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.