What “Conflicted” Behavior Can Tell You

Many animal trainers find themselves noticing body language that can be best labeled as “conflicted.” The animal demonstrates interest in what you have to offer. Usually this is preferred food items or some other appetitive, but there is also body language that suggests hesitation. This can include approaching and retreating, grabbing goodies to go, it may include aggressive responses.  When animal caregivers see this body language it can be an important signal to look for more than one contingency impacting the response. In other words, although the trainer may be trying to implement a positive reinforcement-based procedure, the responses indicate an aversive stimulus is also present. The hesitation, aggressive, escape, and avoidance responses are likely being maintained by negative reinforcement contingencies that may be naturally existing (or contrived).

The first step is awareness of these contingencies that are at play impacting the behavior you are observing.  This will help you identify and address ALL contingencies. Trying to overcome the negative reinforcement contingency by superimposing positive reinforcement doesn’t really address the “elephant in the room.” It doesn’t teach the animal what it can do to make the aversive stimuli go away. Some strategies people have been taught to consider can involve making positive reinforcement coercive in order to get desired responses in the presence of the negative reinforcement contingency. In other words, to get animals to respond in the presence of the aversive stimulus, access to preferred appetitives may be limited.  Conditions may be altered to potentiate consequences, such as withholding food. 

What does this look like in real life? Let’s say there is a big cat who is hesitant to enter a back holding area when people are near the lever that controls the door. After some observations, perhaps it is concluded the door closing while the cat is inside the holding area is the aversive condition the animal is trying to avoid. Food is placed in the back area to lure the animal into this space. An animal that has not eaten recently may be more inclined to tolerate entering the space while a person stands near the lever, and even while the door closes. While this may work, it does involve making positive reinforcement coercive. The good news is there are some alternative options.

Opening the door before the tamarin moves towards the door reinforces the desired response of stationing.

So, what is an animal trainer to do? The first step is to address the existing negative reinforcement contingency. This means giving the animal exactly what it wants! Removal of the aversive stimulus. However, this requires some careful planning on the part of the trainer. This needs to be done under conditions in which the animal can be successful. In the big cat example, this means creating a situation in which the animal can emit desired responses that can be reinforced by removal of the aversive stimulus. With animals who are uncomfortable with door closing/movements this often means the moment they emit the slightest desired response they are cued out of the smaller space, or the door is opened. I have used this frequently with orangutans who do not like doors closing. Allowing us to touch a door handle and staying stationed then leads to a signal to go right back out into the preferred space.  With a crate, it means the door is opened before the animal moves towards the door. The calm stationing behavior (not moving towards the door) is the desired response I am selecting to reinforce with door opening (removal of the aversive stimulus of closed door). This is very important. Setting the animal up so that it must move towards a door or escalate its movements to get doors to open can teach the animal to increase behavior often classified as fear responses. To avoid this, we reinforce before those behaviors are emitted. Yes, positive reinforcement for stationing can be used in conjunction with this strategy, but if we ignore the negative reinforcement contingency, we may find ourselves drifting back into more coercive procedures. Keep in mind, stationing is a rather "big" behavior. There are many much more subtle responses (an ear moving forward, muscles relaxing, eye lid lowering, etc) that can be reinforced by removal of the aversive stimulus in these examples.

There is a lot to unpack when we look at the “conflicted” animal. This includes nonlinear contingency analysis, the counter conditioning conundrum, superimposition and more.   Do you find topics such as these fascinating? Keep the learning going in the virtual education program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com


Here are additional resources within the virtual educational program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com where you can learn more.

YOU be the Behavior Consultant - The Counter Conditioning Conundrum

How I Learned to Love the Learning Processes (aka. The Four Quadrants)


By Barbara Heidenreich - Animal Training Consultant
June 15, 2022

About the Author: Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training consultant specializing in exotic animals. She consults worldwide working with zoos, universities, veterinary professionals, and conservation projects. She has worked onsite with over 80 facilities in 27 countries. She is an adjunct instructor at Texas A & M University. She has authored two books and contributed to four veterinary textbooks. She is a co-author of two Fear Free® Avian Certification Courses. Much of her work focuses on training exotic species to cooperate in medical care. She operates the online education program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com. This virtual learning program features award winning courses, tracks to guide professional development, verifiable badges to share and prove course completion, community, and more. Barbara is an advisor for the Animal Training Working Group and the Parrot Taxon Advisory Group for the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has provided her expertise to conservation projects The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. She has a Bachelor of Science in zoology and has begun the journey towards a Master of Science in applied behavior analysis. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.