Gabrielle Harris is a great person I had the privilege to meet at on of the IMATA conferences I attended. She has a perspective on animal training what I like very much. Very thoughtful presentations are presented by her such as this one: Awareness of Control as Primary Reinforcer

She wrote a book called Touching Animals Souls and will be translated at the end of this month to German. Her second book is on the way as well and will be available in English and Czech.

She is a great writer and in this guest blog she proves this once again.


“Animal Behaviour has interested and perplexed humanity for centuries and a desire to understand why animals do what they do has resulted in vast amounts of research being done on the topic. Having been an animal trainer since 1990 and being surrounded by animals her entire life, Gabrielle Harris offers and new and astonishing way of viewing animal behaviour and what humanity can learn from the animal kingdom if they open their hears”.


Animal trainers?  Behaviourists?  Zookeepers?

We debate what to call people who work with and train animals.   What we are called is how we behave.  Let’s investigate.

Anyone can train a trick.  Basic conditioning 101 enables our ability to achieve extraordinary feats in communication.  Ensuring the welfare of animal’s in our care is greatly enhanced because we can train tricks.  Examples of tricks that are good for welfare of animals in human care:

  • Easeful medical behaviours that enable proactive animal care
  • Fun engaging mental stimulation in the process of ‘talking to animals’
  • Animal’s exercising in the game of training

Is training ‘tricks’ enough?

The best animal care specialists out there say no.  In the larger scheme of things, we need to take full responsibility for the psychological welfare of the animals in our care.

To illustrate, let us look at our family pet – Scruffy the Labrador.  He has some trick training in his day.  He knows how to do a few things to cue, like sit, shake and stay…   When his person is feeling really industrious they spend up to an hour in a day playing at training and use a clicker and treats.  Teaching him tricks.

For the rest of the day, Scruffy is still in relationship with his person.  This relationship has rules of engagement.  Yet, no clicker or treat.  Scruffy sits next to his person and enjoys being scratched behind his ears.  He lies on his person’s feet while they watch television.  When his person leaves to go to work Scruffy looks mournful, but accepting.  A new dog, a Jack Russell terrier called Lyla joined the family recently, and her puppy nature is good company.  When his person returns from work, Scruffy is restrained, yet so very excited.  He knows to sit to get his person’s cuddles.  At night he and Lyla share a big comfy bed with their person.  Lyla under the covers, Scruffy on top.  Scruffy’s favourite pastime is a walk on the beach, and he also knows exactly how to behave during the bi-weekly run around the neighbourhood.   24 hours a day, behaviour management is occurring.

Animals in our care have complex needs.   Do we know what they require?  Are we formally managing their social interactions?  Do we provide them the space, tools and appropriate engagement to ensure that their welfare is achieved?  Do we always provide for all their physical and psychological needs?  Physical needs cannot actually be separated out from psychological needs.  For instance, if we don’t provide an opportunity for our dogs to exercise, they very often suffer from anxiety.

Finally, are we able to be critically evaluative in our work?

How can we, in a rational and objective manner – look at the situation from the animal’s point of view?


KNOWLEDGE – knowing the natural history and propensity of the animals in our care provides us with baseline information.  There are physical requirements that assist us to diagnose concerns and provision better care.  Scruffy is a laid back Labrador. This breed of dog are retrievers who have been bred to go into the water.  Scruffy loves to play fetch and enjoys swimming in the ocean.  Knowing this helps me to enrich his life.  When he wants to fetch things, and I become angry, I am not being rational.  Scruffy is doing what he is bred to do.  My anger could confuse him.  The Jack Russell was bred to hunt rodents.  Lyla’s quick reactivity could drive me dilly.  However when I know what she is bred to do, I could provide her some agility training or similar so she can exercise her physical drive in a satisfying manner for both of us.

MINDFULNESS – this is the moment-to-moment, awareness.  When we are able to focus on the here and now, we are able to better see how the animals are experiencing their world.  Too often we place our judgements and perceptions onto the situation and are thus unable be objective.   Most often, we focus on what we fear, rather what is going right.


When practising animal behaviour management, these two key concepts can assist us to achieve appropriate welfare

  1. Intrinsic Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic refers to something we do to receive an external consequence.  For example, I work for my salary check.

Intrinsic refers to something we do because it feels right.  For example, I work because I love my job.

Being driven only for extrinsic reasons reduces our ability to experience what feels right.  If we are constantly looking for the fix of what we will get as a result of the effort we are putting in, we forget to focus on the flow of life.  When we only interface with animals to train them, we are likely creating addicts.  They are addicted to the extrinsic reinforcement they receive every time they see us.  It can occur that they are anxious all the time, in their drive to get that reinforcement.  We are associated with that anxiety.  How much choice and control do they have in relationship with us?

The trick – balance the intrinsic and extrinsic.  Ensure that you spend quality time with that animal that is not all about food.  Scruffy gets cuddles and gets to sit with his person.  There is no treat there.  No expectation.  Just the joy of togetherness.  It is psychologically proven that this ‘togetherness’ reduces stress hormones and increases curiosity, creativity and general quality of life.

  1. Understanding from the animal’s point of view

Spending time with animals as alluded to above helps us get to know those animal’s personalities.  This makes us more effective at what we do.  Helps us to see things from their point of view.  How important this is cannot be overemphasised.

As animal care specialists, we focus on what we can provide.  As trainers, we focus on our tools and definitions, and are always trying to see how we can do what we do better.  We are not encouraged, for obvious reasons, to be anthropomorphic.  Anthropomorphism, however is not the same as seeing it from the animal’s point of view.  Here again is Scruffy to illustrate:

Imagine Scruffy’s person is teaching him not to chase birds.  Every time Scruffy rushes off to chase the birds, his person yells at him.  Perhaps Scruffy can hear his person’s frustrated chastising.  Or does he simply hear a barking cheerleader on the side.  Answer – Does the shouting work?  If it does not, then stop shouting.  See that as far as Scruffy is concerned, the shouting is either encouraging, or it is making him more anxious, which is sending him into natural reactive chase mode.  Only by looking at what works, and seeing Scruffy’s response, from Scruffy’s point of view, can we make progress.  We forget the small fundamental – a punisher or reinforce can only be defined as such if it works as a punisher or reinforcer.


Responsible Animal Trainers are yogi’s and therapists.  We are engaged not only in training tricks, but also modifying and managing daily behaviour possibilities, opportunities and responses.  Animals in our care are completely reliant on us to ensure their well-being.

We need to constantly focus on how we can set the animals in our lives up to succeed.  In their formal training – when they fail, don’t wait for them to work it out.  Provide the benefit of the doubt.  Go back a step and help them succeed.  They are probably not being ‘naughty’.  They probably ‘don’t know’.

Out of sessions, success is power is choice is control – how much of this do the animals have?  And how many opportunities do they have to exercise their natural physical requirements.  Out of session goal-directed enrichment sessions to ensure this are vital.  As vital are informal interactions – relationship building sessions – with us.  The best facilities in the world are now putting these on their daily work schedules.

Most important – don’t ever stop having fun.  Mirror Neurons are a reality. How you feel affects the animals in your life.  Take full responsibility for who you are in the world.  For the sake of the animals that you love.





Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!

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