The “Wild Side” of Positive-Reinforcement Training

Learn how today’s zoo professionals are using positive reinforcement training.

It’s an exciting time to be a zookeeper. Today’s zoo professionals are using their creative and behavioral talents to teach wild and potentially dangerous animals how to participate in their own care and ultimate survival. From daily body weights and exams to voluntary blood sampling, wild animals are learning to engage in cooperative behaviors (often without direct contact) that help ensure long-term health and well-being. These behavior-training advancements help create a safer, healthier, and more productive environment for animals and the people who care for them. But the real story is the source behind all of this success — the exclusive use of positive-reinforcement training.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that most zoo species are neither receptive to nor intimidated by the presence of humans. These simple statements of fact have helped to lay the foundation for today’s widespread use of training through positive reinforcement only in zoos and aquariums. With countless examples, we now know that it’s possible to shape reliable behaviors in any species using positive reinforcement only while foregoing the use of all forms of punishment and/or correction. The end result is a relationship of trust between animal and caregiver — one that’s strong enough to build successful new behaviors and help transcend past behavior problems, including severe aggression.

Of course, one of the challenges to using positive reinforcement in a zoological setting (or in our homes for that matter) is finding safe, durable, and interesting activities and objects to engage a wild animal’s mind and body, with and without a trainer present. Fortunately, the KONG Company has an array of products that help trainers provide their animals with positive reinforcement. The resulting mental and physical stimulation goes a long way toward teaching and maintaining calm and constructive behaviors. Plus, reinforcements that are variable in type, location, timing, and duration, such as the ones made possible by creative trainers and KONG toys, are essential to the reduction and outright prevention of unwanted and unhealthy behaviors, such as chewing, pacing, excessive vocalization and other forms of stereotyping. And if that weren’t enough, training with only positive reinforcement is just plain fun for you and your animal — whatever species it may be.

Grey Stafford, PhD, has trained zoo and domestic animals for 20 years. As Director of Conservation for the Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium near Phoenix, he promotes positive-reinforcement training on weekly TV appearances. His book, ZOOmility: Keeper Tales of Training With Positive Reinforcement (, was recently featured on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”