By Peta Clarke,
Animal Training Solutions
GOOD relationships are the foundation of a happy life.
Those of us who consider our dogs as equals know the immense value that comes from just having them around.
Those bright eyes and wagging bodies can make even the toughest of days brighter.
Dogs come programmed to adore us through the process of domestication.
They can make us feel loved and worthy with very little effort on our part – is that not what being a friend is about?
As a trainer of exotic animals, my job is about good relationships.
Without a solid base of trust, the animals I work with would flee from me or attempt to kill me, so it is vital that the animal has a positive association with me before any real training can take place.
While there are a number of ways of getting the animal to accept us, initially food is our number one tool.
An important part is making the availability of a favorite food associated with us (ie. the presence of the trainer comes to predict the opportunity for favoured food).
The animal doesn’t have to do anything.
In fact, we toss the food even if we see aggressive behavior.
By tossing food and leaving, the animal quickly learns we are no threat, thus aggressive behaviour disappears and is replaced by calmer, more focused behaviour when we appear.
As we move along in developing trust, we focus more on giving the food (reinforcing) calmer, more relaxed body language.
All good trainers – whether they have a seal, an elephant, a dog or another human in front of them – understand that body language gives us a window into our animal’s emotional state.
We allow the animals to escape when they need to and are always watching them to let them tell us what is the most reinforcing consequences in every moment.
Having the power to choose how you interact with your environment is imperative for any animal’s wellbeing.
No one likes to be forced.
Fortunately, the amount of force and manipulation that many of us use in our training has reduced hugely over the past few decades.
In doing so, our advances in training and caring for zoo animals has skyrocketed.
But it can sometimes appear in disguise.
While you can’t put a physical lead around the neck of a seal, we can easily create a psychological lead.
For example, many marine animals are training to target their nose to the trainer’s fist as a default behaviour.
If you use this to force your seal to stay with you when it’s nervous, you are not adding to your trust account, you are making huge withdrawals.
Instead, acknowledging the seal’s need for security in the water by cuing them to go to their pool, we place ourselves on the side of the animal and what do you know? Confidence in you and thus “obedience” soars.
Why? Because they have learned they can trust you. Amazing.
Giving the animal control to escape places us and our animals in a win/win situation.
I have actively reinforced the escape behavior positively with food, especially in a situation where the animal has had a history of being forced to stay in a context that makes his eyes pop out of his head and then punished for running off.
This is quite common with dogs that have been worked through more traditional methods, where the thought is sometimes, “show him you’re the boss.”
With animals that have a strong station (ie. mat) behavior, placing the station at a greater distance away from the scary thing and cuing them to go for calm behavior will formalise the behavior of escape.
Stationing is a great basic behavior for every dog.
None of us should be surprised by the confidence an animal gains from not being forced into a situation that makes them feel threatened.
As always, when we think of situations where we have felt nervous, for whatever reason, we know how grateful we were when some kind soul understood and respected our need (ie. getting away from an innocent creepy crawly or more sensible in a serious situation, people who show us empathy and care are always people we feel we can trust).
It’s the same it seems, whether you are a man or a mouse.