Cover photo: Brooklands Zoo, New Plymouth

After a couple years of focusing on how to train animals to cooperate in their own care I found out that there are some key aspects we have to think about when we start training such behaviours. Have we trained our animals well enough? It seems to be that there are always situations we can’t predict. How are we able to train our animals for the perfect vet visit then? Here are the most important tips and tricks to get your animal ready. 

Counter Conditioning

We talk about this often where the animal has a previous aversive experience in a situation where we want to teach the learner to cooperate in their own care. But if their experience is a very negative experience how are we changing perception? This is where it is very important to know what triggers the animal towards the situation. We want to make sure that the animal starts to look forward to work together instead of running away. We first have to level out their negative experiences with what we want them to learn. 

Bisons are counter conditioned for the vet. They will not run away anymore.

This is difficult but necessary. I mean in zoological facilities it is still quite normal to blow dart animals. It is understandable but this gives out animals a specific first experience with a needle. We now have to first change their perception with the needle to be able to train them for voluntary anesthesia.

Talk to the vet

Often forgotten but talking to the vet about what they are going tu use and how the procedure will look like is pretty important. You want to know how the vet will touch the animal, where they will touch and how long they think they will do this. Will they palpate? How many persons are there? Etc Etc. All of this info has a drastic effect on the successes of your cooperative care behaviours. We want to know everything. 

We even want to know if he is going to use specific products which have a funny smell. Or if there are any objects that make sounds and have lights. Everything that does something has to be desensitized. Which brings me to the following topic…

Make a visit to the vet clinic 

Often we think everything will be fine. But unfortunately when we get to the clinic with our animals we are to late. We thought the smells would be fine and the little light would be ok. We thought well the animal is ok with touching. But forget that touching by a second person and not yourself is a very different experience. The point of the matter is that going to the vet clinic is that we can see what we should train for. We can ask about all the attributes and see if we can recreate these objects. 

Animals experience a lot more than we think and we have to respect this. Saying “it won’t be a problem” is actually digging your own grave because as mentioned in the counter conditioning part. It takes quite some effort to change perception so why do you want to get into this if you can be pro active? 

One for the zoo

We want our animals to be healthy. But we do have to confirm if what we do actually makes them healthy. That’s why we train body checks. Various positions in protective contact to see if our animals are actually as healthy as we think they are. Imagine you one have a short amount of time to train such behaviours? Do you now need to train a complete body check? Or shall we just focus on voluntary anesthesia? Which might be a lot easier to train then the 6 or more behaviours for a proper body check. This gives you more time to train the other behaviours because at the end of the story voluntary anesthesia also comes with risks. But it doesn’t give a negative experience to the animal from the behaviour stand point.  

A marmoset trained in a box for voluntary anesthesia. The experience of being caught and held till you fall a sleep is completely covered with the box behaviour.

Desensitise everything!

Active desensitisation is what you need for your animal to succeed. At zoospensefull we are very keen about this specific subject. Because when we train our animals to be calm in any situation with any object, sound, light etc etc we give our animals a direct chance to succeed in the environment we put them in. A well established desensitisation plan will reach this goal. When done correctly you are able to train cooperative care behaviours a lot faster all because the animal is ok with all attributes used at the vet clinic!

Our aim of our training should be to empower our learners in their care. There are various ways to do so. It is up to us to prepare our animals as best as we can. Which means we have to think about everything to make this possible. Remember we are not vets but we do need the collaboration with our vets to give the animals the success they deserve in their own care!

Want to learn more about cooperative care? Join our conference!


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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