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.