Methods in Animal Training

Methods in Animal Training

Whether you are the everyday pet keeper or you work with animals professionally, training is an essential part of successful keeping. Dogs might be the first thing that comes to mind when we discuss training, but this topic goes beyond our canine friends, covering all species including reptiles! Various training methods can provide enrichment, mental and physical stimulation, or help establish complex behaviors that aid in husbandry and medical care. Additionally, spending time working with the animals in your care can encourage a more positive relationship between you and those individuals. 

Categories in Animal Training

There are two primary categories of animal training: operant conditioning and classical conditioning. To understand how each applies to methods in training, you need to first understand how each of these categories are utilized. 

Classical Conditioning

When using classical conditioning, the aim is to create an involuntary response (reflex) due to a neutral stimulus that has been conditioned to be recognized as something that would be paired with an existing (conditional) stimulus. This neutral stimulus is something that, without this form of training, would normally not elicit any response from the animal. This theory was developed by Ivan Pavlov, in what is sometimes referred to as the Pavlovian Experiment.

Pavlov took an existing stimulus (food) and paired it with a neutral stimulus (the ringing of a bell) and over time the dog learned to associate the sound of the bell with receiving food. Eventually, just the sound of the bell caused the dog to salivate without any food present - an involuntary response. Thus the neutral stimulus now elicited the same response as the existing stimulus. 

Operant Conditioning

Developed by B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning requires that a consequence happens following a voluntary behavior. The consequence can be a reinforcer, with the goal to increase the presented behavior, or it can be a punishment, with the goal to decrease the presented behavior. 

There were various forms of the Skinner box, the experiment used to study operant conditioning,  but the general concept of the design was that a box presented a lever meant to be manipulated by the animal placed inside, typically a rat.  The rat had the choice to pull the lever, and if he performed this behavior, he was provided with a reinforcer - typically food.  This led the rats to learn that the behavior of pulling the lever would result in food, hence they became trained to pull the lever. 

The Four Types of Operant Conditioning

When discussing operant conditioning, we mentioned that there are reinforcements and punishments. Among these, there are four different versions of this that had been developed: 

Positive Reinforcement: Adding a reward to encourage a behavior

Negative Reinforcement: Removing a punishment in response to a desired behavior to encourage it to be performed more often

Positive Punishment: Adding a punishment to decrease a behavior

Negative Punishment: Removing a reward to decrease a behavior

Positive reinforcement is the primary method used in training today. With this method, we are rewarding the behavior we would like to see with a positive reaction, in order to increase the likelihood that the animal will repeat that behavior. Using this method, there are no punishments, meaning that is the most ethical form of animal training, hence why it is the most desired method used by zoos and animal trainers. If an animal does not exhibit the desired behavior, trainers simply do not give any reaction. The most common way this method of training is done is by using food as a reward, as most animals view this as high value, but for some things like affection and toys can also be seen as positive reinforcement. 

Examples of Training

Below are some of the most common ways in which the training methods we discussed are used when caring for animals.

Target Training

A common example of operant conditioning that you have probably witnessed before, especially in a zoo setting, is target training. This method requires an animal to recognize an object as the “target” and respond to that target in a certain way that will lead to a reward. This process typically starts with interacting or touching the target in some way. From here trainers can use the target to tell animals where to go or how to position their bodies. Target training can be the backbone to shaping and training more advanced behaviors, which can provide mental and physical enrichment, as well as make health checks and various medical procedures a more voluntary and less stressful task for the animals! 

Obedience and Trick Training

When working with animals to achieve various commands, such as the sit, stay, and come that we like to teach our furry companions, or the different behaviors you see animals at zoos display in response to hand gestures or commands given by their keepers, operant conditioning is used. You “capture” the behavior by rewarding them when they voluntarily do it. This will encourage this behavior to increase, and eventually the trainer can pair a command to it, whether it is a vocal command, or a gesture of some sort. 


Training is an excellent method to use if you are trying to bond with an animal, whether in a professional setting, or a pet at home. Providing a positive experience when you walk in the room, or when the animal chooses to interact with you, trains that individual to learn that your presence is something positive, or that interacting with you will lead to a positive reinforcer. A great example of this is working with a shy dog that comes into a shelter, or bonding with your new pet argentine tegu! 

Classical Conditioning - The Bridge

Have you ever seen a dog trainer using a clicker when working with their companion? Or maybe a zookeeper using a whistle during their session? This is a form of classical conditioning that is often paired with an operant conditioning method to create greater success. A bridge is anything that can be used to mark a desired behavior, if a reward cannot be delivered quick enough. Frequent examples of bridges are clickers, whistles, and common bridge words like “good” or “yes”. Trainers will start by training the animal to associate the bridge with a reward. For example, everytime they blow a whistle, the animal gets a reward. The animal then starts to associate the sound of the whistle, with a positive reinforcer. This can be extremely beneficial with animals you may not be able to be totally hands on with, or if your particular reward can’t easily be immediately delivered. 

Let’s use behavior training as an example of how a bridge would be used. If you ask your dog to sit, which they do, but you struggle to get a treat out of your training pouch, you now risk losing the mental connection of the command with the desired behavior, because there is no immediate positive reinforcement to solidify it. Now let’s pretend you trained a clicker to be your bridge, so your dog associates the sound of the clicker with a reward. Now when your dog sits, you can immediately click so the dog knows it did what you asked and a reward is coming. 

Using Reptilinks as a Positive Reinforcer

As mentioned earlier, one of the most popular forms of reward is food. The majority of animals will respond positively to this kind of reinforcement. When training animals, it is common practice to either use their meal for your session, or have multiple small high value treats on hand, so that you can have multiple opportunities to work with your animal. Practice makes perfect after all! 

Being tied off in easy to deliver and easy to consume links, Reptilinks make for an ideal training food. They provide valuable nutrition and contain items that tend to be unlike the common foods they typically receive, making them high value. The higher the value of the reward, the more likely you are to find success in your training session. Because Reptilinks are packed full of all the nutritional benefits of containing whole-prey, and/or beneficial fruits, vegetation, and insects, it would be beneficial to size down to a much smaller link size for the purpose of training due to the caloric density of the links. This will allow you multiple opportunities to present a reward, without overfeeding the animal you are working with. 

Not Just for Reptiles!

Contrary to the name, reptiles aren’t the only species that benefits from Reptilinks! Any omnivorous or carnivorous animal can enjoy the benefits Reptilinks has to offer! They have been a popular food of hedgehogs, ferrets, and coatis, just to name a few! Dogs especially enjoy the Reptilinks whole-prey jerky links, meant just for them! Reptilinks provide a high value, nutritious reinforcer suitable for a variety of species! 

More reading: click here to check out our interview with some reptile training specialists!

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.