Animal Training is Like Piano Playing

Animal training is like piano playing--it takes practice!

Animal training is a lot like piano playing…

But some how people believe that animal training is supposed to be easy.

I wonder who started that pop culture myth that has endured for eons.

It is and isn’t true.

There are people who have trained animals all their lives and make it look easy but it really isn’t so for the average person.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at how many people endure unruly animals on a daily basis, ask an animal professional about their client issues, or hop over to a pet forum or Q&A site to get a glimpse of the vast number of issues people face on every day.

True, animal training gets easier over time.

And like many other professions, when you have studied the science of animal training and practice those techniques on a daily basis, on a variety of animals, and in ideal cases, a number of species, you make it look easy.

If you are a pet owner who has raised and lived with a variety of animals, well I think you learn some things and hopefully acquire some skills in the process but it is always a good idea to go to dog school or kitty kindergarten!

Not too long ago a friend watched me train and then tried to imitate my actions with dismal results.

This was because she thought she understood what I was doing by watching a couple of times.

She didn’t want any coaching either and pitched a fit when her efforts didn’t work.

Like many people, she reasoned that as an adult, she had a skill set that would help her handle the situation.

But although she has some people skills, she lacks animal sense.

Many people make that similar mistake of assuming they can finish their animal training efforts without guidance.

Now you wouldn’t make that assumption about piano playing would you?

I mean, just because you have a piano in the house doesn’t mean you can play it.

You can bang on the keys or take lessons but you probably are not ready for a public recital or concert performance in a few weeks–so why do people think that animal training is much different?

It is a skill that requires study and practice.

I didn’t attempt to try and explain this to my pal and if I had any sense would probably have been insulted that she thought that she could just do what I do since I have been training animals most of my life and have a college degree in it.

What she didn’t get was that at any one time an animal trainer is assessing the situation and the nuances of what the animal is communicating, what the environment is contributing, the state of the animal and his or her positioning, and the subtle shifts that dictate that he or she progress, stay at the same criterion, or terminate the session.

Like many people do, she erroneously thought she could just imitate my actions and successfully proceed.

And that attitude is precisely what gets people into trouble when it comes to animal behavior training.

Just because you have an animal in the house does not mean you have the skills to manage or train that animal successfully. You have to learn those skills.

Now, there are things that make it easier to be successful at training and that is what I want to talk about today.

Three pieces are critical to animal training success:

  • Clarity
  • Consistency
  • Timing

Clarity in Animal Training

When I talk about clarity in animal training, I am referring to a couple of things.

First, clarity in animal training is being clear about what is behaviorally required from the animal and how you proceed to get to that ultimate goal. This usually requires that you have a clear understanding of the steps (and progression) required to get the final behavior.

Second, you have to be able to clearly communicate what you want from the animal AND clearly understand what the animal is communicating at any given time.

Consistency in Animal Training

When discussing consistency in animal training it means that you know what criteria exists for cueing the animal and for rewarding that animal’s behavior.

Making an exception to an established rule or criteria is being inconsistent and inconsistency creates frustration in both the animal and the human.

Timing in Animal Training

One of the biggest mistakes people make when training an animal is in their timing.

There is a short window of opportunity to capture the right behavior so it can be reinforced. If you miss that window, you are actually rewarding something else.

Consequently, if you are using negative reinforcement or positive punishment, the timing is also critical.

So, this is by no means a comprehensive list of what it takes to be able to train an animal BUT it certainly includes three skills needed to proceed.

Now, I wonder what you think are the contributors to successfully training an animal. Leave your comments below.

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  1. Patience and openness 🙂 Training requires a lot of waiting for behaviors to happen or improve and letting go of the desire to MAKE things happen. Openness means being open to the animal’s personality, learning style, mood at the moment, etc to know what to ask for or look for at any given moment.

    I think you touched on the science part so I guess my two are added for the art part!

  2. LOL Thanks Jane. I’d have to add intuitiveness to the mix but when I assess the personality typing that seems to help. I’m glad you tossed those two out because they are important.

  3. Love it, what a great point! It’s so true how much body-reading and adaptation goes on when a professional is working with an animal, and it’s hard to pass on that “sense” to students. There is no hard-and-fast way to train every animal, that is precisely why professional trainers exist. Great article, loved reading it, thanks!

  4. Hi Eileen, thanks for visiting and taking a moment to respond.

    I have a class before any of my students get into training that teaches them how to recognize body language and communication and then gradually impart skills to them over the time they work with me.

    My best compliment actually made me laugh. The student told me that now she can also control the strays on her walks so they are worry free!

    But the human element is always the hardest to address–the non-human animals are always easier to train.