Animal Training Career Risks: Emotional Attachments

animal career risks-compassion fatigue

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.

(If you are not a subscriber yet, sign up to the right. Subscribers always get first priority and attention when it comes to topics and questions.)

Kate wrote:

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.

About Ark Lady

+ArkLady Enhances the Lives of Animals & Empowers the People Who Love Them! Join the armchair safari or connect via ARKlady website.


  1. Ruth McCain says

    I know all about emotions when it comes to animals; especially cats. I worked with two mountain lions, 2 lynxs and a bobcat as well as hybrid wolves, otters, raptors (eagles, owls and hawks)at a wildlife rehab.facility 6 years ago. I FELL IN LOVE with a baby mountain lion and helped raise him for the year I worked there (he got more attention from me than anybody) until the owner retired and closed it down. She and I parted on bad terms because I disagreed with her methods (shock collars and cattle prods – when I got best results using observation, love and respect), and that resulted in her telling me where she placed everyone BUT my beloved cougar. It took me 3 1/2 years to find him, but I did. He remembered me by acting out the game we used to play. I cried harder than I have in a very long time. I have never bonded with any animal as deeply as with him. My heart was wrenched out of my chest and for over 3 years I fell into a deep depression. Now he lives in much less space, gets no interaction and very little enrichment. So my separation anxiety has now been replaced with longing and sorrow because of his situation (which, I’m happy to say, has a very good chance of changing soon and I will once again be his caregiver as well as owner, although he might say he’s MY owner) Bottom line is life is hard. You have to ask yourself if enriching the life or lives of others
    is worth risking emotions over. My answer was ABSOLUTELY. Life is full of ups and downs. But if you give “ups” to others, your “downs” will be less painful.

  2. “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.”

    The animal is going to pick up on your emotional state just as fast from your body language as from any words you say. So, I’m skeptical of any arguments that promote the clicker based on emotions.

    Any marker signal is going to be effective if it is clear and used consistently. (Usually) the problem with words, especially for novice trainers, is they aren’t consistent with their timing or how they are using their words. In this case, giving a novice owner a clicker is going to help them focus and (often) improve their timing and consistency.

    But, using any marker is a learned skill. I know several very good trainers who use verbal markers and are successful with them. They probably get better results with a verbal than they would with a click, merely because they are more practiced with their verbal marker. Likewise, someone who’s been using a clicker for years is going to be more accurate with a clicker than with a verbal marker.

    I use a click sound I make with my mouth. It’s clear to my horses and gives me a free hand.


  3. Now, with regards to emotions and relationships with the animal during training..

    (bird trainer) Steve Martin talks about building a trust account with the animal. When you’re interacting positively with the animal, playing with the animal, using positive reinforcement, you’re making deposits into your trust account. When you’re using punishers or aversives, or putting the animal in stressful or frustrating situations, you’re making withdrawals from that trust account.

    If you’ve got a big balance built up in that account, the animal will usually still stick with you if something goes wrong, you get stuck in a stressful situation, or if you use a mild aversive. If you don’t have that account built up, the animal is likely to leave, shut down, or get defensive.


  4. Thanks for the comment Ruth. Yes, there are definitely a lot of ups and downs and I’ve cried my fair share over the years, too.

    I saw one bear that I had worked with about 20 years previously. He was at a sanctuary and had been suffering hard times elsewhere before arriving.

    He remembered me also.

    Lots of stories, lots of heartache, lots of joy.

  5. I believe animals pick up on a lot of other clues beyond voice intonation as well.

    They are attuned to survival and to the nuances in the environment so nuances of a trainer are in alignment with that sensitivity and awareness.

    In my work, I find that most people have trouble adapting to the use of a marker beyond the voice without a lot of practice.

    Ultimately, I don’t think that what type of marker is important as long as it is consistent and delivered in a timely manner.

    And yes, I’ve heard you use your tongue clicking–very ingenious. LOL

  6. Yes, Steve Martin has a good way of describing concepts so most people can understand them.

    When I first launched my business, the tagline was “Training animals using trust, respect, and understanding.”

    Still on my license plate after all these years and vital to working successfully with any species in my book.

  7. Great post and comments. It must be very difficult to work with animals which aren’t your own…it’s hard for me as an instructor and all I’m trying to do is help their owners improve things. But to personally work with an animal and then lose them- ugh!

  8. Hi Jane, yes it is pretty gut-wrenching when you move on or have lose them for a variety of reasons. Working with clients who come to you with their animals is a lot easier in some ways but then dealing with the human element can be challenging in other ways!

  9. Ruth Patterson says

    I think that with anything worth while there comes a great risk. Everyone who loves animals takes that risk when they work with those that don’t belong to them. You have to understand going into it that you will get hurt. It’s not if, but when. Unfortunately the people who hold the lives of the animals we love in their hands don’t always feel the way we feel about them. That factor makes a career with animals tough, but if the passion is there, then there is nothing else in the world that can take it’s place. Be ready for tears, but the greatest joy as well…that’s living life to the fullest. You have remember that you have made a difference in the lives of those animals even if for a short time. It’s worth the pain.. it’s what it’s all about.

  10. Thanks for sharing Ruth. Yes, I would not do much different and hate how politics and financial concerns cloud the horizon when it comes to animal management and care. I’ve had extreme joys and some hard knocks but ultimately, I do what I do because there was never anything else for me. Today that passion is being conveyed through some of my written works and I am hoping I can influence others in the same way my predecessors influenced me.