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The 6 Most Overlooked Fundamentals of Successful Training

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As a consultant, I am asked to critique training sessions, evaluate program designs, and help problem-solve. Each client presents unique challenges, whether I am helping a private client, a working dog organization, or a zoo training program, but my suggestions for improvement tend to be the same. When I evaluate students at The Ranch, or look to improve my own training, I revisit these important points time and time again.

#1: Rate of reinforcement

A high rate of reinforcement can fix many problems and improve animal performance quickly. When clients use a very thin schedule of reinforcement, I see animals that are confused or frustrated. Sometimes trainers use less reinforcement because they are trying to conserve food for later training, and sometimes trainers believe that experienced animals no longer need continuous reinforcement. When training starts to break down, however, rate of reinforcement is one of the first things I examine. I understand the need and desire to reduce reliance on food, but trainers must work hard to develop alternative reinforcers. With a concerted and purposeful effort, trainers can use a wide variety of reinforcers other than food; once established, these non-food reinforcers must be monitored and evaluated carefully to make sure that they are effective.

#2: Make training sessions fun

Sometimes trainers can become so focused on the end results of their “important” training that they, inadvertently, put too much pressure on the animal to succeed. Even when the training must be serious, like training to take a blood sample; teaching a guide dog to avoid obstacles; or training a dog to detect explosives, the trainer should keep the session fun for the animal. The session should be interesting, engaging, and reinforcing. Intersperse the harder approximations or longer durations with shorter and easier tasks that have a strong reinforcement history.

I regularly encounter trainers who lose the joy of training and transfer their tension and concern about accomplishing a critical task to their animals. No matter how serious or important the training task, making sure the animal is having fun will help the animal relax and be more successful.

#3: Enrichment and filling the void

I encourage trainers to be thoughtful about every aspect of an animal’s day...
Animals are always learning, not just when we have treats and a clicker in our hands. We often pay so much attention to what occurs during a training session that we forget about what the animals are doing outside of training. Training takes up only one small part of an animal’s day. It is up to trainers to make sure that the remainder of the day is also set up to enrich the animals’ lives. Toys, feeder puzzles, putting food in interesting places, proper social structure, opportunities to rest, ability to exercise, and locations that provide comfort and shelter from the elements are just a few of the important things that must be provided to create a safe and enriching environment. If training is the only part of the day that is stimulating, then a large part of an animal’s day may be boring, which can have a huge impact on the well-being of the animal—and lead to a variety of avoidable behavioral and medical problems. I encourage trainers to be thoughtful about every aspect of an animal’s day so that its mental and social needs are met. This effort will result in a healthier, more engaged animal, better training sessions, and improved overall welfare.

#4: Core behaviors are a foundation for success

To train complex behaviors, make sure each animal has a solid foundation of fluent and regularly practiced core behaviors. These behaviors may differ for every animal and program, and can include stationing, targeting, stay/wait, recall, follow, retrieve, pick it up, drop it, push it, pull it, come closer, back up, spin, and many more.

Training fluent core behaviors is helpful in several ways. This training:

  • Sets up animals with the skills to learn new and more complex behaviors quickly
  • Helps animals learn to use new enrichment devices and solve food puzzles more easily
  • Enables the trainer to create variety in training sessions by interspersing easy core behaviors into a long, difficult, or otherwise predictable session
  • Allows trainers to adjust and fine-tune behaviors by guiding the animal into the correct position or shaping their movements. For example, an animal that has a back up cue and a hip targeting cue can get into a new position for a medical exam quickly, something that would otherwise take a long time to train.

New core behaviors can be trained easily, and they expand an animal’s repertoire quickly. These behaviors form the foundation for other behaviors. Having them in an animal’s repertoire can enhance training success.

#5: Reading the emotional body language of animals

A big part of gaining an animal’s trust and being successful as a trainer is learning to read and respond to the signals that animals exhibit.
It is essential that a trainer be able to read the animal’s body language and respond to what the animal is experiencing. Although this tenet may seem obvious, I am often surprised when I see a trainer who either doesn’t know how to interpret an animal’s reactions or simply ignores what the animals is clearly indicating. A big part of gaining an animal’s trust and being successful as a trainer is learning to read and respond to the signals that animals exhibit. For example, a trainer should only give a cue when the animal shows it is paying attention and is ready to proceed. Trainers should be able to tell when an animal is tense or relaxed, hesitant or eager, excited or nervous, and that information should shape the trainer’s decisions about next steps in each session. Experienced trainers seem to discover this truth at some point in their careers. An understanding of animal body language should be one of the first things taught to new trainers because it is one of the most important keys to exceptional animal care.

#6: Communication with people

Trainers understandably focus their attention on the animal’s needs, sometimes not giving much thought to the human part of the equation. Being a successful animal trainer involves working with people, including coworkers, clients, and family members. Good training teams set clear training goals, agree on criteria, implement consistent protocols, and communicate from day to day. When communication systems are not in place and trainers or family members fail to talk about their training goals, progress, or setbacks, the animal suffers. If trainers don’t have shared expectations of the animal’s behavior, clear criteria, consistent cues, and consistent interactions from one trainer to the next, animals can receive conflicting information and find training sessions confusing and frustrating. In addition, leaders, consultants, and teachers can only be successful with employees, clients, and students if they are good communicators.

Animals come first

When trainers improve their training, and use the principles discussed above, they come closer to making the lives of animals better.
There are certainly far more aspects to successful training than I have articulated here. However, I have selected these six principles because they are the most common. When I am called in as a consultant, I can usually count on one or more of these aspects being neglected or forgotten.

I believe firmly that the animal’s needs should always come first. When trainers improve their training, and use the principles discussed above, they come closer to making the lives of animals better. I am hopeful that you find this list useful, and that an idea or tip might make your training more effective.

Happy Training,


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