When the Right thing is “Negative”

The words negative and positive carry significant meaning in everyday language. It is difficult not to attach emotions to these words. However, in behavior science positive indicates to add something and negative means to remove something. When paired with reinforcement, adding, or removing something can be used to increase behavior. Animal caregivers have become quite experienced at understanding the application of adding something to increase behavior, also known as positive reinforcement. It is now becoming clearer how important it is to the welfare of the animals we steward to understand how removing something to increase behavior is equally significant. This article explores how negative reinforcement is already affecting animal behavior and how to harness it to improve welfare.

Animals regularly demonstrate the desire for something to be removed when they try to create distance between themselves and people, objects, other animals, or certain conditions. This can be described as a fear response. Examples include animals moving away when strangers are present, when novel items are introduced into their environment, when doors start to close, or when a dominant animal comes too close. A fear response may be observed when asking an animal to enter an enclosed space such as a chute or transport container, when a syringe is presented, or when a veterinary staff member arrives. When an animal moves away under these circumstances this provides information that distance or removal from the stimulus is reinforcing. This response is maintained by negative reinforcement.

Indy bear is a rock star at presenting many behaviors in daily demonstrations for guests thanks to the incredible training from the team at OC Zoo. These include a wide variety of medical behaviors. However when two or more people are present in holding she was showing concern. This meant cooperation in medical care requiring two people off display was a challenge. To address this, we gave Indy what she wanted for desired responses. In this case the desired outcome was distance from two people for calm behavior. We started under conditions in which she could be successful. After going through approximations we transitioned to positive reinforcement. In one session we had two people in the same space close to her with her laying down comfortably taking food. There are more steps to go from here but this was a great start in just one session towards addressing the negative reinforcement contingency that was maintaining her undesired behavior and transitioning to positive reinforcement.


Animals who cannot remove themselves from the stimulus may emit aggressive responses to drive things away. This can include growling, lunging, biting, or charging towards the habitat boundary to move people or other animals away. The resulting aggressive responses can cause the removal of (or distance from) people or other animals. These are also examples of negative reinforcement successfully maintaining behavior.

In these examples caregivers are not purposely inserting something unpleasant into the environment to evoke behavior. These items are either already in the environment or may need to be present for desired goal behaviors such as voluntary participation in medical care. This is an important distinction. When stimuli are intentionally inserted into the environment to cause animals to move away the application of negative reinforcement is considered coercive. It is generally recommended to avoid this type of application.

When we see animals using their behavior to get distance it can alert us to negative reinforcement already at work. This can then help us develop an intervention to help shape new desired responses that result in the same distance the animal is seeking. However, it is important to start under conditions in which the animal can succeed. This means starting with the stimulus far enough away that the animal is showing calm and relaxed behavior. This allows the animal to learn new behaviors it can do to get the distance it wants. These responses are reinforced by the removal of the stimulus (negative reinforcement). Criteria is gradually increased, such as getting closer, or staying close to the animal a little longer. The result is an increase of desired responses, which typically is calm and relaxed behavior. This then opens the door to positive reinforcement. Animals that were once showing fear responses or aggressive behavior learn to emit calm responses and become receptive to appetitives such as food or attention.

This is incredibly exciting news for animal welfare! Understanding how to shape behaviors from fear or aggression to calm by providing distance can transform animals. Animals learn to use their behavior to control their outcomes. Animals that once seemed impossible to reach can become receptive to interactions with caregivers. Training goals can be achieved. Overall welfare can be improved.

It can take adjusting to add the word “negative” to your vocabulary. However, an easy-to-understand starting point is to discuss the desired outcome of distance as a reinforcer. Give the animal what it wants and start under conditions in which it can be successful for the best results. Are you interested in learning more about shaping behavior with non-contrived negative reinforcement to improve animal welfare? Members of AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com can learn more about the procedures described above in the course “When the Right Thing is Negative. Optimizing Welfare with Negative Reinforcement”


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

Course on Shaping with Negative Reinforcement

Award Winning Course on Nonlinear Contingency Analysis


By Barbara Heidenreich - Animal Training Consultant
May 10, 2023

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 90 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.

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