Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions Ideas for Animal Trainers

I had a lot of fun coming up with ideas for last year. Here are ten new ideas for 2016.

1. Learn a new term.  There really truly is always something new to learn.  You may finally know the difference between negative reinforcement and positive punishment. Perhaps it’s time for some new words and concepts. Maybe you would like to learn about overshadowing? Or what is an adjunctive behavior?  I know these two terms kept cropping up in my vocabulary this year.

2. Present a paper at a conference. If you have never written and presented a paper for a conference before, be sure to add this to your list. Papers can be intimidating, but they are a great way to foster professional growth. They often cause you to study the work of others, make sure your information is accurate and help you become a critical thinker. I have already submitted five abstracts for 2016. How about you?

3. Expand your training repertoire. Is there a skill you tend to shy away from? Do you favor luring or free shaping? Or free shaping over targeting? Do you forget to set up your environment so the animal can easily do the behavior? Figure out what technique you have yet to master and make it your goal to excel at it.

4. Create a behavior goal chart. I like charts because they do help you organize your training goals and let you check off accomplishments. I also categorize my training goals. For example I can place behavior goals under headings such as medical, husbandry, behavior problem, enrichment, etc. It can also then help you prioritize each behavior.

5. Visit a zoo and watch a training session. Many zoos present scheduled training sessions with their animals for the public. Often these sessions include training the animals to cooperate in medical care. You might see an elephant presenting feet for a pedicure, a lion pressing its hip to the mesh for an injection, or an otter getting on a scale.  Use these sessions to give you inspiration to train your companion animals to cooperate in medical care at home.  Chat with the keepers afterwards and you can learn a lot more about the incredible work done by zoos to ensure their animals enjoy healthy and enriched lives thanks to training. (Here is a session with some Inca terns at the Copenhagen Zoo)

6. Question something you “think” you know.  Is there a term or concept you think you know, but maybe you are not quite so sure? Maybe now is the time to get some clarity. For years I used to use the words time out and negative punishment interchangeably, until I got some clarity. Do you sometimes say reinforcement when you mean to say reinforcer? It is an ongoing effort for me to fine tune what I “think” I know.

7. Be a mentor. There is still a great deal of misunderstanding out there as to what "animal training" is thanks to many different methods of training represented in TV shows, film, media, etc.. There are also a great many animal lovers out there who want to be trainers. You can help those animals lovers get on a good path that supports influencing animal behavior using science based methodology and promotes high standards of animal welfare by being a mentor. Share what you know and point those eager students towards good resources to help them be kind and gentle animal trainers.

8. Get together with other trainers. Not everyone can afford to go to a conference, but I can attest, even at a conference some of the best conversation happens at the bar or at the dinner table.  When I travel, just visiting with other trainers is often the best part. One friend and I met in a diner for lunch and talked so long we stayed for dinner.  Other trainers are important teachers. Find ways to spend time with them. (Here is a clip from time spent with colleague Hillary Hankey at Avian Behavior International)

9. Attend a webinar. Last year I suggested attending a conference. With so many advances in technology, I highly recommend taking advantage of webinars.  I presented too many to count last year! I hope to schedule a few this year too.

10. Do it now. Whatever you have resolved to do (write a paper, attend that workshop, learn a term, train that behavior, etc.) do it now! Animal training guru Bob Bailey once asked our chicken training workshop class “What is the one thing you will always run out of?” We all looked at each other, puzzled.  “Time!” he exclaimed.  Ain’t that the truth?

There you have it! Ten resolutions for trainers for 2016. Feel free to share with other animal enthusiasts and have a very Happy New Year!

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2016

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides 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 works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.