A strongly trained behaviour has a massive history of reinforcement. Small approximations have been made to give the animal a very high success rate. This also means that the reinforcement history behind this new behaviour is very high. 

Interestingly, over time this will change. This is how that works. Once you train a brand new behaviour many of you probably use jackpots. So after each success full approximation you probably have given somewhere a jackpot and ended your session. You ask approximation 1 for the first time you will give a big reinforcer. Next session you try step 2 and give a massive reinforcer and this keeps going. This means that the building blocks become very strong due to the high reinforcement history. 

One day your behaviour is finished. The moment when it is finished your behaviour reaches peak strength. Because the behaviour is still new and in the past you have reinforced each approximation very well. More trainers are added and the behaviour is being asked more often. The difference this time is that the reinforcers are not as big as when you trained this behaviour because even a jackpot can be satiated. This means that the strength of the behaviour actually decreases a little bit. 

If I reinforce a behaviour during the conditioning process very well, how will this effect the new environment to the animal? Or better said will the behaviour we ask the animal in the new environment overtake the potential fear of the animal? 

Let me explain a current situation, we have trained some lions for a transport box to send them to another facility. These lions have never really been trained before till about 3 months ago where we started to change the way we want to manage them. Then we didn’t 100% know that the young females would leave to another park. Our goal was to change their perception inside. 

We conditioned them to a call over where 2 trainers are present. The lions now have to find the trainer. The big male and the young females with one trainer and the other 2 adult females with another trainer. Then we wanted to have them to lie down. Which meant now you find your trainer and now lie down. That’s our goal. Which went pretty quick with the male and the 2 young girls. 

Male and the young females with one training.

We added reinforcement history to the lie down all the time. Kept on doing this. The great part was whenever a bucket was put in front of them they would lie down immediately. The question now is how strong is this behaviour? And would this behaviour overtake any potential fear response? 

We got the news that these young lions had to be trained for transport. We changed plans and started to put priority to this project. We started to ask the lions to come inside and guess what? They preformed directly the lie down behaviour. At this moment we started the separation process because the young lions were always trained together. When they have to go on transport they are by themselves each in a transport box going to the same zoo. After 3 session we were able to close a gate in between the 2 females. We weren’t there yet because closing a gate and being alone for some time are 2 very different things. We would open the gate very quickly. To reinforce them being calm separated. 

Then we added transport boxes on the outside in a separation pen. 2 transport boxes against the wall connected to the gates. After these ones were set we started to test. The very first time we opened the gate to the transport box. First Lion looked inside, second one did as well. This went on for a little bit. But slowly they started to make the decision to come to me. 

One of the 2 had a more curious character than the other and it seemed like this one was more opportunistic. She would pretty quickly go from a fear response to a curious “I want to know what this is” response. It was interesting to see. These young lions looked great. They were not under or over fed at all. Great looking individuals. After 10 minutes it happened. One of the lions walked in while I wanted to reinforce right away, the first thing the lion did was lie down. 

You know pretty quickly when they lie down comfortable or not well this one was very comfortable. This meant that the behaviour of lie down in front of the trainer was stronger than we expected. For the other one it took a bit longer but I guess that’s the best part of working with different characters. 

What I took out of this is when you build the reinforcement history very strong, you might be able to do less desensitization of an environment because the strength of the behaviour you are asking overtakes the new environment the animal is in. 

Just remember the animal decides how strong this history is.  

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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