The type of training we do at the museum has a few different names.  Depending on who you ask, they might call it Clicker Training, or Food Training, or Operant Conditioning, or Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT).  All of those are correct labels for our reinforcement-based, contingency-focused style of behavior management for exotic and companion animals.  I’m always happy to answer questions or talk about the training I do at all the institutions with which I work.  And usually, people ask really interesting and thoughtful questions about how we are working to improve the welfare of zoo animals.

Sometimes, though, I run into someone who doesn’t have a very favorable impression of what we do.  Someone might watch me train, either a dog or a steer or a giraffe, and say, “Well, all you did was bribe them!  You just bribed them to do what you wanted them to do!”  This confusion between training and bribing is one I hear often.  So what’s the difference? Are we just bribing these animals?

No, I don’t think we are.  There are a few important differences between our style of training and a bribe.  First, a bribe is generally something you get for doing something you know you shouldn’t.  Like, think of bribing a police officer for letting you off after you’ve been pulled over for speeding (not that anyone would ever do that!).  Or, bribing a football player to lose a game on purpose.  The police officer and the football player are being asked to break an ethical standard for money.  That’s a bribe.

We’re not asking our animals to break any ethical standard!  We’re asking them to do behaviors that will help in their care.  We’re asking them to step on a scale so we can weigh them, or get in a crate so they can take a trip to the vet’s office.  Nothing illegal.  Nothing unethical.  Not tricks for our entertainment.  Just everyday husbandry and veterinary behaviors that can improve the animal’s care immensely.

A second difference between a bribe and our training style: a bribe usually comes BEFORE the unethical behavior.  It’s something given in advance.  You give the police officer the money, and THEN he lets you off.  You give the football player the money, and THEN he throws the game.  Bribes are an advance payment for bad behavior that’s coming in the future.  Our training is more like the paycheck you receive for your job. You get paid at the end of every week (or every two weeks, or every month) for the time you spent at work the preceding week (or two weeks, or month).  The reinforcer comes AFTER the behavior.  For the most part, if you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid.  That’s more like the arrangement we have with the animals.  Max’s payment for getting on the scale comes right AFTER he gets on the scale.  Cassandra’s payment for getting in the crate comes just AFTER she’s gotten in the crate.  And, we can’t pay them in money.  (Or, we could, I guess, but it wouldn’t be very effective!)  Instead, we pay them a reinforcer that’s valuable to them – food, treats, pets, praise.

I don’t think our training is bribing, at all.  We’re asking the animals to do everyday behaviors and we’re paying them after they’ve done those behaviors.  It’s a great way to build a repertoire of behaviors in both exotic and companion animals, and it builds a relationship between the trainer and the animal based on trust.  So train on!

Do you have any training questions you’d like me to address?  Let me know in the comments section!

3 responses to Bribe?

  1. Shawntel says:

    Which one of our animals has been the most challenging to train? Which ones have been the most receptive to training?

  2. kimberly says:


    The bears are very receptive to training! I think the red ruffed lemurs are pretty challenging, because they are very laid back, whereas the ring tailed lemurs are always ready to train. Maybe the farm yard keepers can answer the same question about their animals.

  3. Sarah Van de Berg says:

    They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Max, the steer, seems to love to train and have a keeper’s attention, but is very picky about his reinforcements, making him difficult to reward. Lightning, the donkey, has often learned a multi-stepped, brand new behavior in less than 10 minutes, but is often unengaged in training, aggressive or acts like he has “better things to do.” The goats are all extremely willing and interested in training but have very short attention spans and can become overwhelmed (or act confused) quickly.

    Maybe Jill can chime in about the pigs and alpacas?

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