Animal Training-Really YOU can do that?â€™
Article was originally featured in Dogs Monthly Magazine, UK in 2007.
Animal Training is becoming a more prevalent profession in the UK and Europe as a whole which is very refreshing with different types of animals being trained and the realisation that this is possible with different kinds of species.
I know that when in the UK; if I say I am an Animal Trainer/Behaviourist I get rather glazed looks, whereas if I were to say this in the USA, I might get a completely different reaction.
This I partly attribute to the fact that in America, particularly in zoos and aquaria, they have always been slightly ahead in terms of their training ideology and applications of training in animal management.
Most of the training knowledge we use today with our dogs, in terms of modern training methods such as clicker, whistle training and the use of positive reinforcement has originated from zoos and aquaria in the USA. In fact most of this knowledge has been adopted from marine mammal training.
Times have very much changed, whereas aversive methods such as starvation and training strategies heavily based around punishment (physical/verbal reprimand), the training profession are now are starting to accept that these methods are not effective and are ethically questionable. We are also starting to see the benefits of developing and shaping behaviour through positive reinforcement.
I think marine mammal training has set a good example of using professional training methods and positive reinforcement. This I believe has provided the dog training world with good information and tools to manage and train behaviours of dogs. Many marine mammal trainers have never been without whistles or clickers (bridge signals) when training and it is now only starting to take place in training dogs today.
As people are not aware of the contribution of marine mammal training in modern dog training methods, people don’t really understand animal training, as a result of this when someone identifies themselves as an Animal Trainer or that they train, let’s say cats, parrots, rabbits etc., it is assumed that this is impossible.
People tend to say ‘just because you can train a parrot doesn’t mean you can train a dog’, although what we use when training dogs has been developed from training an animal very much unlike a dog.
I think what people and even professionals miss is that the training principles are exactly the same; the fundamental issue is that you need to be asking the animal something it can physically do. So although you might ask a dog to lay-down, as it can physically carry out that behaviour, you wouldn’t really ask the parrot to do it as well. Realistically you wouldn’t ask a dog to fly either!!
I think the example that really illustrates this point is a question that was sent into the forum at the International Marine Mammal Trainers Association –
“ when a trainer was asking advice for training a flipper stand. The trainer had expressed utter confusion as to why she couldn’t train this flipper stand, at which point another trainer asked “are you training a seal as appose to a sea lion”
What the trainer had failed to realise was that she was training a seal, not a sea lion and seals cannot physically bend their fore flippers forward in order to achieve this behaviour, as the behaviour involves the fore flippers holding the animal up while the back flippers are up in their air.
This outlines the importance of understanding the species you are working with, although the training techniques used remain the same. The scientific principle of training is still the same which ever species you work with, so really if you know how an animal works and what an animal can do or cannot do, together with appreciating and having an understanding of the animal’s natural behaviour, you can train various species.
There are animal training companies that specialize in training animals for the film industry, for example the Directors of the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter used Animal Trainers to train animals to carry out certain behaviours for their films. These trainers achieve wonderful bonds with the animals they work with and train the behaviours required. The trainers may not have had experience with a particular species or breed but they undertake complete research on the animal before commencing training but they utilise the same training principles with these animals, using appropriate training aids.
With more professionals in the training and behaviour counselling industry being asked advice on how to train and manage the behaviour of different species, I think Animal Training as a profession is being more widely accepted, which is great!
Training has very important role in animal care, providing animals with mental and physical stimulation, bonding time for owners and pets, treatment of behaviour problems and the facilitation of natural behavioural repertoire.
Often animals that have been trained show many natural behaviours that they would show in the wild, for example, penguins have been known in some zoos to have not utilised their pools, staying on the land, once trained and desensitised (used to) being in the pool and being given enrichment (toys) have then shown porpoising (jumping in and out of water) and natural feeding behaviour such as catching fish that have been thrown in the water by keepers.
As a result of the profession being recognised and applied I think it is a great thing, as more of these species can benefit from the advantages of training, that may have not previously benefited. I truly believe that we can improve the welfare of animals by training them.
If animals are not stimulated or provided with correct husbandry they can show stereotyped behaviour, which is basically a coping response an animal can use, this can be pacing behaviour or any repetitive behaviour having an easing effect. Using training and providing enrichment (toys, treats or food presented in interesting ways and toys that provoke problem solving and mental stimulation) these types of problems can be prevented and treated.
Training can also allow veterinary procedures to be carried out with little stress, by training roll-over, dogs for example, that have been castrated and need to have stitches taken out are not needed to be restrained and therefore the procedure is carried out co-operatively as opposed to being very stressful for the dog.
I have heard of dogs being put under general anaesthetic for toenail clipping because the dog was just too stressed to have the procedure done normally, if training was used to allow the dog to be desensitised in order to get it used to this procedure and trained to do this co-operatively then a general anaesthetic wouldn’t be needed.
Parrots that need toenails clipping can also be trained to present their feet for this procedure as well as being trained for wing clipping.
Training has a very wide scope and can be applied to all aspects of animal care and I am very passionate about its use. One of my recent customers arrived at my class with their Black Labrador Charlie. I was told that Charlie had been previously taken to another class but on arrival he was very afraid of going through doorways and wouldn’t enter the class, at which point the trainer running the class said there was nothing she could do and turned them away.
When Charlie arrived at my class he was nervous but with the appropriate training we had him going through doorways in no time and together with practise at home he quickly had no problem with doorways. Normally when he would go to the vets he would express the same problem with doorways but after training in my class he would enter the vets with ease which surprised veterinary staff considering how he had been before. I think this really outlines the importance of training and the need for people to open their minds to training, its effectiveness and potential uses, not just with the typical species you associate training with but with many different species.
At my consultancy I work with various species, I have been training cats for cat agility, training them to sit, stay and recall, training parrots to step onto a stick and roll-over, training a fish to swim under a bridge in their tank. All of this provides the animal with stimulation and allows the owner to spend quality time with their pet.
Training may also offer exercise to pets that may be overweight, a cat that is overweight may benefit from some exercise this could just be doing agility, training the cat to interact with its toys or simply by carrying out simple behaviours.
We do have to carry out husbandry with our pets at home such as weighing our pets to maintain a healthy weight. It might be beneficial to train your parrot to stand on some scales and stay while the reading is being taken, even with dogs when they are taken to the vets to be weighed you see many people struggle to get their dog to stay while this reading is being taken, again training has a valuable contribution here.
Moving animals is also a part of husbandry and this will differ between species, I have seen numerous owners of horses having tremendous difficulty getting their horses to enter the horse box and in some cases having to use cheating tactics or forceful tactics to get the horse into the box. The aspect that isn’t understood here is that the horse is not happy with the environment in the box, it is noisy, the box moves and rattles so what is needed here is proper training so the horse becomes used to the environment and associates the box with nice experiences, I would use clicker training in this instance which I find very effective. By forcing the horse into the box, the horse will not learn to trust the handler and using tactics that coax and almost cheat the horse into the box will only damage the bond between the horse and handler. This is especially important as successful training is built on strong trust and a good relationship.
Because of the husbandry demands of certain species, some animals can tend to show behavioural problems and signs of stress. Many people do find problems with their parrots due to the attention they require but also space and nutritional requirements. Feather plucking and various other behaviours can be a result of stress but by providing training, stimulation can be provided to treat and prevent these problems but also in the same way you may provide your dog with a kong, parrots may also benefit from a parrot kong of their own. Other such interesting and stimulating ways of presenting food include placing seed and fruit parcels in branching and spacing in the cage, provoking the parrots natural feeding behaviour.
Being a trainer I hope to improve the welfare of animals so that animal’s needs are being met, the animal is healthy and well adjusted to their environment.
Animal Training can provide great tools for animal care and Animal Trainers/Behaviourists can greatly help owners to provide stimulation for their pets and most importantly allow owners to enjoy building that all important bond with their pet.
Victoria James BSc (Hons),
Animal Behaviourist & Trainer
Victoria James, BSc (Hons) (Licence),
Dresseuse et Conseillère en Comportement d’animaux
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 79 09
Mobile/Portable: 0033 (0)6 89 19 50 88