking etc dissapeard. We took away our interpretation of their behaviour and started to focus on the science of behaviour modification to take away this problem behaviour. 

The Confused Elephant

Namsai was a young bull which had like many other juvenile animals, a ton of energy. He seemed to enjoy to push a big fella named Tonsak around. Tonsak who is a huge 19 year old Bull. While in training some trainers had better connections with Namsai than others. Which can happen but I was just wondering why because they explained to me that Namsai is playing them around, Namsai doesn’t like me, he’s always nipping or lashing at me, he’s trying me out, he tries to boss me and so on. I was wondering what had happened for these trainers to interpret the behaviour like this Namsai had showed them. What I discovered was the outcome of long ongoing miscommunication between team members. 

Namsai (Small) & Tonsak (Big)

The bridge stimulus marked a behaviour but was also the keep on going signal, the end of sessions signal was the same as the bridge stimulus but it would end the session instead. The way the trainers explained a behaviour was very different between one another. The training system we tried to apply was very different when training Namsai. Which meant that Namsai had to continuously figure out which signal connected to which communication system and which signal to which behaviour. How did the training system work with this trainer or with another trainer. Very confusing as you can imagine for Namsai. No wonder Namsai’s behaviour was interpreted as it was.

All we had to do is put everybody into the same direction. Make sure each trainer communicated the same way with Namsai. So Namsai could understand the system and the behaviours he was asked to preform. When the discussion with the trainers was done and some training rules were applied successfully. The progression we were looking for was made quickly and trainers enjoyed training him again. 

Objectivity Is Key

Over time, me as a coach learned that everybody looks different at behaviour. The important aspect is not to explain why trainers might be right or wrong but first to exclude the parts we can control such as the stories above. As a young trainer 16 years ago I believed dominant animals existed and when animals fight the dominant one is most likely challenged. My understanding has changed drastically over the years. Now im looking at which recourse is important for one to challenge the other. There are many reasons why animals fight which doesn’t mean one is dominant over the other. All that does is lock us in, not able to find a proper solution. 

The interpretation of behaviour is difficult but all we have to do is look at behaviour objectively. How Susan Friedman says it so well, Unlabel me!

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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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