Animal Training Tools: Good, Bad & Obsolete?

good, bad, obsolete

Recently someone asked my opinion about some of the animal training tools in use today.

Since I work with both wild and domestic animals, it got me to thinking about the topic from a comprehensive perspective.

A lot of people will talk about animal training tools and lump them into categories–good or bad.

But really, is there such a thing?

I’d label some as obsolete but it is how they are used that earns them the labels.

Also, if you haven’t used or tested a particular tool, how do you know how useful it is or isn’t?

And, if you don’t know of other options, how do you really make an assessment?

Recently a person wrote me because she was upset over the use of the ankus (elephant hook) and asked what I thought.

The Ankus is known by a lot of names such as Ankusha, Ankush, Ankusa, Ankus, goad, hook, bull hook, elephant hook, or elephant goad.

The tool dates back to at least the 5th or 6th century BCE India and is a traditional tool in the elephant training tradition.

Sometime back I wrote an extensive summary of elephant training & management while I was on the forefront of using these newer behavior modification techniques. Today these strategies are used more commonly in captive situations here in the United States.

But my first exposure to elephant training and management was in the traditional methodology.

All the elephants I worked with then were already extensively trained and the elephant hook was used as a device that extended a trainer’s reach and to give the animal direction.

In my subsequent elephant training and handling work, the elephants were taught using targets and a marker (whistle) to give the animal direction.

Those animals were also previously trained but were being managed “hands off” with the trainers outside of the enclosure area.

When evaluating training practices I usually look at a few factors:

  1. Are the animals able to be maintained so they remain in good health?
  2. Are they mentally challenged and occupied?
  3. Are they compliant and choosing to respond instead of simply reacting?

Lately there is a lot of hooey floating around.

People always want to throw out opinions and a lot of emotionally charged viewpoints on training when they really have a limited view on the topic and little or no experience with it.

However, when you really get into it, there are a lot of variables that come into play.

Personally, I’d rather have some concrete evidence, personal experience, or personal observation to validate what is being spun.

I find it odd that people who think nothing of using a choke chain or pinch collar on a dog will rant and rave about an ankus or the other training practices prevalent in other animal training circles.

The sad thing is that progress in some fields is slower than in others.

For instance, when we were involved in behavior modification and training using clickers and similar markers back in the late 1970s (and early 1980s) the rest of the animal training niches were still relying on traditional methodology.

But what I found perplexing was that the same facility was using traditional elephant training along with traditional horse training practices while doing more innovative training with other species.

Now, when it comes to dog training, I prefer to avoid choke chains or pinch collars.

However, when I started my novice animal training in the early 1970s, choke chains and other traditional devices were the accepted norm.

So I’ve been there done that.

Personally, I always like to explore different options and when I find a better one, or one that is more in alignment with how I teach an animal, I use it.

So, the old chains in my training bag are used simply as throw chains–for distraction. They haven’t been on an animal in…I can’t remember how long.

Back in the day (LOL) I remember testing our elephant hooks by balancing the hook on our index fingers to make sure they were not too sharp and so would not injure an elephant’s skin.

Other trainers were not known to be so humane–and some were known to sharpen their hooks so that you could not balance them on your finger because they would hurt or injure the skin.

And I can say that I’ve seen trainers use choke chains to “hang” dogs so that they could not breath.

I have also witnessed the damage done to an animal’s neck from sheer stupidity or cruelty.

With that in mind, those tools in a training bag, or training tool box, are only as good or bad as the trainer using them.

Here in the USA we have the luxury of picking and choosing our tools and our practices.

An urban animal usually has a very different life from a rural animal–plus the socioeconomic status of those who own them is a big influencing factor as to how animals are housed and trained.

Some people swear that the Dog Whisperer is their guru. I had someone ask me about him yesterday.

I’ve never met him–but why do you need a guru?

The upside is that he has made people realize they need to train their dogs and has catalyzed a lot of interest in dog training.

When I started my career, being an animal trainer was not considered a profession. Today the specialty services for pets can make your head spin.

So my point is this, I don’t like to use training methods or tools that I consider obsolete.

But I also don’t think that you can eradicate the obsolete when they are still considered the standard in different training circles and when popular culture sees nothing wrong with them.

You can be sure that I have more to say on this topic…

What I want to convey to you today is that I encourage you to explore and experiment–and then to get on with training in the manner you feel is the most humane and the most effective.

Animal Training Tools: Chime in about the Best & the Worst

Okay, another question for you and then I am going in with my comments later this week!

I want to know:

  • What is your favorite animal training tool? Please explain why.
  • What is your least favorite animal training tool? Please explain.

Please note all comments are moderated and will be posted once reviewed.

Also take note that on this series of questions I am going to wait a bit until a variety of comments are in–this means that I am going to delay approval in the moderation queue so your answer might not appear right away.

Why? Because there are a variety of opinions and I don’t want to influence or to deter anyone from chiming in.

Okay, ready? Simply post your comment below.