Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is Animal Training Really All About Relationships?

I often hear trainers say animal training is all about “relationships.” I must admit I often say the reason I got into animal training is I love the relationship you can develop with an animal. But talk about vague! Let's be honest here,  there's is almost always a relationship going on regardless of the kind of training being done and there's always training happening regardless of the relationship you have with the animal. A little clarification is most definitely needed.

First we need to define what we mean by “relationship.” I would venture to say most force free trainers are meaning a relationship that is based on trust, results in desired consequences for both parties involved, is free of aversive experiences, etc.  We have all seen animals trained with aversives that work extremely well. I would venture to say these animals also have a relationship with their trainer. However that relationship may include things like avoidance behaviors. It may also cause the animal to resist presenting behavior for fear of punishment. It is still a relationship, but one that exists with very different criteria in place.

Some trainers state that animals behave because of their “good” relationship with the trainer. This is another interesting statement. “Good,” of course, is another word that needs some defining.  Good may mean that the animal views the trainer as a deliverer of desired things such as treats, attention, toys, etc. To others, “good” could mean that aversives have been used with such accuracy that the animal wouldn’t dare present unacceptable behavior in the presence of the person that can deliver punishers. In other words the animal “obeys” so well!

Some might say a good relationship is one in which the animal seeks out the companionship of the trainer. Certainly this does happen when a trainer dispenses desired things. However we also see some animals that pick individuals as their preferred human for no obvious reason. Parrots are excellent examples of this. We often see a parrot completely drop the human who has been the perfect positive reinforcement based trainer for a complete stranger.  On the not so pleasant side, many have also seen horses give in and “join up” with a trainer when the pressure of being forced to run around a ring has been lifted. Each of these pairings happened due to different motivations.

On the flip side of this, you can be an excellent force free trainer and have no relationship what so ever with the animal. This is often the objective in conservation projects. The intent is not to create a relationship between humans and wild, or soon to be released animals. The goal is to get behavior but find ways to reinforce remotely. We typically do not want to pair desired consequences with people to avoid the other fallout that can happen when humans and nature collide.  In this example a relationship is not required at all to be a successful trainer.

Here is another example. Chris Shank is a trainer who free flies cockatoos on her property. This is a behavior that takes some study, skills and cojones! There is always risk involved and not something I recommend people attempt without an experienced mentor holding your hand every step of the way. Someone once stated her birds don’t fly away because of her relationship with her birds. This person had assumed these were hand raised babies with a pet like attachment to Chris. What this person didn’t know was that the birds were parent raised and didn’t have any formal recall training to the hand at the time. But this didn’t mean they weren’t learning and that other training wasn’t happening. Or that they couldn’t successfully learn to free fly.

The point is a relationship is a by-product of training. It is not what makes learning happen. What that relationship will look like is a result of what tools you choose to use as a trainer.  If you choose things like positive reinforcement, pairing of desired consequences, systematic desensitization, being sensitive to not create fear responses and aggressive behavior, you might be lucky enough to enjoy a relationship with an animal that is very fulfilling, which is one of the wonderful added bonuses of being a force free animal trainer.

So while it may sound profound to say animal training is “all about relationships.” In reality it’s more about application of the tools of the trade that determines if and what type of relationship you will have with the animals in your life.  So rather than focus on your relationship, focus on the choices you make to influence behavior. Choose wisely and you get to have a wonderful relationship with an animal based on trust.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.