How Exotic Animals Made Me a Better Trainer

How Exotic Animals Made Me a Better Trainer

Always training

During my formative years as a trainer, I spent a great deal of time working in zoos and aquariums. These early experiences with exotic animals influenced me a lot as a trainer and I can trace many valuable lessons back to those days. I thought I’d share the ten most significant lessons with you here. 

Relationships take work

Dog trainers don’t usually have to work hard to build relationships with their dogs. Dogs are domesticated animals that are bred for their tractability and comfort with people, and we tend to take those traits for granted. When you are working with zoo animals, however, relationships are not automatic. Building a relationship requires a strategic effort, careful planning, hard work, and establishing a consistent and reliable reinforcement history. Feeding, playing with, and caring for an animal helps the relationship grow.

One relationship that comes to mind was the relationship I developed with Juan, a scarlet macaw that I worked with in Mexico City many years ago. Juan was well-behaved around the women on our team, but he viciously attacked any and all men. Juan was an important part of our daily bird show and I had to work with him. My team and I constructed a special perch from which Juan could not climb down to attack me. This gave me the ability to work with Juan and try to build some trust. At first, I thought it would be an impossible task, but with patience, kindness, and lots of reinforcement, Juan developed a tolerance for me. I won’t say I ever became his favorite person, but six months later he and I were able to do shows without a protected contact barrier. That was a relationship that took lots of work!

The importance of targeting

Targeting, teaching an animal to touch an object, is a useful and versatile behavior that dog trainers don’t always take full advantage of. It is often dangerous to touch exotic animals; targeting provides a way of interacting with them safely. Working with zoo animals taught me the value of the many forms of targeting, and I became proficient at teaching almost any behavior with a target.

I remember a rescued owl that had been through a tough rehabilitation period and, consequently, did not trust people. I used targeting to get the owl to focus on an object far from the trainer; with time, as the object became a place of comfort for the owl, my team and I approximated the object closer and closer to the trainer. Eventually, the owl came to the trainers, stationed, allowed the trainers to touch him, and participated in medical behaviors voluntarily.

The value of stationing

Most exotic zoo animals need to be taught to approach and stay close to their trainers. Stationing, or coming to a location near the trainer to begin training, often needs to be taught deliberately. Working with shy, skittish, and distrustful zoo animals, I’ve learned patience and the value of stationing; well-reinforced stationing in proximity to a trainer is one of the first steps that leads to successful training with any animal.

When I worked with tigers, I concentrated on teaching a solid station for the first few weeks. Once each tiger was reliably and comfortably seated at the front of the enclosure near me, training progressed rapidly. I had the same experience working with primates; once they had a place to sit that was comfortable and where I could deliver reinforcement consistently, they relaxed and, again, training progressed rapidly. The same is true when I work with dogs!

How to work in protected contact

“Protected contact” is a way of working with an animal that provides a barrier or other form of protection between the trainer and the animal. Usually a wall or fence separates the animal from the trainer while contact with select body parts of the animal is still possible through windows, portals, doors, or other openings in the barrier. Used properly, this method permits close contact with a dangerous animal and provides a measure of protection. Protected contact is also useful with skittish animals, as it gives the animals a sense of protection from the trainer. Since protected contact is commonplace in the zoo world, I learned to apply these systems with many different species of animals.

Today, when I work with highly aggressive or fearful dogs, I begin in protected contact and train that way until I gain the dog’s trust. I have also worked through protected contact with our alpacas at The Ranch. Initially, they were very skittish and uncomfortable around people. Protected contact increased their comfort levels and allowed me to make faster training progress. Protected contact also helps the veterinary team be more relaxed working with an animal for many medical behaviors.

How to read body language

All animals exhibit behaviors that can tell us a lot about how they are feeling in a given situation. While we have dozens of resources showing us how to read dog body language, there are no books or websites that tell us about rhino, eagle, or alligator body language. Working with exotic animals taught me the importance of the smallest muscle movement, the slightest twitch in the eye, or a minor change in weight balance. These changes, although subtle, can indicate whether an animal is poised for attack or relaxed and comfortable in your presence.

Several years ago, I consulted with a wallaby training program and was asked to observe two young trainers work with the wallabies. I was told that one of the trainers, Zoe, had a great relationship with the animals, while the other trainer, Aiden, did not. The wallabies were relatively new to training and, although they were shy and reluctant to approach, Zoe was having great success keeping the wallabies near her. As I watched Zoe and Aiden work, they appeared to be handling the animals in exactly the same way. As I started paying closer attention to the animals, I saw that sometimes the wallabies squinted their eyes slightly and hesitated in their forward motion. Zoe responded by stopping the movement of her hand and then withdrawing her hand just slightly, which prompted the wallabies to relax and continue with their forward motion. When Aiden worked with them, his hand moved forward similar to Zoe’s, but he did not notice the animals’ hesitation, he did not change his hand movement, and the wallabies startled and ran away. Zoe’s observation skills and small adjustments to her own behavior made all the difference to the wallabies, and she made faster training progress. Once I was able to point out these subtle changes to Aiden, he, too, was able to adjust his behavior and make good progress. 

Why punishment is a bad idea

I can’t deny that punishment works. When applied properly, punishment reduces the probability of a given behavior occurring in the future. However, punishment can be very frustrating for animals, and my time with exotic animals has made me rethink how I view the use of punishment.

I have had the opportunity to work in free contact with several large exotic animals. For example, when I am facing a tiger with no barrier or protection between me and that big predator, the risks of saying “No!” or applying any tool that might cause frustration can be catastrophic. I recognized very quickly that it would be foolish to use a punisher in these circumstances, as it might be the last thing I did. When I realized that I needed to avoid puinshers for safety reasons, I thought about what that meant with my dogs or with animals where injury was less likely. Just because my dog will probably never kill me, he faces the same level of frustration as those larger animals. I began to ask myself, “Why would I ever allow my learner to be frustrated?” I began searching for other options for training dogs as well. Being face to face with a tiger, an elephant, and an orca has a profound effect on the decisions I make today.

"Working with exotic animals taught me the importance of the smallest muscle movement, the slightest twitch in the eye, or a minor change in weight balance."

See things from the animal’s perspective

When I was first introduced to dog training more than forty years ago, it was a common belief that dogs are here to please us. Considering a dog’s perspective was not a mainstream thought, and those who did consider the dogs’ perspective often believed that much of what a dog did was geared toward serving us. I had no illusions that exotic animals looked at their relationships with me in that way. Instead, I learned to recognize the value and importance of looking at all things from the animals’ perspectives. How do they see reinforcement? Why are they scared? What makes them comfortable? What do they get out of what I am asking them to do? Seeing things from the animal’s point of view made me a better exotic animal trainer and I have carried that knowledge over into my work with dogs. 

The value of medical behavior training

I have trained numerous animals to cooperate in their own health care. From the largest elephant to the smallest lizard, medical training is commonplace in many zoos. I have never doubted the value of this type of training because I have seen for myself how it reduces stress and makes health care so much better for both trainer and animal. As I returned to the dog-training community, I saw the challenges and fears that many dogs experienced visiting their veterinarians. I encourage every dog owner to consider training their animals to cooperate in routine medical exams. Why shouldn’t our dogs receive the same consideration and level of care as exotic animals?

The benefits of enrichment

Enrichment is a way to encourage animals to exhibit a wider range of species-specific behaviors, to encourage exploration, and to enhance mental stimulation and behavioral and emotional health. Zoos were the first to take a serious look at enrichment and to develop systematic strategies for its effective implementation. It was in the zoo environment that I learned the value of collecting data and monitoring the effectiveness of the enrichment we offered. We always identified specific goals for each type of enrichment we offered. Sometimes the goal was to teach certain skills, to reduce a stereotypic behavior, to reduce aggression, to encourage better habitat use—there was always a goal. We recorded baseline data prior to delivering the enrichment, then collected data to see whether it made a difference. We then utilized our findings to adjust enrichment strategies, set new goals, and collect new data. Too often, I see people simply give toys to animals without a lot of thought about whether the animals even use the toys, or how often they interact with those toys. My work in the zoo has taught me to think carefully about enrichment.

Training is not a luxury

Finally, there is a mantra that I live by: Training is not a luxury; it is a key component of great animal care. Training is just as important as good veterinary care, good nutrition, the right environment, and the right social structure. Too often, training is an afterthought—something to do when there is time. Our pets all deserve and require care for their emotional, mental, and behavioral health. 

Happy Training, Ken

Ken Ramirez is the Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). A trainer and consultant for nearly 40 years, Ken most recently served as the Executive Vice President, Animal Care and Training, at Chicago’s world-famous Shedd Aquarium. He is the author of several books and DVDs, including ANIMAL TRAINING: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement, which has become required reading for many trainers in the zoological field. Learn more about Ken Ramirez.