Why do animal trainers train?
This was a question that came up yesterday during an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues who studied animal training and management during the same time I did.
This classmate and I always talk in-depth about animal training and behavior management.
We get into concepts and the dynamics in a way that would make most people’s heads spin.
Because it is our passion.
So when he told me a dog trainer asked him why he liked to train animals, it made me pause.
In all my years of animal training and behavior management, I’ve really never thought about the answer.
Plus, nobody has ever asked me that question!
Training is communication with another being, a being that comes from another culture and environment and that relates to the world differently than we do.
Those living creatures have learned subtle communication. They glean information from the environment and any consequences from the environment, or other beings within it, and that information or a particular consequence impacts their behavior.
If you do it right, you communicate with that animal so that you shape behavior in a cooperative manner while also gleaning big insights into that particular individual, and hopefully, the species.
So I had to think about my answer to the question.
Why do I train?
My attraction to other beings whose world is different from mine, yes.
I remember how my professors kept telling me I had an exceptional aptitude when it came to psychology. I just dismissed it but now when I think about it, I think they saw that glimmer of talent that helps me work successfully with animals.
But at the core of it, there is something else.
I have to do it; I’ve never had a choice, really. There is something more primal involved.
It is the same thing with my writing, I have to do it, and something beyond making a living drives me.
Call it destiny, call it aptitude—I don’t know quite how to verbalize it, except to say it is my passion.
So, that brings up the other question that came up, can everyone train?
Hmm, this is not an easy question and our answer is one that might piss a few people off.
I think people can learn the principles of training and of how to shape behavior, but can everyone really understand and use those tools with skill?
Our anecdotal observations indicate a big no.
An intuitive understanding or an aptitude is what makes a trainer good at their job but not everyone possesses both understanding or aptitude and not everyone can learn.
Why do I say that?
First, both of us have trained and managed trainers or students and when I worked for a firm that trained animal trainers, those with aptitude were only about 1 in 20.
When I held animal career courses, the aptitude for training was also only apparent in about 1 in 20.
The drive to do what it takes, to take action an follow through, to work excessive hours because it was necessary whether it was paid or not–was only about 1 in 20.
I don’t know that any formal studies have been done on this topic—so it is only a theory.
But ask any veteran trainer who has worked in the industry for a long time and you might find that they concur.
Now that doesn’t mean that people can’t learn the skill of training an animal but it certainly makes a difference in the workplace.
Just because someone works with a species (or a few individuals of a species or breed) does not mean that they will make a good trainer or understand how to shape or train behavior.
Over my career, I began to group people into two camps when it comes to behavioral training and behavioral management:
Those who are trainers and those who are not…
In the training camp, these people are attuned to the animals first and like to mix things up instead of doing things the same way or at the same time each day or each session.
They also are better at picking up on small changes in patterns of behavior, or consequences of behavior, and develop a rapport with them that can supersede those of their coworkers.
They are hardwired to tune into the animals first.
In the other camp, which I’ll call the care taking camp, these people are attuned to their tasks and management first.
They are good at the care and management of the animals in their charge but they are more comfortable with specific routines and tend to do the same things at the same time. They also are not as observant of animal behavior or changes in it.
Now, if you work in the domestic animal realm, just observe your client base. You probably don’t see too many with training aptitude—which is why they call you!
Think about it, most people do not understand why their animals are so out of control. However, if you look deeper into the living situation, I believe you will find that they are not keyed into the animals.
Their aptitudes and interests tend to be elsewhere, or are prioritized elsewhere. (This is one of the things that I believe underlies those compliance issues I recently talked.)
So beyond this topic, our other thoughts on this topic are that people, and those who work as trainers, tend to put those with more talent, or followers, on pedestals.
It doesn’t always mean they deserve it either.
Plus, if you are up on a pedestal, you are likely to fall off!
What I think it means is that people get mixed up and make others into gurus instead of recognizing that person as being highly skilled in their particular area of training.
Television celebrity trainers are one example. There might be more talented trainers out there but most people don’t know the difference and have not been around other trainers or behaviorists to sort out the difference.
On the professional front, there are those who put colleagues on pedestals instead of seeing that that they can help challenge them to reach new levels (or in worse cases, ultimately see them as competition).
Anyway, I have to say that the conversation with my colleague was a stimulating one and got me to thinking about just what makes a good trainer, why trainers train, and how many really do have a great aptitude for the profession.
Things that make you go, hmm.
I’d be interested in knowing what you think, so please share your thoughts on this topic below after reading the comment policies.