Many times I am asked, “What is the hardest animal you have ever trained?” My answer may surprise you, then maybe not. It’s not a certain species. My answer is ‘the ones with a long, unenriched, unsocialized history’. Those can also be the most dangerous to the uneducated public. Along with these histories come the labels as ‘unpredictable’, ‘neurotic’, ‘odd’, ‘aggressive’, ‘dangerous’, and more. I would also not call the training ‘hard’. It’s labeled that because it takes time, attention, and planning. All of which people call ‘hard’ because they are inconvenient to the lives of the people taking care of them. When shown the small signals to look for in behavior change, this isn’t hard at all. Many times people want too big of behaviors too fast. ‘Too big’ means, the animal doesn’t understand what you are asking or your intentions, because they haven’t yet been communicated through training and learning. These examples are often the cases of numerous returns to the shelters, euthanasia, chained to the garage, or covered in a cage in a basement.
The above conversation correlates to a recent example I heard someone describe. It is relative to a teacher saying “Sarah just graduated from the fifth grade and therefore I expect all fifth grade students named Sarah to be exactly alike. This worked for my last Sarah. Why isn’t this working for this one?” Genetics, history, nutrition, environment, medicine, and experience through consequences all play a major factor in the behavior of the animal.
Imagine, what would life be without emotions? Emotions are a state of consciousness that coincide with physiological changes. Our emotions affect mood and how we interact with our environment. They both reinforce and punish behavior. They can be deciding factors in our decisions to perform a behavior again or prevent us engaging in a situation.
It has been a long-term debate on whether animals have emotions. Anyone loving an animal will usually quickly tell you that yes, they do. Do they feel love, joy, excitement, anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, etc? Recent studies in science have shown that yes, they do.
The key question is “Are we able to accurately read the animal’s body language to know which emotion it is feeling?” Many times we begin understanding an emotion by relating the body language to our own. This can work in our favor or not. For example, overstimulation can quickly result in a bite. That bite could be interpreted as an act of aggression. We can see overstimulation in play. If the play results in a bite, and excitement is read as anger, we get confused in how a happy animal gets upset during play which could likely result in the engagement of play being punished. They key is to better understand in reading our animal’s body language and we can do that through training. Training is teaching. Teaching is learning. Learning is a form of communication and better communication results in building a better relationship with that animal and that animal with us.
If we can better understand the emotions of animals, we would be able to better treat behavior issues or concerns. I love to see empowered animals. I want to see animals having choices and a sense of control over their environment. We do this through enrichment. Enrichment empowers the animal both physically and mentally. Enrichment can have an effect on emotions such as excitement and joy while redirecting sadness, loneliness, and depression. This is why I train animals using positive reinforcement and Applied Behavior Analysis. Studies show that if using positive reinforcement training, it is the animal’s preferred form of enrichment.
There are many emotions that can be prevented within our animal’s emotional experiences. There are many psychological problems that are induced when animals are taken away from their parents at a young age. We see this in dogs, primates, parrots, pigs, and many more. With most animals, their parents teach them crucial, life-surviving skills at a young age. Parents of different species can communicate with their young better than we can. They teach them behaviors for a successful future. A future potentially with us.
Socialization can be one of the most complex forms of enrichment we can provide an animal, whether that is socialization with humans or other animals of the same species. Often times we see highly social animals kept or housed individually. What emotional states and behavior concerns does this induce? I have several social species housed individually for several different reasons, with safety is at the top of the list. This is where enrichment and training plays an important role in the animal’s quality of life. I encourage vocal and visual enrichment between the animals in close proximity and in distances. I reinforce this with my attention and approval while slowly fading myself out of the equation. This causes them to begin interacting with each other, especially when I am not around. This also helps prevent separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is one of the toughest situations to live with. It doesn’t have to be hard to modify but the behavior consequences of separation anxiety can be extreme such as excessive barking, screaming, abnormal repetitive behaviors, and self mutilation. The longer the history separation anxiety is knowingly or unknowingly reinforced, the more likely it will have to remain on a maintenance plan. Many people unknowingly reinforce separation anxiety by not letting the animal spend time without them. People thinking their animals cannot be happy without them. This doesn’t have to be and is not fair for the animal when our lives happen.
The late neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp, aka “the rat tickler” discovered laughter in rats. His research in interaction and laughter in rats helped design medication to help treat human depression. As he states, when we take the time to better understand emotions in animals, we are one step closer in understanding our own behavior.
Every Sunday at 9am Eastern I live-stream my episode “Coffee With The Critters” from The Animal Behavior Center’s Facebook page. Here is my episode on “Do Animals Have Emotions” dedicated to the work of Jaak Panksepp. Yes, animals do help emotions and I will have a future episode on how the strong emotional relationships I have with my animals helped saved the life of the one I hold most dear.
The new year is here! Many people don’t like this time of year because the days are short and cold. The nights are long and linger. I LOVE this time of year. Are you kidding me? The animals sleep longer and this gives me the few months I need each year to plan and construct for the longer days ahead. Take advantage of this time and plan how you are going to increase your animal’s mind through enrichment and training. This is the time to build or plan those changes for the extended yard, the new enclosures, the aviaries! You better hurry, because this time won’t last long.
I train, enrich, and modify behavior concerns of animals professionally and on a daily basis. These bullet points are always on my mind. They may not be common to all, but this is a checklist I run through on a weekly basis whether here at the center, with clients, or when I consult with zoos or other animal organizations. Read each bullet point carefully. Each one will make a major difference with the animals you live with, care for, or keep. Feel free to contact me with questions. Enjoy and put your thinking cap on!
1 – Are my animals used to change? Stress within the household or the area in which the animals live, is one of the first things I look for on a daily basis and probably one of the most important on my list of behaviors to keep in balance. Balance is key in caring for animals. Stress can come in many forms for our animals. Do I understand what they look like? A screaming parrot? A barking dog? A squealing pig? Do I know what each of these behaviors mean within changing environments? This is an area often misunderstood with many animal lovers. If these areas are not understood, or not given attention, then these can develop into more serious behaviors. More serious behaviors are preventable and it happens with understanding these signs of stress.
2 – Are my animals used to learning something new? If I had to give one piece of advice that I think is the most important, it would be this one. “Learning something new” can come in many forms. Sitting as the front door opens. Engaging with a new toy. Looking to you for what to do next. The list goes on. If you can keep the animal used to learning something new, the more they will stay used to change. The more they are used to change, the quicker they adapt. The quicker they can adapt, the less behavior issues are likely to develop.
3 – Are my animals confident and independent? The above two points will help emphasize this question.
Are they confident? What does that mean? Do they stay calm with changing environments? Are they independent? Do they get stressed when left alone? Separation anxiety is one of the toughest behavior concerns I have ever dealt with. Separation anxiety can be extremely stressful on the animal and the caretaker. One of the biggest cases of separation anxiety I’ve dealt with, now lives with me. That is Rocky, our Moluccan cockatoo. Separation anxiety is not uncommon in animals. Dogs break teeth when crated. Animals can scream, bark, and squeal for hours. Sweating, vomiting, and unexplained defecation can be common, yet misunderstood signs. Separation anxiety can be changed. Most times it has to be on a maintenance plan. If not monitored, it can rear its ugly head again causing havoc on the animal, the household, and anyone taking care of the animal. This is why it is extremely important to empower the animal through training, enrichment, and behavior change plans. You can build the animal’s confidence in all of these areas. Do it!!!
4 – Am I proud of the behaviors I see in my animals when in the public eye? This isn’t always a ‘Yes’ with me. Sometimes I have to see the undesired behavior to realize “This needs addressed”. You can empower animals and build their confidence through training. I recently took Levi, our deaf dog to a pet store. It was just a quick trip to pick up a bag of treats. He walked loosely on the leash, did not bark at other dogs in the store, and sat when I asked him to sit. His body language looked comfortable and interested. He made me very proud. That was due to continued training, which is a great form of communication. I took Snow, our deaf and blind puppy out to deliver Christmas gifts with me today. I got her out of the Jeep to just stand while I was talking to a friend. She froze and wouldn’t move. I put her back in the Jeep and said “We have work to do”. Often times, I have to see the undesired behavior to know where I need to begin training and building the animal’s confidence. No one likes to see scared animals. That is a sad sight to see. People like seeing empowered, confident animals, eager to engage with their immediate environment. That’s a sign of a healthy companion or education animal.
5 – Do my animals engage with company? Do they bark, bite, grunt at the approach of someone new? These are signs of potential, future behavior issues. Do you see them? Most people will not take action in making sure these behaviors don’t escalate to the next tier of concern until the behavior issue is severe and causing the animal to be separated. Don’t wait for this to happen and save yourself a lot of preventable work.
6 – Will my animals turn away from me for the opportunity to engage in an enrichment item? I like it when I see an animal turn away from me to engage with an enrichment item. Studies show that if you are actually using positive reinforcement training, it is the animal’s preferred form of enrichment. I agree and see this all of the time. This can cause the animal to get excited and focused on you each time you come home or walk into the room. This is the importance of balance. When I see an animal turn from my interaction with it to engage with a toy independently, I know I’m doing a great job at preventing an overly-dependent animal.
7 – How strong is my line of communication with each animal? I train using positive reinforcement training and applications in behavior analysis because it is the strongest form of communication I have found with any animal, and I train a lot of animals. I train animals that could do serious bodily harm to me and whom are extremely fearful, but not limited to. I need my line of communication with them to be strong, especially if I am working in close proximity with them. I also work with several that live in peoples’ homes. When I ask an animal to do something, I always pay attention to how quick they do it. If they hesitate or don’t do it at all, my line of communication with them is not strong or as strong as it could be. When I am training an animal, I am building a relationship with that animal. Our training will make our relationship skyrocket in its potential. This is a feeling I love for me and especially for the animal, because it empowers them.
8 – Are my animals eager to engage with me? When I sit on the floor or walk in close proximity, I watch to see if they run or fly to me. If they do, I know I am doing a great job at being my animal’s “Deliverer of Awesomeness”. Seriously, if you are using these forms of interaction with the animals in your care, they want to be with you. Many times in the beginning stages of training, I have to use treats, but over time, the association of fun, play, treats, and attention are continuously associated with me making the animal wanting to be near or with me. Soon, the opportunity to be with me or engaging with me becomes the reinforcer of high value.
9 – Are my animals bored? Am I seeing my animals lying around a lot or perched and not interacting with their
environment? Are there toys lying around but not being interacted with? Are my birds spending 25% of their day preening or just perched there? These are indicators to me that I may need to begin switching things up a bit. Is their environment unchanging and predictable? Yea, they are probably getting bored. The beginning stages of observing boredom can prevent undesired behaviors from developing. Empowered animals seem to really enjoy and benefit from changing enclosures, enrichment, and routines. We try not to get stuck in routines around here because when those routines are broken, they can cause stress. When incorporating change, we make sure the animal is used to bullet point #1; are they used to change?
10 – Are we happy together? Define happy? Do I enjoy living with or interacting with this animal every day? Does the animal show it wants to engage with me? Do I have the time to provide this animal what it needs? Am I in this for the animal, not just for me? This animal’s future depends on this. If I have an unhappy animal, I have an animal probably beginning to display behavior concerns. If behavior concerns are not addressed, its a pretty sure bet that I’m not going to be happy nor are the others in the household. Undesired behaviors serve a purpose for that animal. Those behaviors are signs and communicators for the animal. Are we able to read them? If that animal can see, hear or smell you, you are training it. The key question is, “What are you training it?”
Keep this checklist tucked away for easy reference. Each check point can have major impact on the lives you live with the animals in your house or those you care for. Share it with someone you think may benefit from reading it. If you are interested in accomplishing this checklist weekly, take a look at enrolling in our Projects or Memberships; our fun and interactive live-streaming groups on animal behavior, training, and enrichment. Feel free to contact me with questions.