Training our animals to better their welfare is all about empowering their choices. Looking for behaviour we like to reinforce and other behaviours to ignore. We want to create a simple and clear communication strategy to be able to communicate with our animals. All because we cant forget that at the end of the story we are alien to one another. 

The latest trend

The latest trend I’ve seen in the animal training world is opt in and opt out. This means that the animal can decide to team up with you and preform the asked behaviour or can go away or stop a behaviour whenever they want to. To me just another way to say we use choice and control, whatever that is. 

What I find interesting in all these words is that we like to believe that this is a way for us to communicate with our animals. But if you ask me at the end how do we even know? How do we even know what an alien species want from us or what they mean to tell us? If the animal says no, or is opting out, who says this is true? Let me explain this a bit further. 

The rhino didn’t respond to the signal to come back onto exhibit. Can we conclude that he opted out?

In the rhinos case, maybe it is due to reinforcement balance, an approx which is to big, predictable reinforcement etc etc.

The challenge here is that there can be multiple reasons before we can say what the reason is behind the animal making the choice they make. What if the last time you asked this behaviour you reinforced a different criteria and now the animal is repeating yesterdays criteria while you ask for more? What if the animals reinforcement history is higher for the duration of 10 seconds then 15 seconds? What if the last time we reinforced a repetition of behaviours such as, I ask your hoof, 10 sec later takes the hoof away and comes back and this repeats? Does this mean they opt out or have we created the criteria to be this way? 

Aren’t we just trying to find reasons for unexplainable situations?

If we believe in opting in and opting out or choice and control, aren’t we doing this all the time? I mean we use an approximation plan to train a new behaviour. When the approximation goes well we reinforce when the animal shows us the approximation is to difficult the animal is not able to preform the correct way we want them to. Does this mean the animal opted out? Or does this mean we ask something to the animal what seems impossible for the animal to do? 

If we are right with opting in opting out and the way we think this is ok in our training sessions we should see an increase in our relationship and an increase in the behaviour we are trying to train. We should see an increase in engagement from the animal. But is it possible to measure the strength of your relationship? No it is not. 

Where I believe this idea comes from is with animals which have a high forage percentage such as hoofstock species. I remember a training session where we had to do some foot care on a bull elephant. Foot care takes from about 3 minutes to sometimes even 20-25 minutes time. The elephant is asked to put his foot through a hole in the protective contact wall to then be worked on by one of the keepers. You can imagine that standing there could become a bit uncomfortable for the leg over time. The elephant took his leg back, reset himself and without cueing he put his leg back where the keeper could go on working the foot.

We can consider this incorrect because criteria wasn’t reached, we can call this opting out, we can call this accidently trained behaviour, or we can call this choice and control. There are many labels we can add to this. But let’s just keep it simple before we add excuses to potential poor training sessions. There is a lot more to it. Not even to talk about the motivation of the animal staying with you. Instead of focusing on how to call it when they walk away we should consider that there is a reason for them that and you are less motivating to stay with so we need to work our consequences instead. 


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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