Training Talk: Art or Science?

When it comes to training animals there are a lot of opinions out there.

Some of my academic colleagues stick with scientific theory and dismiss anything that isn’t established by a study.

Never mind that many things take a while to get acknowledgment or to be studied within the scientific community.

Then there are those who have worked for eons in a particular theory (or methodology) and so stick with that belief system of what works and so remain resistant to consider other options.

Sure the earth is flat…until it was proven it isn’t.

Now I would be mistaken if I didn’t mention those who want to believe only in the positive.

Did you know that everything is reinforcing or extinguishing?

There happens to be a balancing act going on whether you want to believe in Yin/Yang or Positive/Negative–usually both positive and negative feedback influence behavior.

If you have ever seen an extinction curve you will know what I mean.

Anyway, as far as training there are a number of approaches to take that ultimately depend on the aptitude of the person undertaking the training, their ability to assess the situation, and the skills they have in their tool box.

So what gives you an animal training edge–a relationship with the animal or the scientific method?

Today, people seem to be in a couple of mindsets and cornered into an “either or” mentality when I believe that this can also be an inclusive situation when it comes to the benefit of the animal.

What am I talking about?

Ultimately, communication.

Training IS communication.

When you communicate clearly you get what you want.

Animals communicate clearly but most people seem to miss it.


There are a lot of reasons–sometimes I watch people who are too busy talking to notice what is going on with their animal.

Then there are those who fail to recognize just what an animal is communicating–but seem to be easily trained by the animal to perform just as the critter wants.

Go figure.

When I began to professionally train animals we worked with a few different principles that blended the scientific with the relationship which were:

  • Build a good rapport with any animal BEFORE you work with it.
  • Understand the natural behaviors and social structure of that animal so you can understand where it is coming from.
  • Anticipate dangers before they may arise.
  • Notice the subtle nuances of animal communication.
  • Use training tools but don’t exclusively rely on any one.

So let me touch onto these so you understand them better.

Build a good rapport with any animal BEFORE you work with it.

My students know that I establish a relationship with every creature I work with.

That doesn’t mean that I am always their best friend–it means I am their teacher and establish an understanding with the animal.

Sometimes I don’t even get to work the animal–their person has to.  In that case they tolerate my presence (or habituate to it).

I’ve worked with animals without much of a relationship but under stressful conditions it is usually the relationship you have with an animal that can save your bu** or mitigate a dangerous situation.

In contrast, INSERTING yourself into the social structure can be risky but that is for another discussion.

One of my first performances off site with a flighty sea lion was considered to be dismal because my priority was to keep her from bolting away–something she had done regularly prior to our partnership and my show presence suffered as a result.

My MC was savvy enough to see what my priority was and actually began narrating so I could follow her lead–she knew the animal’s repertoire and just cued me so I didn’t have to focus on much more than keeping the animal with me–and occupied with different behaviors instead of the same ones over and over again.

Everyone, including the sea lion, was safe because I was able to keep her with me.

The reason she did not bolt was simply because of the relationship of trust I had built with her.

She looked to me for direction and as a result didn’t take off.

Traditional primary and secondary reinforcers were not useful because under stress they meant nothing to her.

Today, I can cover in show situations that go awry–but back then my only concern was the animal and I was too much of a novice to keep things interesting under stress.

Over time I have found that there were many animals I’ve been able to work when others could not simply because I took the time to let the animal get to know me and visa versa.

It is an edge that goes beyond rewarding behavior and simple science.

Understand the natural behaviors and social structure of that animal so you can understand where it is coming from.

Working a predator is different from working a prey species.

Social animals can also be difficult depending on whether or not you are working them in a group or alone.

In my early years, and even now in some cases, I let an animal watch me or approach me instead of taking the initiative.

This is actually good animal etiquette (or petiquette).

A theory along these lines was discussed in a post over at the Stale Cheerios blog and is a good example of what I am talking about.

Although that strategy is labeled as “sharing territory” or as a “waterhole ritual” it really is simply habituation between two species.

But it goes beyond that.

Anyway, without interactions both individuals can gain a better understanding of one another and are able to relax and glean important information about one another.

This creates a good foundation for training.

Anticipate dangers before they may arise.

One of the biggest rules I had to follow, and still do, is to anticipate dangers before they arise.

For instance, many of the big cats we worked sometimes got possessive over something stupid–like a piece of cloth or another object that might be in their path.

Identifying risks before they become one is important.

In the pet world, knowing that an approaching animal is already in a heightened state of agitation, or out of control, is best identified when the animal is 50 feet or more ahead of you.

Seeing the world as an animal might helps avoid those situations where an animal might startle, attack, or have some other adverse reaction.

Working with a back-up trainer was considered a must because they were responsible for environmental feedback and crowd control while the main trainer focused on the animal.

Today I see that most people take action only when their animals are already into an altercation instead of forecasting and avoiding situations.

Notice the subtle nuances of animal communication.

Humans tend to rely on verbal communication while animals use body language and subtle gestures that most people miss.

I am still amazed at the number of people who think that a dog that is wagging his or her tail is friendly.

Ain’t necessarily so!

Aggressive dogs wag their tails, nervous dogs wag their tails…knowing what the rest of the body is communicating is critical to a proper assessment.

Also, we humans tend to dismiss our intuitive hunches.

I’ve been in situations where I know something is wrong–sometimes there isn’t anything clearly indicating that trouble is brewing.

By not dismissing those hunches or intuitive instincts I’ve been able to mitigate or avoid some serious situations.

When I anticipated a bear attack when we were on national television–the only clue I picked up on was the body tension and subtle abnormal movement of the bear.

How did the others miss it? It took five trainers to pull the bear off the guy who was wrestling the animal.

My belief is that sometimes the show must not go on.

Use training tools but don’t exclusively rely on them.

One of the things that really annoys me is how some novice trainers exclusively rely on food.

The problem is that it conveys the idea that you do need food to work an animal and to attract his or her interest.

Another similar crutch is that many pet owners rely on the leash to control the animal–but a leash is only a safety device.

Relying on any one tool or modality is a crutch–it is best to mix things up for the animal.

So, is training an art or a science?

Training is an art AND a science.

The science part is being able to duplicate the techniques and strategies to get a good response.

The art part is being able to blend and vary those techniques and strategies so that it works for the human and for the animals–because they are not all the same.

Training is communication and although science has given us some great tools to use, the relationship (or unique aspects of it) is also a vital component to training.

Each person will have a different relationship with the animal he or she trains and each will apply the scientific techniques of training in his or her unique way.

I’d say this is an “and both” instead of an “either or” situation.

Ultimately we need both the relationships with the animals along with the science of training to evolve into better trainers.

I am sure you have an opinion on this–if so leave a comment below!

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