There are a variety of different strategies to train a brand new behaviour. In this article we will talk about Free Shaping. If you want to know more about the other techniques please read this article. There is a variety of ways we can use this technique to solve challenges in our training. Capturing also known as free shaping is used daily in our training. Think for example about teaching a target. There is a component where we have to capture the slightest interest in the new object we have presented. 

Same as with the mouth open behaviour we have to capture the moment where the animal opens their mouth slightly. Even though we are deliberately trying to put the animal in an environment where this is most likely to happen we still have to pay enough attention to when it happens so we can capture the moment and apply a reinforcer. 

There are quite some other situations where we can use free shaping to help our animals in their environments. 

1. Playfully Free Shaping

While working in Canada with a variety of different marine mammals we thought the walruses to show us a behaviour they invented. How we trained this behaviour was through asking a variety of behaviours previously in a steady pace and then ask with a lot excitement “(name) show me something”. We would reinforce the slightest behaviours such as a look to the left or right, a flipper lift, or a hip turn. In a short time how smart walruses are they figured out what we wanted to acheive pretty quickly. The difficulty came when we had to teach some criteria to the captured concept. We wanted to teach the walruses that they couldn’t repeat the same behaviour twice. They could repeat the same behaviour in combination with another. Adding this specific criteria made up for some pretty hilarious behaviours. 

One of the walruses started to splash water, smack it’s face, farted in her flippers and spit water. We couldn’t stop laughing. This specific walrus came up with so many different behaviours. It was fun to watch. Funny enough she was one of the walruses that never really whistled. Through the strategy of inventing your own behaviour we were able to capture her blowing air which we then shaped into a whistle. 

2. Animal to Animal Introductions 

Through free shaping we can introduce animals to each other. Before we will apply this strategy we have to go through some approximations. First we have to let the animals meet in a controlled setting. Which means 1 trainer with one animal and the other trainer with the other. We will bring them closer to one another and move them away again to control the time together. The next approximation is to teach them to be together in their own time. This is where free shaping comes in.

Two otters calm behaviour captured.

When we see them behaving calmly and being together practicing social behaviour we call them back and reinforce directly. We capture this behaviour by doing so. Eventually the animals will understand why they are reinforced or called back for. The trick is that a call over reinforces previous behaviour. We could also throw a food source at them but the chances that they show challenging behaviours such as displacements is a lot higher and you might now miss the moment to capture the correct behaviour you are looking for. A call over falls in place perfectly and will capture the animals to be calm together. 

Very important when you want to raise the successrate of a proper introduction with any animal. 

3. Counter Condition the Environment

Counter conditioning is when we change the perception of the animals from negative to either neutral or positive. It sounds easy but it is not. When we have an animal with us directly in a training session we can actually control the environment to counter condition a lot easier. But there is another way we can apply this as well.

We had a situation where we had to train a group of specific animals to respond calmer in situations where contractors were busy with the habitat. We decided only enrichment wasn’t enough and we had to solve the challenge on the spot. We wanted to build a positive connection between the animals and what the contractors were doing. Cutting steal, welding, hammering etc. What we started to ask the animals is come and check in with us. We started on different places around the habitat where we knew we had higher chances to succeed. We used the front area where the visitors can see the animals, this was as well the most reinforcing position due to their history of feeding times. From there we started to change the position and put ourselves in various challenging areas. We then reinforced every time they started to check in with us. Slowly we saw a change in behaviour.

As you can see there are various ways you can use strictly free shaping. It has been hugely helpful to use free shaping in these different instances. We do want to let you know that free shaping a behaviour is not our preffered choice. We want to combine this with targeting with the strategy targeting as dominant technique. 

Want to know more about shaping? Sign up for our upcoming SHORT COURSE: Building a Shaping Plan.

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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