Can you withstand the emotional pain from an animal training career or any other career with animals?
Wow, I must be hitting a cord with you because the comments are stacking up quickly!
Kate, one of my valued subscribers, left a really great question in the comments. It was so great that I dropped everything to answer it here on the blog.
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I really am not sure about this path. I never went into it because I was ‘afraid’ I couldn’t get beyond emotional attachment. I’d like to read an article about how you handle that when training animals. Does one need to prepare to put up a shield and detach themselves from an emotional connection with the animal?
Kate, I have to say that this is one of those questions that causes a lot of debate not only in the animal training world, but in the animal career world in general.
Let me build a little bit of a foundation before I get into my answer to your question.
In the Ark Lady’s world, animal training is an art and a science.
Good trainers use the latest scientific advancements and discoveries to morph their behavior modification and training techniques and the industry moves forward as a consequence.
But, exceptional animal training is an art, it requires response to the animal and its emotions (yes, I said it–keep listening and pitch a fit later) and physical state.
It also is an intuitive response that knows the nuances of the species and the individual animal.
If you boiled the world down into black and white, it is possible to group animal trainers (or humans that do behavior modification) into two groups–the academics and the streetwise.
Now that might not sound very scientific but it is understandable, let me explain what I mean.
The academics rely on the scientific model and discount anything that cannot be succinctly and accurately described.
Steetwise trainers tend to go with what their gut is telling them and don’t tend to dismiss anecdotal suppositions.
Now ideally, a good animal trainer is a blend of the two.
I believe you need to be both streetwise and scientific to be a good, solid professional animal trainer. Which is also why I call animal training and art and a science.
The art form is something that each individual brings to the forefront of their consultations and training while the science part is truly understanding the methodology of behavior modification and the contributing factors to any issues, or to solving those issues.
Hopefully, you are still with me.
Okay, there are some that believe you should take out the emotion when working with any animal.
This is why markers (clicker, light, whistle) are preferred to voice. Why?
- Because the the voice inflection can influence an animal’s behavior and convey the emotional state of the trainer, and
- because you can suppress or alter the animal’s behavior if you respond emotionally.
However, we are not automatons and so emotion is part of the equation in a lot of situations. I don’t believe the human condition can omit emotion in most circumstances.
Now, the theory is that if you take out the emotion, the animal will respond to everyone who is training equally.
I say, bulls**t.
It might sound good for those in a lab or controlled circumstances, but in the real world I’d like to see some evidence that this is true.
I could be wrong but I’ve seen it over and over again in training situations–where it is the relationship of trust and the human-animal bond that influences the animal.
What makes one trainer better than the other? I think it is the connection to another living creature.
Now, having said that, it can work against you.
For instance, like my rat who froze up because he was picking up on my emotional state during a performance versus the one who had no bond with me and who performed his behaviors when asked.
But, when I’ve been working animals in tight situations, it has been my relationship with them (and savvy) that has usually prevented an incident from occurring.
Okay, I’d really like to hear your opinions and experiences on this but first…
In the animal field their is a term called “compassion fatigue” which can contribute to burn out and to desensitization to certain situations.
When I had to kill animals to feed predators, a desensitization had been built up to it because it was necessary to keep them alive. Today you can get prepped diets for many carnivores, birds of prey, and reptiles but “back in the day” we had to feed whole animals and sometimes this required that we had to dispatch them.
One day still sticks in my mind, some students under my tutelage cried when they had to take such actions, it was necessary to maintain the animals in our care but they had not become desensitized to it.
So, that was part of our role as animal trainers and caretakers, but there are other animal careers where the compassion fatigue takes a toll on employees.
Believe it or not, I had a hard time with compassion fatigue when I worked as an adoption counselor.
I suffered from compassion fatigue because I witnessed a lot of cruelty from humans discarding animals just because those animals were not convenient (and other reasons).
It was hard for me to see those animals suffering from the loss and grief of separation while new homes were sought.
Anyway, my point is that you might do well in some careers with animals versus other animal jobs when it comes to your emotions.
As I mentioned, I could quickly dispatch an animal to feed another but not bear to watch animals suffer longterm because of the lack of commitment from humans who were suppose to be caretakers.
Now, another issue has to do with the emotional state of an animal trainer, it has to do with how invested you become with the animals in your charge.
First, usually they don’t belong to you.
Second, sh** happens.
I remember being punished by the director of a facility I was associated with.
The animal in my charge blossomed under my tutelage and when he pulled me from my assignment it was like sticking a knife in my heart.
As for the animal, she persevered, as they all do.
She also greeted me affectionately over the next twenty-some-odd years when our paths crossed again…and she was not the only animal to do so.
In other circumstances, moving on can be a crushing blow because you leave animals you love behind.
Then there are those that might be jealous of the relationships you have with your charges–another complication that can get in the way and cause grief.
So, I’ve given you some things to ponder, but to answer your question.
I think animals catalyze and allow people to go very deep emotionally and that the attachment and depth is way beyond what some people can do with other humans.
It is scary, it can be painful–but it can also be rewarding beyond your wildest dreams.
Ultimately, you have to decide if it is something you can dare to do and only you can answer that question for yourself.
Now it is your turn, share your story, share your thoughts in the comments.