Friday, December 29, 2017

New Year's Resolutions for Animal Trainers 2018

It's that time of year again! The New Year reminds us to do better, be better. And this can certainly be applied to many things, including our lives as animal trainers. For the third year running, here are some New Year’s Resolutions for animal trainers………

      1. Get Out of your Routine – Are you in the habit of asking for the same behaviors, in the same order, offering the same reinforcers, and reinforcing every behavior? This can be a motivation squelcher for some animals. If your animal has a full repertoire of behaviors it knows well, it is time to gradually introduce some unpredictability.  If everything has been the same for some time, you will want to slowly introduce changes so as not to create frustration.  In the long run you can increase motivation by getting out of predictable patterns.

      2. Wrap Your Brain Around Your Bridge – What I mean is…does your bridging stimulus mean what you want it to mean to your animal?  This may take some scrutiny on your part or maybe the help of a trusted fellow trainer to analyze. I have seen some perplexing whistling, clicking etc. over the years. And if it isn’t clear to me what it is meant to communicate, it probably isn’t clear to the animal. Remember the bridge can mean whatever the trainer teaches it to mean. This could be many different things from “here comes food” to “duration has been met” to “that movement was correct” to “come back to the trainer” to “you are free to move”, etc.  Try to discern if the animal is responding to your identified bridge or other signals to get information.  I often observe the animal has learned to ignore the sounds and to focus on human body language instead.

3. Consider Animal Training a Necessity, Not a Luxury – I get it, training is fun! It is sometimes hard to imagine that “work” gets to be fun too. I sometimes consult at facilities where the attitude is that those who are training are shirking the real responsibilities of caring for animals. I disagree. Training allows day to day care of animals to be easier and stress free. It makes veterinary care easy to accomplish, both preventative care and urgent care. Bottom line, training is important to good animal health and welfare.  Help foster the culture that training is an important part of animal care.

4. Get to Know a Scientist – And I mean a real scientist. These are the ones who run labs, produce graduate students, publish studies, etc.  (Remember not all PhD’s are created equal.) I know catching up with a real scientist may not be easy for an animal trainer because these folks are not usually “internet famous” or out there on social media. They are usually busy focused on their research.  One of my favorite places to mingle with real scientists is the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. This conference brings together top trainers and accomplished scientists from different disciplines. If you want your mind really stretched this is a good conference for the trainer who is beyond the basics.

5. Get Creative with Training and Back a Conservation Project – Whether you work with domestic animals or exotics, there is always a way to help their wild cousins. I am often impressed by how much the companion parrot community does for parrot conservation. My favorite parrot organizations to support have been The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Bird Endowment. We unfortunately lost The Bird Endowment Founder Laney Rickman this year. But the Nido Adoptivo project she started which has made a huge difference for wild blue throated macaws will continue.  I trained my blue throated macaw Blu Lu (a macaw rejected by her parents at The Bird Endowment) to paint portraits of parrots. Her paintings have raised thousands over the years to build macaw nest boxes in the wild.

6. End Your Sessions Well – Some may think this means to end on a “positive note.”  While it is certainly nice to have a good last rep if the session goes that way, that isn’t exactly what I mean. Instead I am thinking more about having a plan for how you will end your session.  For example, will you be using an end of session signal? If so, what happens after that signal?  To avoid creating frustration I suggest having something engaging to offer after the end of session signal. I prefer things that take time for the animal to eat or play with so that there is something desired paired with the time the trainer is collecting things and exiting. Or will you be training until the animal is no longer showing interest in what you have to offer and chooses to disengage so that perhaps a signal is not necessary. Either way, having a plan for how the session will end will be good to work out before the session begins.

7. Try Training Multiple Animals at a Time – This may be something to work up to for some trainers, but it is a good skill to practice. It takes good observation skills and good timing of delivery of reinforcers. Some basic behaviors to practice are teaching all animals to station for duration and not interfere with other animals. This sometimes requires a higher rate of reinforcement for some individuals. Some animals are less likely to stay put while others are getting attention/reinforcers. This means they need more reinforcers and at faster intervals and/or delivery of reinforcers timed for when others are receiving goodies. You can then work up to selecting one individual from the group to target, recall, move forward, step up, etc. depending on the species.

8. Practice Giving Training Feedback in Helpful Ways – You don’t have to be a consultant to find yourself in the position of sharing information on training. You may be helping a colleague, friend or posting in a chat group. As animal trainers you would think the goal is to also reinforce the good things people do as well, but often humans focus on what people do wrong.  In the world of animal training I don’t recommend completely ignoring errors in training for a variety of reasons, including safety. However how we convey information about errors can be done in way that is helpful and not hurtful. Take the judgement and emotion out and think more about providing information to help someone be successful. Just like training an animal, take responsibility for your human student not succeeding and change your approach to be of more help. And yes! Do positively reinforce when humans are on the right track too.  But insincere accolades are easy to see through. Be genuine with your praise for good work and non-judgemental and informative when offering feedback on what needs adjusting.

9. Conduct a Shaping Plan Contest – Come up with as many different ways as possible to train a specific behavior. For example I can think of 4 different ways right now to train an open mouth behavior.  Some plans may work better for different species. The fun part will be picking and choosing which plans to apply with which animals and then training the behavior!

Here is one strategy for getting an open mouth behavior started with a giraffe 
Here is another strategy for an open mouth behavior we tried with a pig

10. Expand your List of Reinforcers – Most trainers use food to reinforce behavior, which is totally fine. But what fun it is when we start adding other reinforcers into the mix. We can extend training sessions, we can still have motivation when animals are satiated for food, we have more variety in reinforcers for maintaining behaviors, and some non-food reinforcers are super powerful (just think about the ball obsessed dog!) Two of my favorite non-food reinforcer stories involve target training a male guinea pig for the opportunity to sniff a handful of litter soiled by a female. He LOVED it! And getting a lovely stationing behavior from my macaw just by looking at her and giving her social reinforcers with some “time with my face” at unpredictable intervals. Its really just about identifying what your animal seeks to acquire or engage with and trying to deliver that experience for desired behavior. Definitely a resolution that will broaden your training immensely.

There you go! Ten more things for animal trainers to try in the new year. 

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All the best!
Barbara Heidenreich

Barbara's Force Free Animal Training

All Animals:

 Copyright 2017 Barbara Heidenreich

Monday, October 9, 2017

Hello Chatty Trainer!

It’s kind of a no-brainer to say I am an animal lover. And anyone familiar with force free animal training knows just how much this approach enhances your relationship with creatures of all kinds.  That’s why I get a little spring in my step when I know it’s time to move out of the classroom and get on to the practical application portion of any consulting gig. Let’s face it. A good training session can be really fun.

When I work in the zoo community I often film training sessions to record our progress and what we may need to work on with a particular behavior goal. Sometimes that means I might even get a glimpse of myself doing a little training demonstration to get things started. In a recent session I watched myself working with a brown bear on a lie down behavior. Recording sessions are also a great opportunity to evaluate one’s own practical application skills. (I highly recommend it!)

This bear and session was most definitely giving me joy. And the way I expressed it was through my words. However, I knew those words of praise were really for my benefit and not the bear’s.  In general, I tend to be a quiet trainer. This is for several reasons. One reason is that some animals can get highly aroused by our excited vocalizations. High levels of arousal can lead to undesired behaviors such as aggressive behavior and sexual behavior (that’s another story involving a monkey I will share later.)  The other reason, is that I am quite aware that what is teaching my animal to give me desired behavior is delivery of the reinforcer. And if I can deliver that reinforcer in direct conjunction with the desired behavior, that is what is communicating to the animal what behavior should be repeated.
There are times when my words may be used to “bridge” behavior. Or a word may be used as a verbal cue. However, I am usually not very chatty when intentionally teaching/using a bridge or cue so that they will be salient. In this case, I knew any verbal cues would be changed (English is not the native language of the country where this bear lives.) I also knew I was right there to deliver the reinforcer and my hand moving forward quickly with the food would act as the bridging stimulus for the behavior. This was the only thing that really mattered…..the precise timing of the delivery of the reinforcers to communicate the desired behavior was presented.  And despite all my chit chat and lack of succinct auditory bridge, the bear did learn to lie down on a visual cue.  Overtime the cue can be made more subtle. But overall this was not bad for one session.  And the trainers were new to creating behaviors and putting them on cue.

So, should I have learned to pipe down a bit when training this bear? Here is my take on it. While I am no stranger to precise use of a bridging stimulus and giving clear verbal cues, I was fully aware of what was actually influencing the behavior…. delivery of the reinforcer. I knew the words were me expressing my enjoyment in the moment and pretty much had no significance to the bear. Eventually we chose a hand cue, so words did not matter for learning this behavior.  In fact, it is one of the cool things about reinforcement, it is a universal language. And yes, I think more importantly we (meaning bear and trainers) definitely had fun. I will certainly lighten up and let trainers enjoy their own verbal behavior when I have confidence it isn’t interfering with what we are trying to accomplish. Training should be fun and in reviewing the video of the last three weeks of consulting I hear lots of laughter and I see lots of behavior goals met. Mission accomplished this time, even through the chatter.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2017

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Leave a Legacy

My butt started buzzing out of control. Zzzt. Zzzt. Zzzt. Hard to ignore. However, on that Sunday I was lecturing to a very attentive group of veterinary professionals devoted to making the lives of parrots better. At the break, I checked my phone to see what all the incessant messaging was about. It was the weekend of hurricane Harvey pummeling Texas, but the worst had passed already on this trip away from home and my town was spared. Turns out Harvey did have a sucker punch in store for me and the bird world after all.

Many people are familiar with the Blue-Throated Macaw, Blu Lu that resides with me. She came to live with me at the request of Laney Rickman. Laney was the founder of a parrot conservation organization called the Bird Endowment. This organization focuses on saving Blue-Throated Macaws by keeping a genetically diverse flock in Texas in the event the wild population were to go extinct. (There are only about 300 birds left in the wild.) The captive population is managed so that they are behaviorally as wild as possible in a captive setting. Blu Lu had been rejected by her parents and had to be hand raised. Behaviorally she was inappropriate for the group. I agreed to take her if we (Blu Lu and I) continued to raise awareness and funding for the conservation efforts of the organization in the wild.  The Bird Endowment also heavily focuses on supporting Blue-Throated Macaw conservation in the wild by partnering with Armonia to put up nest boxes to increase the population. This is the one thing that has proven to be successful in making a difference in helping these birds in the wild.

Some may think…”whateves, yet another conservation group.” Let me say up front. Conservation is political and controversial. Bottom line is, I am picky about where I place my support. I did not support the Bird Endowment because Blu Lu came into my life. Blu Lu came after I had already been a supporter of the Bird Endowment. I chose the Bird Endowment because of Laney.

I was at a companion parrot event and Laney was a guest speaker. Laney shared her story of being an ad executive making a hefty paycheck in Houston. She had a small companion parrot she enjoyed who inspired her to volunteer at the Houston Zoo. At that zoo, she had the pleasure of working with some Blue-Throated Macaws. It was at that zoo she learned of how unlikely it was this species would be around much longer in the wild. She also learned there really was no champion for their conservation efforts.  

Laney was also a huge fan of blues music, another interest we shared. She told the story of how she had seen an interview with Eric Clapton in which someone asked him why he was so interested in preserving the history of blues music and he said, “Well if I don’t do it, who will?” That one sentence was a game changer.

Laney pooled her savings from her ad exec career, her passion for parrots and the “if I don’t do it, who will?” attitude and instituted a full-fledged conservation program that actually made a difference.  Overhead was kept to a minimum and funds really went to helping birds.

What I loved most is that all this came from one woman’s passion to make a difference. And she did make a difference. Really made a difference.

Did I love that she named all the birds she cared for after blues artists…hell yeah! And I named Blu Lu after Blu Lu Barker an old obscure singer from the 1940’s.  I also loved that when I challenged people to put a little blue in their hair to raise awareness for Blue-Throated Macaws, Laney dyed her entire head of hair blue! And it looked great on her. She lived in a small conservative Texas town, the blue hair was a brave move she once told me.

That small town was hit by hurricane Harvey too leaving people scrambling and shorthanded. Laney wasn't getting the diagnosis, treatment, care and attention she needed for an obvious serious medical problem. She was sent home. And when the worst of hit, it was too late. 

Laney always talked about coming into Austin to see some music. She was one of the few who always liked my music posts on social media. I like to think she is attending the best blues concert ever right now with all her favorite artists.  She certainly deserves it.  There are lots of clichés that come to mind when we lose someone. Life is too short. Live the life you love, love the life you live. Make each moment count, etc., etc., etc. The lesson that comes to mind for me when I think of Laney is “Leave a legacy.” She most certainly did. The sky really is crying Laney. We do miss you. But you did what you set out to do. Thank you for showing us the impact ONE person can have on saving wildlife.

PS Many want to know what happens to the Bird Endowment without Laney. Nido Adoptivo will continue on for this next season as Laney would have wanted.

Barbara Heidenreich

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.