Cover Photo: Libby Eyre – Sydney Aquarium, Australia

Some sort of relationship is needed for you to succeed as a trainer. Building a positive relationship with an animal can be difficult and take considerable amounts of time and effort. Depending on the animal will depend on the amount of effort required. For us to better understand the animals we work with, it is very important to observe them to try and discover what they like, and what they don’t. Looking at who they interact to be with or who they avoid. We also need to understand their history and the type of environment they came from. Knowing this information Will give you a head start in building a successful relationship. 

The Mistakes I Made

Peter asking a Hoop jump at Ouwehands Zoo, NL. 2008

Starting out I was a trainer that took the theory very seriously, only focused on the black and white training techniques and choices. I was very much into ‘reinforce the behaviour you want to see and ignore behaviour you don’t’. I had a very structured black and white mindset and was certain you can’t reinforce emotions and therefore, I wasn’t focused on this aspect.

This was the biggest mistake I’ve made as a trainer, not look deeper than the techniques I used. Animals have emotions as well, they can be sad, happy, angry, empathic and so on. Trying to label and understand emotions is a very grey area for us as trainers. We can’t accurately measure emotions but we do know that behaviours are connected to emotions. Like animals we behave based off how we feel about a situation or person, sometimes logic comes into play but we do have emotional responses to situations especially if they’re stressful or emotional. Emotions are connected to behaviours. To be able to become better trainers we need to understand this connection, while at the same time, remembering that we can only measure behaviour. 

Accept the Animals Choices!

Relationships are more important than we think. We have to accept the animal’s choices and have to understand why they make these choices. As with people some animals just get on better with others, other animals or other trainers. Like with people, you can’t force a relationship, we need to work on our relationships, and understand that we can’t always nurture the same relationship as others.

Timjan in 2015. Young female south african fur seal.

I got to know Timjan a South African Fur Seal when she was not even a year old. Her mother had past away and she was orphaned but still with the group. She didn’t really want anything to do with the other fur seals and was constantly seeking attention from the trainers. It seemed that she preferred attention over other reinforcement, she also attached to some trainers but I wasn’t one of them. Working with her was based on a shallow relationship, we could work together to an extent but that’s where it ended. Medical behaviours where harder for me to train than other trainers who had ‘better’ relationships. At the time I never put in the proper time and effort to really build that relationship and maybe that’s where I went wrong. 

Trustful Relationship

I am a firm believer that we should try to have only positive interactions with our animals. If there are moments where you think you can’t and have to tell the animal “no” or use some kind of punishment, you need to stop and think if you have put that animal into a situation where it was set up to fail. We need a trustworthy relationship.

I worked with a dolphin in Sweden that took time to develop a relationship. With the pressures of a show and maintaining medical and foundation behaviours at a good level, we discovered that her progression staggered when we tried to introduce behaviours to new trainers. She was an individual who needs time with a trainer and not only training time. Time to get to know and understand each other, she needed to know the person to succeed. The trainers who did not put effort in relationship building sessions such as play or rubdowns, did not reach the same progression as the trainers who did. 

Lyra was a specific dolphin who needed time with her trainers to develop a trustworthy relationship. Training sessions with toys and unpredictability were lots of fun and great technique to develop the relationship.

Animals remember past situations which directly reflect to how they see you as a person. A friend of mine working with giraffes had an experience that put his relationship into jeopardy. The female had given birth to a baby, but unfortunately the keepers had to go and get the baby after a couple of days because something just didn’t seem right. One of the keepers who took the baby was my friend, and this interaction was a fairly negative experience for the mother. Even though this was a couple years ago, the keeper still has a very hard time building a relationship with this individual, while other trainers seem to excel quickly when working with her.

It is so important whenever you get to work with an animal your first proper interaction should be very easy and successful. We suggest:

  • Starting your session with a behaviour you are 99% sure they will succeed with because the rest is built onto this experience.
  • Let the animals know you are happy and that they’ve done well.
  • Make sure you implement play sessions where you put the training rules a side and apply the safety rules for both parties.
  • Show the animals who you are and make sure it’s always a great experience when you are around.

Animal training is not just about the rules of reinforcing or ignoring a behaviour. A successful trainer puts time and effort into sessions. The trainer looks into the animals history and observes them outside of training sessions. A strong relationship is built on mutual respect and trust. 

Check out our website for more information and webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at upskilling your basics, take a look here. If you have any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general? Send us an email or join our Facebook group. Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy, for more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at or visit our website 

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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