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.

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