Training animals comes with a lot of challenges. Most of these make us better trainers, but there is one in particular which could put you into potentially dangerous situations, and that is complacency.
We use reinforcement strategies to build strong relationships through positive experiences. Training becomes fun and we want to do it more and more. We begin to create situations where we think that the animal sees us as a friend, and that the animal won’t do anything bad or negative towards us, and we become complacent. This is the biggest mistake a trainer or animal care professional can make. Whenever training goes extraordinarily well, we start to see the animals behave differently or show us affection (if we use a label). This is where the problem starts.
Working with animals we should understand the rules of safety for each species we work with. Regardless of the species we can’t communicate directly with them so we have to respect their choices. We quickly think “it won’t bite me”, while potentially missing important signs, “it won’t kick me” while pushing your training too far that it becomes uncomfortable for the animal, “it will never do that to me” while using pressure on the animal in unpredictable situations.
Complacency: Being overly satisfied or comfortable with an existing situation or condition.
At Zoospensefull we’ve worked with many different animals across many different taxa. While training animals, we try to keep in mind everything and anything that could happen at any time. This is not to say mistakes can’t happen, but we can’t forget that we work with wild animals in environments we can’t fully control and an animal we don’t have full control over, regardless of size. Working with a meerkat or a walrus is very different but a bite is a bite. A walrus is strong, dangerous at times and believe it or not, pretty fast. Knowing where your exits are at any time is pretty important. We’ve learnt that you need to pay attention to body language and other, not-so-subtle cues before, during and after training, to make sure your animal is not getting frustrated. We need to remain vigilant and not get comfortable with the situation no matter how many times we have been there before.
After moving to another country, where I worked with killer whales, this concept was instilled again right away. They kept on telling me you only have one chance. Which basically means any potential mistakes could cause you serious injury or even death. We had to have a clear understanding of all the safety rules around the exhibits and the precursors of aggression for this species. Better to be safe than sorry! Whenever I thought, ‘I don’t trust the animal’, I would take a step back, just in case. It’s very important not to become complacent with killer whales, as you only have one chance. This experience taught me the importance of constant awareness. Be aware of your reinforcement, your animal, what the other trainers are doing or where they are or even when other trainers reinforce their animals etc. All the tiny things that could give the animal a reason to lash out at you or the submissive animal in the same exhibit. This awareness of the environment would follow me for the next years to come. This gave me the skill to reach for approximations where the animal is successful instead of asking to difficult tasks where the animal easily is able to fail.
We need to step away from our comfortability with the animals in our care. This means that we have to be aware of the animals behaviour and look at it objectively. If the animal shows me aggressive behaviour, this could mean there is a chance of aggressive behaviour towards me. Every animal comes with their own precursors prior to aggressive behaviour and in most cases more than one. For example, eye pinning in parrots, swishing tails in giraffe, ears pressed back against their heads for many species. The way an animal chooses to aggress will be different as well, an elk will use their front legs and antlers, a monitor lizard will use it’s tail as a whip, and a rhino will use its horn. It’s up to us as animal trainers to understand the natural behaviour of the species we work with.
Animals have the potential to be dangerous at any time for any reason and an animal that is unafraid of humans, even more so. We need to remember we don’t see what is going on 24/7 with our animals, in their exhibit or with their conspecifics. We can’t always control the environment the animal is in and we shouldn’t want to. We often only encounter a snapshot of behaviour and as the animals we work with primarily get their reinforcement through interaction with us, the behaviour of coming over or seeking us out after a potentially stressful situation could be higher. If we also think about our training sessions, if they don’t interact the way we ask them to, we might withhold food or attention and try to get them to respond correctly for a chance of reinforcement, this might cause further frustration.
Even though we might not understand certain situations as to why an animal becomes aggressive, we know that changes in the environment elicits behaviour and that the animal always goes to what is reinforcing for them, regardless if we understand the reasoning.
Many accidents come from complacency. Some will argue that animals can make mistakes and with larger, more powerful animals, those mistakes can cost you your life. We don’t believe accidents with animals happen for no reason, often there are signs the animal is uncomfortable and likely to become aggressive, sometimes they’re so subtle we miss them. Having a strong awareness of the environment and your animal is important to keep you and the animals safe. Always be on your game, if not, maybe skip the session and don’t take unnecessary risks.