Saturday, March 5, 2016

5 Animal Training Skills that Make a Big Difference

I spent that last two weeks in the company of some amazing minds and practitioners when it comes to animal training and the science that guides it. It is a humbling experience. One that I appreciate. It is a good reminder that no matter how many years of experience one may have, there is always more to learn. I found myself rethinking the things I thought I knew and looking for ways to more accurately teach my subject matter. I also thought I need several more lifetimes to learn everything I want to know about the different species I work with as well as the science the influences behavior. I enjoy knowing, there is much more to know.

However, one thing that kept jumping out at me is that this world of animal training is one that requires the development of certain practical application skills. I watched incredibly skilled elephant trainers, dog trainers, and horse trainers practicing their craft. Almost all of them share some things in common.

1. They are excellent at reading and interpreting animal body language. Really skilled animal trainers seem to be able to predict what an animal is about to do. This comes from the ability to observe tiny movements of body parts, whether it is muscles, eye movements or other subtle actions that are pre-cursers to bigger actions. Time and experience around a species helps trainers understand what those signals mean such as fear responses, aggressive behavior, comfort, I’m ready, etc.

2. They are sensitive to animal body language. Skilled trainers show a connectivity to their animal. They are aware that their actions influence animal behavior and are careful to avoid creating fear responses and aggressive behavior. Their goal is to create an animal that is calm and relaxed in their presence, one that looks forward to their company.

3. They are incredibly aware of their own body and how they move. This ties in with number two but is worth a mention. This self-awareness is really impactful. Knowing that just walking past an animal or moving an object too quickly can influence behavior in an adverse way is something skilled trainers know and work to avoid. Why damage your relationship or disrupt a session if you can avoid it? Skilled animal trainers also know this is something to be aware of even if you are very far away from the animal.

4. They have amazing focus and observation skills. Recently I was engrossed in watching a rhino open his mouth on cue for his trainer. At the same time another trainer more experienced with large pachyderms took notice of his hind quarters and a little shift in his weight while he did the behavior. That slight shift turned out to be an indication of a bigger problem going on with his joints. These are the kinds of details people skilled with their species notice. 

Later I am sure the pachyderm trainers experienced the same thing during a parrot training session as I explained all the subtle things going on in the session that were contributing to heightened levels of arousal and aggressive behavior for an Amazon parrot

5. They know the natural history (ethology) of their species and how it will influence their choices when it comes to training decisions.  This usually translates into setting up the environment so the animal will be successful. This may mean thinking about antecedent arrangement (making it easy for the animal to do the action), contextual elements that might help increase comfort and motivation (like having a buddy around) and reinforcer choices.

Of course there are other things to talk about such as the timing of delivery of reinforcers, the use of the bridging stimulus, etc. But these kinds of mechanics are ones that are frequently mentioned and easily practiced with repetition. I like to think of the skills mentioned above as ones professionals earn with time and experience working hands on with animals, an experience that is something book learning or practice with a clicker can never replace.

While the principles of behavior analysis do apply across species, there is an art to applying it well throughout the animal kingdom. Most of us can apply the basics to many species, but it is breathtaking when you see someone who is clearly an expert with their species applying the technology. There is a fluid two-way communication without words. I think for many of us we find it quite emotional when we see that connection, no doubt because training is so much more than a click and a treat :) a fact not lost on both the trainer and the animal.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2016

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.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What Trainers Really Do

I wish I had a better word than “training” to describe what I do, only because it has come to be interpreted to mean so many things to different people.  Different ways to influence behavior means that some types of training have involved the use of aversives. The kind of training I teach doesn’t recommend that approach, but the word out there on its own still carries that baggage.  Training is the word that also has been affiliated with certain kinds of activities animals have been asked (or coerced) into doing that today’s culture no longer finds acceptable. For example as a child, I remember there used to be a Saturday morning TV show that featured chimpanzees dressed in human clothes being detectives.

Thankfully, training like any other profession strives to evolve and improve.  Today’s progressive trainer is committed to a force free approach using scientifically sound principles to influence behavior. Furthermore the behavioral goals are pretty mind blowing. Most are familiar with using science based training technology to solve behavior problems, especially with companion animals. But did you know training is also being used to train animals to cooperate in their own medical care? One of my main jobs these days is to train animals in zoos to voluntarily accept injections and blood draws.  Sedating an animal can be risky.  Training frequently completely eliminates this problem and allows caregivers to ensure animals get the health care they need ASAP.

Training also gives people an opportunity to connect with animals in healthy ways. I have often thought that visitors at zoos who tap on the glass, call out to animals or otherwise try to get an animal’s attention are not doing so because they are bad people, but rather they would really like the animal to respond to them.  With training we can teach behaviors that make guest interaction possible as well as safe and fun for both animals and guests. Most importantly we can add an educational component to the experience. And turn engagement into inspiration for conservation action. (Here is a clip from Avian Behavior International in which guests can spend the day "flying" with Cisco the Peruvian Harris' Hawk)

We have learned more about the amazing abilities of animals thanks to studies that have been facilitated by training. Check out this fascinating study about communication using echolocation in dolphins that could not have been done without training. 

The many wonderful benefits of training make for a long list. Training has been used to help prepare animals for release into the wild for conservation and rehabilitation programs. Training is used daily in zoos to make day to day care easy to accomplish. Preventative health care is a breeze thanks to training. And we discover amazing things about underestimated species thanks to engaging with them via training. Certainly most people in my world understand the value of the word “training.” However I do hope to eliminate the baggage from the old days of training and continue to illuminate the work of today’s progressive trainers helping to improve animal welfare, the human animal bond, and facilitating conservation efforts.  Today’s trainers are making the world a better place for animals.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2016

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.

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions Ideas for Animal Trainers

I had a lot of fun coming up with ideas for last year. Here are ten new ideas for 2016.

1. Learn a new term.  There really truly is always something new to learn.  You may finally know the difference between negative reinforcement and positive punishment. Perhaps it’s time for some new words and concepts. Maybe you would like to learn about overshadowing? Or what is an adjunctive behavior?  I know these two terms kept cropping up in my vocabulary this year.

2. Present a paper at a conference. If you have never written and presented a paper for a conference before, be sure to add this to your list. Papers can be intimidating, but they are a great way to foster professional growth. They often cause you to study the work of others, make sure your information is accurate and help you become a critical thinker. I have already submitted five abstracts for 2016. How about you?

3. Expand your training repertoire. Is there a skill you tend to shy away from? Do you favor luring or free shaping? Or free shaping over targeting? Do you forget to set up your environment so the animal can easily do the behavior? Figure out what technique you have yet to master and make it your goal to excel at it.

4. Create a behavior goal chart. I like charts because they do help you organize your training goals and let you check off accomplishments. I also categorize my training goals. For example I can place behavior goals under headings such as medical, husbandry, behavior problem, enrichment, etc. It can also then help you prioritize each behavior.

5. Visit a zoo and watch a training session. Many zoos present scheduled training sessions with their animals for the public. Often these sessions include training the animals to cooperate in medical care. You might see an elephant presenting feet for a pedicure, a lion pressing its hip to the mesh for an injection, or an otter getting on a scale.  Use these sessions to give you inspiration to train your companion animals to cooperate in medical care at home.  Chat with the keepers afterwards and you can learn a lot more about the incredible work done by zoos to ensure their animals enjoy healthy and enriched lives thanks to training. (Here is a session with some Inca terns at the Copenhagen Zoo)

6. Question something you “think” you know.  Is there a term or concept you think you know, but maybe you are not quite so sure? Maybe now is the time to get some clarity. For years I used to use the words time out and negative punishment interchangeably, until I got some clarity. Do you sometimes say reinforcement when you mean to say reinforcer? It is an ongoing effort for me to fine tune what I “think” I know.

7. Be a mentor. There is still a great deal of misunderstanding out there as to what "animal training" is thanks to many different methods of training represented in TV shows, film, media, etc.. There are also a great many animal lovers out there who want to be trainers. You can help those animals lovers get on a good path that supports influencing animal behavior using science based methodology and promotes high standards of animal welfare by being a mentor. Share what you know and point those eager students towards good resources to help them be kind and gentle animal trainers.

8. Get together with other trainers. Not everyone can afford to go to a conference, but I can attest, even at a conference some of the best conversation happens at the bar or at the dinner table.  When I travel, just visiting with other trainers is often the best part. One friend and I met in a diner for lunch and talked so long we stayed for dinner.  Other trainers are important teachers. Find ways to spend time with them. (Here is a clip from time spent with colleague Hillary Hankey at Avian Behavior International)

9. Attend a webinar. Last year I suggested attending a conference. With so many advances in technology, I highly recommend taking advantage of webinars.  I presented too many to count last year! I hope to schedule a few this year too.

10. Do it now. Whatever you have resolved to do (write a paper, attend that workshop, learn a term, train that behavior, etc.) do it now! Animal training guru Bob Bailey once asked our chicken training workshop class “What is the one thing you will always run out of?” We all looked at each other, puzzled.  “Time!” he exclaimed.  Ain’t that the truth?

There you have it! Ten resolutions for trainers for 2016. Feel free to share with other animal enthusiasts and have a very Happy New Year!

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2016

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.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Memorable Moments with and for Animals 2015

As the year comes to a close, a glance to the calendar is a lovely reminder of the many wonderful  animal encounters, endeavors and experiences in 2015. It was difficult to zone in on the things that were most significant to me this year. These are my stand outs for various reasons. 

1. Working with Harry the Gorilla at the Dublin Zoo: I was thrilled to begin consulting work with the incredible team of keepers at the Dublin Zoo. A favorite amongst the staff is Harry, a gentle giant with an unfortunate past prior to his arrival at Dublin Zoo. Thankfully now he lives in a luxurious habitat and is the silverback of a beautiful troop of western lowland gorillas that are thriving. Because of their deep affection for him, staff members were very sensitive to wanting training to be something based in positive reinforcement and something all the gorillas would truly enjoy.  As we were standing there discussing techniques Harry offered a behavior we liked. He opened his mouth. One of the keepers said “good” and offered a piece of fruit. Harry did it again. This repeated for quite some time. Within about 15 minutes Harry was presenting a beautiful open mouth behavior on cue! While capturing a behavior is not necessarily a big deal, it was for Harry and it was for this team. It was a breakthrough moment for everyone. Suddenly the door was open for so much more. In the next few weeks this team went on to train so many more behaviors. And nothing fills your heart with more joy than to get reports that say “Harry is a superstar. And he seems to really love it. And the training has improved our relationship.”  It may sound a bit trite, but I do think force free animal training is about changing lives for the better…both animal and human. Harry for me was one of the examples that will stick with me for a lifetime. Can’t wait to visit again in 2016 and see the progress this team has made with him and his troop.

2. Not Forcing the Bunny: Not too many people know this, but for several years I have been asked to bring my rabbit and guinea pigs on America’s Got Talent. Although I do post video clips of my pets online as a means to encourage people to engage in positive reinforcement training to connect with their animals, getting my animals on a talent show has not really been an objective of mine, so I have always declined. After three years of pressuring, I finally caved.  After lots of training to prepare my animals to perform under unusual conditions (new places, lights, 10,000 people, music, etc.) and driving 1800 miles to NYC in a snowstorm, the big day finally came.  The animals performed flawlessly during rehearsals even with the crowds, lights and music.  However when the cameras were rolling the bunny went on strike. Fortunately she was uber relaxed and even laid down on the table for a little siesta.  I set up my segment explaining I was a force free trainer and my animals were my pets, not seasoned stage performers. They may or may not do their behaviors and to me that was just fine, I wasn’t going to force them. The funniest bit came when the rabbit didn’t want to go back in her crate to leave and I wouldn’t force her.  The judges made a few jokes, Nick Cannon came out to “help", and of course eventually my rabbit did go in the crate voluntarily and the crowd cheered! It was actually delightfully funny and Howard Stern applauded my work and said he loved what I was doing. The producers told me they loved the segment, but it never aired on TV.  Who knows? Maybe the clip will make it to the internet one day. After filming I met some friends in a nearby restaurant and was rushed by some children who were at the taping. They had seen the rehearsal as well as the live taping and absolutely loved the animals and the message. That alone probably made the whole trip worth it. (This is a clip of my bunny preparing her routine for AGT)

3. Jack the Cockatoo and the Fear Free™ Movement: In the zoo community we often train animals to cooperate in medical care. One of my favorites is a cockatoo named Jack at one of the zoos at which I consult. He has been trained to accept oral medications without restraint, intramuscular injections without restraint, tactile, wing manipulation, get on a scale, etc. He is also trained to be comfortable having a towel wrapped around him for restraint if needed and has had blood drawn relatively stress free using this approach. Recently he did become ill and all his prior training absolutely made a huge difference. I watched him accept four injections, take sub cutaneous fluids and put his head into a mask for nebulization (for 15 minutes) all without restraint in a single day. I was told since my visit he has had to undergo more treatment for his condition and continues to cooperate. What a testament to the power of force free training. Jack also was not the perfect training candidate. He was an ex pet, donated to the zoo with behavior challenges at the time. He was also over 40 years old when we began training him.  Examples like Jack further support my belief that there is much we can do to reduce or eliminate stress when it comes to veterinary care. 

I have long been lecturing on ways to train companion parrots, small mammals and zoo animals to cooperate in medical care. I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of the Fear Free™ Veterinary Advisory Group organized by Dr Marty Becker. This team is working hard to make Fear Free™ Vet Exams the norm by educating veterinary professionals about strategies such as systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, antecedent arrangement, hospital design, pheromones, pre-visit sedation and more to reduce stress for companion animal care.  To learn more visit Not only was watching Jack a memorable moment for me in 2015, but seeing Fear Free™ actually take hold and take off is a bit of a dream come true. Now instead of a few small voices talking here and there about this idea, there is a whole movement with lots of support behind it. Just think! It could one day be the norm for all pets to look forward to going to the veterinarian. (Here is a video of training a dog to accept injections without restraint from a 2015 visit with veterinary students from the University of Giessen in Germany)

4. Challenging the Industry- Continuing the Conversation on How We Create Motivation in Animal Training: This was an initiative I started in 2014 with a presentation called Weight Management in Animal Training: Pitfalls, Ethical Considerations and Alternative Options that I presented at a few conferences.  You can read the paper here or watch a video on the presentation here. Since then a lot has happened.  For one Eva Bertilsson and I co-hosted a very successful symposium in Sweden on the Ethics of Creating Motivation in Animal Training. What was clear is, this topic is hot! The Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference (ABMA) immediately followed in Denmark and motivation was mentioned many times over in presentations. I was fortunate to present on Conscientiously Creating and Evaluating Motivation which I hear will soon be available for viewing via ABMA’s Collabornation site.  Getting people talking has been step one. And in my travels as I talk with others I often learn of new examples or new scientific information that confirms it is essential we explore this topic more.  This subject ranks for me because I find myself thinking about it or talking about it almost every day. It is a very deep, convoluted topic. And aspects of it can be very damaging to animal welfare.  I very much hope to be able to provide some good resources in the near future for those who are interested.  Stay tuned! (Here is a video clip of Kipling a Southern Ground Hornbill from Avian Behavior International. He is being trained using a progressive approach that allows healthy relationships with food and challenges traditional training techniques used for creating motivation. This clip is from my visit in December of 2015)

5. Teaching Through Technology: This has definitely been the year of the webinar for me. I made 10 new webinars!  (Which was no easy feat. lol) Most were for the companion parrot community on just about every parrot behavior problem you can think of. (However I also made some for the zoo community as well.) All can be scheduled to be presented live as a virtual presentation for a bird club, your business, veterinary clinic, special event, zoo staff, rescue volunteers, etc. Or you can watch a recorded version at anytime.  I am in love with these webinars because they are my most comprehensive resource. I was able to zone in on very specific topics and dive in deep. It is almost like having a private two hour consultation with me.  They were a lot of work, and definitely count as a big chunk of my 2015. My summer was all about making and presenting webinars. However I stand by them as one of the best resources out there for expert advice on parrot behavior problems. I also made a new website for my zoo consulting clients that is packed full of information and resources.  Regular zoo clients – be sure to contact me if you need access.

Other unforgettable moments: 
There were a lot of pretty darn spectacular moments it is pretty hard to narrow things down. Some other stand outs include working with veterinarians and veterinary students at the University of Giessen on training dogs for voluntary injections and a horse for a voluntary blood draw.  I also enjoyed some great brainstorming with this team on their projects and mine.  It was a thrill to play a very small part in helping the Dublin Zoo team train their elephant calves for medical behaviors. This zoo is leading the way on progressive elephant care and management. My heart swells with pride when I look at the overall progress of the team at the Santa Barbara Zoo. I have worked with them for a number of years now and am just amazed at how much they have progressed.  I especially enjoy the work they have done with their giraffes (including the fabulous hoof curl behavior!), big cats, and domestic animals to name just a few. I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to speak at the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference. And I never tire of the many hands on parrot training opportunities, this year in places such as Mexico, Sweden, France, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, Oregon, and Texas. Of course what makes all of it most memorable are the people and the animals. Hope to see you in 2016!

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015 

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.