To be an effective trainer there are many steps we recommend you follow. To be successful and reach your goals we at Zoospensefull encourage you to plan your sessions. If training by yourself, a clear understanding of the steps or approximations you will be taking to reach your desired goal is a must. If training in a group or with a buddy, talk about the goal of the session, the role of each trainer and the expected outcome or backup plan if anything goes wrong. We see quite often, many unplanned training sessions end up somewhere the trainer didn’t expect. During a workshop about motivation strategies and communication we discussed the importance of not only the above topics but the importance of planning. The planning of sessions and the need to have a ‘toolbox’ full of techniques and strategies for you to correctly respond to behaviour is essential. However, sometimes building your toolbox isn’t all that easy.

A Keen Eye for Behaviour

In some cases the trainer isn’t able to place specific behaviour into a certain box, meaning we aren’t entirely sure why the animal reacted the way they did or why the session wasn’t successful. With sessions like these, often the outcome is to blame the animal. We say ‘the animal knows what to do and is just messing with me’. What some trainers seem to miss, is this build up of behaviour is due to our actions as trainers. Knowing this, is it fair to say they are playing us, or could it be us labelling emotions into a situation we shouldn’t?

When observing a training session, there is a lot going on for the trainer to respond to. The success and goals reached with the animal depends a lot on pre-planning, observing and responding to correct behaviour through correctly timed reinforcers. There are reasons the animal is messing with you but it isn’t the animal who should get the blame!

Animals observe us better than we observe them. Just like our animals we too are creatures of habit, each action we perform is a clear indication of what’s to come. Arriving at a specific time of day, a certain look or hand movement predicts an event for your animal. When these signs are the same, all the time, we become predictable with these signals we unknowingly use. The animals pick up on these very quickly. When we become predictable we give the animal the choice and if the predictable outcome is boring or less reinforcing there is a high chance the animal makes a choice we didn’t expect and label it as “messing with me”.

We Are the Problem!

The problem isn’t the animal, because we know animals respond to changes in the environment. The problem is us, we need understanding and patience. With you the trainer is where it starts, patience has to be practised. As trainers we get frustrated pretty quickly and focus a lot on the negative. This is where we start to label situations to not blame ourselves. Self reflection is very difficult especially when you discover you are wrong. It is 9 out of the 10 times the trainers fault why the animal behaves the way they do.

People do not accept failure well, we tend to respond negatively immediately and look to assign blame instead of focus on the ‘what could I have done better?’. This blame behaviour is quite common. During a planned training session with Lowland Gorillas, I offered some help to three trainers who attempted to weigh their gorillas. After 15 minutes they returned and explained that the session didn’t go to plan. They told me that three gorillas went onto the scale but one did not and they felt very defeated. But in the end they had 75% of the animals on the scale. This is an example of how we humans function, we tend to focus experiences on the negative aspects and not enough on the positives we create for ourselves.

It is important to remember, we need to learn from our mistakes and we need to use that learning to help us solve future challenges. This kind of thinking breaks old habits and takes us outside of our comfort zone and this is where we start to become better trainers. While we might think that the animal is playing with us, the animal actually responds to the situation which is reinforcing for them. The animal has a higher level of patience than ourselves.

We always suggest you film your sessions, this will allow you to review your sessions at a later point and will help you understand what might have happened when the animal was messing around.

Are You Asking Too Much When the Session Is Going Well?

This happens to a lot of trainers and it happens very often. Knowing when to stop or when to progress is a very delicate balance in our training. This is a perfect technique to add to your toolbox. When we push too far we lose more than what we had. When we are too cautious 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 might not be with you. When we go in with an expectation but a flexible mindset, we are forming a team with the animals we work with and that’s what makes us succeed. When it doesn’t go the way you want it to, just make sure you end on a good note and discuss after what you think you should’ve done. Talk amounts yourself but also with the world and ask questions about how other trainers would’ve responded in that same situation. Connecting with peers is a great way to learn and grow. Become a TEAM!

Building your toolbox will help build your patience. Look at each experience from the positive side. Training your animal on the edge helps your toolbox drastically. If you pushed your session too much or you do not have enough patience, just take this as a learning opportunity and review your session afterwards.

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!

1 Comment

Axel · October 12, 2020 at 18:49

Wonderful bro!

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