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.