Overcoming Roadblocks to Training

Animal training used to be viewed as a luxury. The great news is that supervisors, curators, directors, caregivers, and trade organizations are promoting the approach that managing animal behavior is an essential component of providing for optimal animal welfare.

This position is a major step. However, implementation can be much more involved. Adding structure and organization to training programs is often important. It is clear just giving people the “green light” is less likely to lead to the type of long-term success most facilities envision. Programs can include processes such as staff development, oversight, documentation, etc. (Animaltrainingfundamentals.com has an excellent course to walk you through the details of setting up your training program). However, we can also think of “animal training” as a desired behavior one would like to see emitted. When we think of it in these terms it can lead to helpful questions that can also be applied to any behavior.

1. Does the learner know how to do the desired response?

In this case we would want to make sure team members have been provided with the means to gain knowledge and practical application skills to make sure they are comfortable training or maintaining the desired behaviors with the animals assigned. Training skills may be learned via mentors onsite, attending conferences, workshops, virtual education, consultants, etc.

2. Is it physically possible to train/maintain desired behaviors?

This requires making sure the items required are available when it is time to train. This may include training supplies, building modifications, access to a variety of appetitives, people to assist if needed, etc.

3. Have any time management issues been addressed?

A common concern is that there is not enough time to train. There is an excellent resource within AnimalTrainingFundemtals.com for members with 10 tips to make progress with training when time is limited.

Addressing 1-3 can help set the occasion so that training is more likely to occur.

The next steps are to consider the contingencies maintaining the behavior of people doing animal training. There can be many, and it can vary based on each individual person. Some people enjoy the experience of teaching animals to emit new behaviors, especially if the person is a skilled trainer. But for a person still learning, this experience may be aversive and less likely to occur. How others respond to their training can also impact future behavior. Environments in which feedback is just “information” can be helpful. Feedback that comes off as judgmental may be punishing and decrease attempts to train. I have been in many different environments in which I have watched people sink or swim depending on the response of the people around them. Our tendency with animals is to remember it is not the animal’s fault. Their behavior has been shaped by their experiences. We often forget this when it comes to human behavior.

We hope people see the welfare benefits of training. But we can also help team members experience the value of training by also training some behaviors that result in direct benefits such as making it easier to do their jobs and solving behavior challenges.

Offering educational experiences about training as a professional development “perk” that goes on the learner's performance evaluation provides added value for some team members. For those who are members of AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com the Make the Most of Membership resource provides ideas to incorporate learning into the work week and in turn earn course completion badges.

As mentioned there can be many contingencies that make it reinforcing or punishing to train for each individual. A little digging will reveal those multiple contingencies that are impacting the behavior of incorporating animal training into the day's work. This combined with looking at the conditions that set the occasion can help facilities overcome roadblocks to training.

Here are additional resources within the virtual educational program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com where you can learn more.

The Weekly Training Tracking Chart

Identifying Behavior Goals and Documentation (Setting Up Your Training Program)

By Barbara Heidenreich - Animal Training Consultant
June 19, 2022

About the Author: Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training consultant specializing in exotic animals. She consults worldwide working with zoos, universities, veterinary professionals, and conservation projects. She has worked onsite with over 80 facilities in 27 countries. She is an adjunct instructor at Texas A & M University. She has authored two books and contributed to four veterinary textbooks. She is a co-author of two Fear Free® Avian Certification Courses. Much of her work focuses on training exotic species to cooperate in medical care. She operates the online education program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com. This virtual learning program features award winning courses, tracks to guide professional development, verifiable badges to share and prove course completion, community, and more. Barbara is an advisor for the Animal Training Working Group and the Parrot Taxon Advisory Group for the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has provided her expertise to conservation projects The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. She has a Bachelor of Science in zoology and has begun the journey towards a Master of Science in applied behavior analysis. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.