In the past years of coaching animal care professionals about how to train their animals in zoological settings I get asked very often, Where do you even start? Many keepers are stuck because of this question. Overwhelmed might be the right word to use. Even for me it is not always that easy to find out where to start but I believe there is always a way.

Succes Depends on the Animals

To train animals we need animals and that’s where we have to start. We have to teach the animal to connect us to the reinforcer. Sounds easy right? The difficulty all depends on the history of the animal and the species specific behaviour of the animal. If they are animals who easily run off it is more difficult than animals that just stand there. If you have animals that have a negative connection with you due to associations from the past you will have a more difficult situation. But at the end it is all about building this positive association with you to be able to train the animals in your care. But remember… when you do it properly you will not have anticipatory behahaviour. 

Anticipatory behaviour is not always what you would like to have in your animals behaviour repertoire. All because of the fact that this might not be a welfare increase but a decrease instead which we as trainers have created. 

Same outcomes, different strategies

When we finally have the animal to come to us the fun starts. The most difficult task is getting the animal who used to be afraid, to come to you. We now want the animal to stay with us. Interestingly many of us use the strategy of continuous feeding. The outcome of continuous feeding is as you might have guessed already an animal that stays with you. Here’s the thing, does the animal understand that he has to stay with you because you ask so? Or not? To have a strong foundation we need the animal to understand what it is asked to do.

Ostriches conditioned to shift exhibits at Kolmården Wildlife Park.

Many of us get the animals to go outside eventually. We ask many times and throw their favourite food outside for them to go outside. The question is does the animal understand what we are asking for? If so, why didn’t they go outside after you asked for the first time? Why did you need to throw their favourite food source outside for them to go outside? There is a difference between the animal understand what you are asking and trying different ways with the same behaviour outcome such as throwing food to make them go outside. 

Add the rate of reinforcement

Why do I explain this? Well animal training is about teaching a concept to the animals in our care. The concept is pretty simple, the animal does something for what it will be reinforced for. When the animal understand this concept there are some important steps we need to take first. We often see that trainers reinforce the animal for coming to the trainer. Yes of course we should but there is a trick. If we keep on reinforcing coming towards us the animal also walks away from us. Coming to the trainer is step one but we quickly have to go to the next approximations which focusses on the rate of reinforcement we want to apply. 

Rate of reinforcement is many times you reinforce after a behaviour.

We need an animal in “control” or focused with us. The window you as a trainer have when the animal is staying with us is very small therefore we have to start from 2 quick reinforcers right after one another. When this is reached we will start adding reinforcers. Which means that you will now reinforce a couple times very quickly. You might have heard us talk about continuous feeding. This is just that. Many of us stop here to keep our animals with us which is a possibility. The better choice is to teach the animal to stay with you and wait for the next information to come. This is where we are going to focus on the time between the reinforcers we apply. We are going to slow down the rate of reinforcement. Which means that we will extend the time between each reinforcer to a time we are comfortable with. I always try to choose for 3-5 seconds between reinforcers. This allows me to ask other behaviours, have a controlled and very calm session and have the animal in complete focus with me. We start with the time between the first and second reinforcer. At the beginning we put these very quickly after one another. Now we are starting to add a second in between. Followed by a higher rate of reinforcement again. 

Maintain your foundation behaviour

Slowly we add a second within our continuous feeding process. This allows you to have the first window of teaching the “control” or “focus” behaviour. Now you will extend this till the amount of seconds you like to have. The important part is that this training is an important add on to the training you are currently doing. We have to maintain this process during our training. It is a huge part of the foundation you apply. 

Same as teaching the animals to come to you. We can’t forget to reinforce this behaviour neither. When we forget to reinforce the control behaviour you might wonder why the animal is doing all these behaviours to get reinforced. The answer is simple, we haven’t reinforced the calm focused behaviour ands only asked behaviours the animal has to do such as give the paw, target, follow etc. Which has as outcome a high energy animal. This gives less focus and therefore less success during your training session. 

Foundation is everything! Want to know more about foundation behaviours? Read this article.  

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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