Communication in Animal Training

It is known and also shown in multiple articles that a large and important part of our communication is non-verbal and vocal. Training our animals is all about communication and understanding. When we train our animals, we have to communicate in a way that we and animals understand. It is about conveying what we desire from the animals and reading what the animals want from us through body language and behavior. When training fails it is most likely due to a communication failure. This snippet describes what to keep in mind.

Trainer attitude

Many animals can read the state of mind of the trainer. Animals respond more favourable to a trainer with a lot of energy than one who lacks enthusiasm and focus for the training. When you do not feel up to training it is better to skip the training session, otherwise causing possibly more harm to the training than progress. If you are not putting much effort in the training session, why should the animal?

Body language

Animals show a lot of their communication through body language. But be aware that we as trainers do this, most of the time unconsciously, as well. It is important to be able to read the animal’s body language. If you can’t read its body language you miss information and it will likely affect your training session and training progress. The posture and facial expression tell much about the state of the animal. Many animals open their eyes widely when frightened. Also, the position of the tail is a good indicator in which state the animal is. Some animals wag their tails when satisfied. Birds show much by their feathers. A bird that is frightened will tighten his feathers and will make his body small, in contrast with a bird that shows aggression. It will put his feathers up to seem larger than it really is. Likewise, the position of the ears gives clues to what the animal’s state is. But also think about your own body language. It can be imposing to make yourself large to a nervous and twitchy animal. Some animals don’t like to be approached from above.

Tone of voice

It is obvious that animals can’t understand our words and language, but animals can understand or learn to understand the meaning of our tone of voice. When your voice is calm, excited, or firm can convey a different message. An excited tone of voice can motivate an animal and make your training session energetic and positive, but can also be impressive and overwhelming to a more nervous animal. It is difficult as a trainer to have a constant tone of voice that is understood by the animal in the same way every time. In some cases, it is for the better to use a sound-making-object to make things clear to the animal, but also think in visual and tactile communication. This is why a clicker or a whistle is used often as a cue, to be a consistent and clear message.

Environmental distractions

It is beneficial to be aware of environmental distractions, as well for you as for the animal. Try to minimize the distractions during a training session or desensitize the animals to them. Especially, but not only, in the initial stage of the training animals can lack confidence and don’t have trust in the trainer. Distractions can cause animals to startle, as well as displaced or fear-based aggression. Distractions can be a person walking by, hard winds, unexpecting sounds. You can minimize them by using another training location, set your mobile on vibrate or communicate with other keepers not to be disturbed when training. Distraction can also be affecting you and makes you lose focus on the animal’s communication.

Keep your emotions in check

Emotion is a powerful force and makes us very human. But when out of control, can ruin a training session. Animal training works so well because it follows scientifically proven principles to modify behavior and entails no emotional decision-making. When frustrating or over-enthusiastic will likely influence your decision-making abilities.

Trainers responsibility

As a trainer, you are responsible for the animal’s action. As trainer, you communicate in a way the animal understands with clear communication of cues, precise and timed delivery of reinforcement, and the overall tone of the training session. An animal that doesn’t offer a correct response probably did not understand what you desire of the animal. You are responsible for the communication between you and the animal. So, if the animal did not understand you, you have to re-evaluate the session and find a better way to communicate with your animal.

For more information about Animal Training see other snippets.

Further reading

  • Animal Training – Ken Ramirez (book)
  • Carrots and Sticks – Principles of Animal Training – Paul McGreevy and Robert Boakes (book)

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