While I just came back from a travel to Jerusalem I started to think about why many of our training sessions end up in something we didn’t plan at all. Within the workshop I had to give together with a coworker we talked a lot about motivation strategies and communication. The planning of sessions and how important it is to have a “toolbox” full of techniques and strategies for you to respond to the behavior the animal shows you within your session. But  a toolbox isn’t build up easy.

Did you ever observe that the animal seems to “play” with us? Or is it even playing? Might it not just be us adding emotions into a situation we shouldn’t?

There are quite some thought about if the animal school you yes or no. Looking from the outside to a training session there is a lot going on for the trainer to respond to but that doesn’t mean we want to end up schooled by the animals we work with. Who trains who (Read another blog about this topic HERE) depends on the skillset and patience of the trainer. The success and teamwork reached with the animal depends o so much on pre planning, observing and responding the way to reach success quickly. There are reasons the animal schools you and its not the animal who we should blame!

People do not like failure, we tend to be negative quickly and do not focus on what we actually have. Typical people behavior. We take problems to places what effect other situations who are meant to be positive experiences. Once we asked one of the teams I work with if we could do a session with our former 4 Lowland Gorillas. They happened to planned a session already, getting them all up on the scale. This was in a very early stage of changing the structure at this department. I wasn’t able to look and help them just because the animals weren’t used to it at that point. 3 trainers went in and started their “project” after 15 minutes they returned with hanging faces. I asked them how did it go? they responded with not that good. I thought ok something crazy must have happened. They explained me that 3 gorillas went on the scale and 1 didn’t. One of the 3 they had a struggle with scaling him but eventually they reached the goal anyway. The 4th animal they had to do another approximation with to reach the goal in a later stage on another day. At the end they had 75% of the animals on the scale, while I explained the great job they did they kept on being focused on this 1 particular female. This is an example of how we people function. We base experiences on negative ones and not think enough about the fun and positive experiences we created for ourselves.

The reason I’m telling you this story is because one of the curators at the zoo I work at told one of the teams a very valuable lesson for their own progression in training. Instead of being frustrated and reflecting that towards the animal you should take the information as information for your toolbox. Experience is experience, if only the good happens you never know how the bad looks like. Take everything in as feedback and information you can use later. This is how you can build up your toolbox.

Patience is the key in many factors in life. Though out my career I discovered over and over again that patience can do the trick. Staying calm and reviewing the current situation helps you make decisions a lot better for the present moment you are in. Animal training works exactly that way. You need an x amount of patience to reach the goals with your animals. If something doesn’t work out we have to step back. You only go as fast as what the animal shows you. Rushing isn’t always the best and let’s be honest, isn’t rushing just based on events that will happen in the future? Patience is the key for being successful with the animal but it’s not all that easy.

Our emotion is based on our personal life, our choices and how the day starts. This reflects back to the patience you have with your animal. Your day already started bad and you’ve been fighting with some friends etc. You get some crap for coming a couple minutes late at work and so on. All those factors take the focus away of what you are heading to and so the animals rate of success. Believe it or not it happens more often than we think.

The animal schools you every day because the animal has a higher threshold of patience than yourself. What happens now is that plans don’t work out the way you want them to be. But you can help yourself. In bad days and good days observation and planning is a necessity. If you think its better not to train because of yourself or the animal who seems challenging then don’t do it. If you want to go for it make sure you pre plan your session, you focus during the session and maybe you want to keep it short and one of the most important things what we forget a lot of times is review your session afterwards. How did it go? Should you have taken other decisions or choices? Should you have used a different reinforcer?

Lets end this blog more towards the positive side. What about wanting to much because our session goes so well? It does happen very often. Knowing when to stop or when to progress is a very delicate part in our training. When we go to far we potentially lost more than what we had. When we are to careful animals might get bored. Finding the perfect balance actually isn’t up to you, the animal will tell you. The expectation we have depends on the behaviour, situation and environment we are training in. When our expectation is high the animal will once again school you. When we go in with an expectation but a flexible mindset we are forming a team with the animals we work with and thats what makes us succeed. When we are a bit off balance do not forget that this is ok. When it doesn’t go the way you want it to go just make sure you end on a good note and discover what you think you should’ve done. And you know what… Talk with the world and ask questions about how other would’ve responded. Through such a network I learned so much in my own ways of animal training!

Become a TEAM!

Building your toolbox helps building your patience! Look at experience from the positive side!

Peter Giljam

“Thinking Outside the Zoo”

Categories: Trainer Talk



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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