We can train cooperative care in many different ways, and we all know how much this training helps the animals in our care. Their welfare increases and we are able to take even better care of our animals individually. What if we take a deeper look into how we can give more control to the animals we work with? 

Observational skills are the most import skills a trainer can have!

To become good animal trainers we have to have great observational skills. We have to understand what is most motivating in the environment for the animal. We have to understand how we can change this balance and, even more difficult, understand how the animal might feel in the situation. 

The idea of feeling and emotion is a topic which is very grey to all of us. The reason is that we can’t really measure this, let alone understand it. What we can do is prepare an environment where, potentially, the same feeling comes back to the animal continuously. 

Should we touch the animal?

One example is touching. We as people like to touch, we like to pet animals and know how they feel. We want to touch because for our own gratification. Many of us might never really consider how the animal feels about it. Especially in wildlife parks we continuously have the discussion of why we want to touch the animal. Touching could be a step towards a vaccination, it could be conditioned as a reinforcer or could be conditioned for ultrasounds. In any situation whenever we decide to touch an animal we move to the animal. Some animals find this very difficult but the solution is not. Let the animal come to the environment where your hands are present and put his body into your hands to make a predictable event happen.

This gives a control to the animal that reflects in more confidence. Therefore the history of the behaviour you are training will be stronger and trust is generated between the trainer and the animal. 

Touching is part of desensitisation. To make this a predictable event we can teach the animal by giving ‘touch’ a cue meaning that we will touch them. If the animal than moves, we won’t touch them. This gives more control to the animal.

The Cockatoo that Chooses

At Brooklands Zoo in New Zealand, they solved this a different way. Charlie understands that when he puts his head through a hole, he will be touched. If he doesn’t put his head through, he won’t be touched. This bit of control given to the animal alone, makes the trainers excel in the teamwork they have with Charlie the cockatoo. 

We want to teach our animals that whatever is happening in your environment, or to your body, just stay calm and relax. That’s the goal, but due to situations an animals has previous experienced, this could be quite the challenge. We can help the animal by giving them control over the environment. What we will do is prepare the environment prior to the training session we want to do. We now take the animal into this environment. What we as trainers normally do, is take objects we want the animal to get used to towards them. The big difference is that we let the animal come to the object instead.

This gives the trainer an understanding of when the animal finds it too much. Communication is therefore easier and if we listen, we start to understand what our animals want.

Putting on a Harness

Giving the animal a chance to predict the environment, and a specific feeling that comes with it through associative learning, gives us a higher chance for success. All because the animal can prepare for what is coming and has the chance to express not wanting to partake at that moment in time. Here is a perfect example of harness training. The first part in the video, the dog has a very tight body posture with the tail down and the back up. In the second part the tail is up and back is leveled. The dog is more attentive and wants to participate. Due to the predictable setup, we give the dog information about what will happen if you step onto the object. The Dog now has a chance to communicate feelings to us by not stepping up. This is where the control comes in for the animal. 

Thinking in this new way helps you to understand your animal and gives a better idea as to what what your animal is ready for with training. It will be easier for us to observe what the animal wants and therefore we can take action a lot quicker.

Want to learn more about this and other topics? Sign yourself up for the upcoming event Xmas Special on 19 December from 930AM CET. Check out our website for more information and other webinars about common training subjects. Have a go at Conditioning a Behaviour for Cooperative Care, take a look here. If you have any questions about the topics in this article or about training in general, we now have the option of online coaching! Book your FREE 15 minute call right HERE

Zoospensefull is an international animal training and behaviour consultancy. For more information or to book Zoospensefull, please contact us at info@zoospensefull.com or visit our website zoospensefull.com.

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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