Exotic Pet Behavior and Positive Reinforcement: Building Trusting Relationships

Exotic Pet Behavior and Positive Reinforcement: Building Trusting Relationships

Lessons from the Zoo: How Exotic Animals Taught Me to be a Better Trainer

During my formative years as a trainer, I spent a great deal of time working in zoos and aquariums. These early experiences with exotic animals influenced me a lot as a trainer, and I can trace many valuable lessons back to those days. I thought I’d share the ten most significant lessons with you here.

Relationships Take Work

You see, dog trainers don’t usually have to work hard to build relationships with their dogs. Dogs are domesticated animals that are bred for their tractability and comfort with people, and we tend to take those traits for granted. But when you’re working with zoo animals, relationships are not automatic. Building a relationship requires strategic effort, careful planning, hard work, and establishing a consistent and reliable reinforcement history.

The Power of Targeting

Targeting – teaching an animal to touch an object – is a useful and versatile behavior that dog trainers don’t always take full advantage of. It’s often dangerous to touch exotic animals, so targeting provides a way of interacting with them safely. Working with zoo animals taught me the value of the many forms of targeting, and I became proficient at teaching almost any behavior with a target.

The Importance of Stationing

Most exotic zoo animals need to be taught to approach and stay close to their trainers. Stationing, or coming to a location near the trainer to begin training, often needs to be taught deliberately. Working with shy, skittish, and distrustful zoo animals, I’ve learned the value of well-reinforced stationing in proximity to the trainer as one of the first steps that leads to successful training.

The Benefits of Protected Contact

Protected contact is a way of working with an animal that provides a barrier or other form of protection between the trainer and the animal. Used properly, this method permits close contact with a dangerous animal and provides a measure of protection. I’ve learned to apply these systems with many different species of animals, including highly aggressive or fearful dogs and even our own alpacas at The Ranch.

Reading Body Language

All animals exhibit behaviors that can tell us a lot about how they’re feeling in a given situation. Working with exotic animals taught me the importance of observing the smallest muscle movement, the slightest twitch in the eye, or a minor change in weight balance. These subtle cues can indicate whether an animal is poised for attack or relaxed and comfortable in your presence.

Rethinking Punishment

I can’t deny that punishment works when applied properly, but my time with exotic animals has made me rethink how I view the use of punishment. When facing a tiger with no barrier or protection between us, the risks of using anything that might cause frustration can be catastrophic. I realized that I needed to avoid punishers for safety reasons, and that realization has carried over into my work with dogs and other animals where injury is less likely.

Seeing Things from the Animal’s Perspective

When I was first introduced to dog training, it was a common belief that dogs are here to please us. Considering a dog’s perspective was not a mainstream thought. But with exotic animals, I learned to recognize the value and importance of looking at all things from the animal’s point of view. How do they see reinforcement? Why are they scared? What makes them comfortable? What do they get out of what I’m asking them to do? Seeing things from the animal’s perspective has made me a better trainer.

The Value of Medical Behavior Training

I have trained numerous animals to cooperate in their own health care, from the largest elephant to the smallest lizard. Medical training is commonplace in many zoos, and I’ve never doubted its value because I’ve seen for myself how it reduces stress and makes health care so much better for both trainer and animal. As I returned to the dog-training community, I saw the challenges and fears that many dogs experienced visiting their veterinarians, and I encourage every dog owner to consider training their animals to cooperate in routine medical exams.

The Benefits of Enrichment

Enrichment is a way to encourage animals to exhibit a wider range of species-specific behaviors, to encourage exploration, and to enhance mental stimulation and behavioral and emotional health. Zoos were the first to take a serious look at enrichment and to develop systematic strategies for its effective implementation. It was in the zoo environment that I learned the value of collecting data and monitoring the effectiveness of the enrichment we offered.

Training is Not a Luxury

Finally, there is a mantra that I live by: Training is not a luxury, it is a key component of great animal care. Training is just as important as good veterinary care, good nutrition, the right environment, and the right social structure. Too often, training is an afterthought, something to do when there’s time. But our pets all deserve and require care for their emotional, mental, and behavioral health.

These lessons from my time working with exotic animals have been invaluable, and they’ve shaped me into the trainer I am today. And that’s why I’m so passionate about sharing these insights with others, whether they’re working with dogs, cats, birds, or any other animal companions.

Overcoming Fear and Aggression with Toco Toucans

Hi, my name is Chrissann Nickel, also known as The Toucan Lady from Adventures in Toucanland. I’ve been a big Bird Tricks fan for about a year now, shortly after I adopted my three adult Toco toucans – Paco, Paz, and Pepe, otherwise known as the Three-Cans, in June 2011.

I am always enlivened by all the great people in the Bird Tricks community who put in the effort to create a happy, healthy life for the companion birds in their care. Beyond proper nutrition and veterinary care, I strongly believe that training is THE most important thing you can do to invest in the life of your bird.

Personally, I truly believe in the Bird Tricks training program. And not because they paid me to say that, but because I am a proud customer myself who has had a lot of success applying what I’ve learned in my own situation. The simple beauty of their program is that it actually works. The only catch is that YOU have to put in the effort and apply what you learn with your bird.

The Birds

While I don’t like to use the word “rescued,” I do believe that my Three-Cans weren’t in the best living situation and have a lot of trust issues as a result of it. Having had no experience in training birds before, some might say that I was in a bit over my head in the beginning. Two of the Cans, Paz and Pepe, were both quite fearful and generally tended to avoid interaction, while the other, Paco, was very aggressive – pecking, biting, and chasing me around his cage whenever I entered to clean, feed him, or move his toys.

The Product

I desperately wanted to have a positive, loving, pet-like relationship with my Three-Cans. And while I understood the basic principles of positive reinforcement animal training from my experience with dogs, I could tell immediately that birds were completely different in their psychology. I found Bird Tricks on YouTube, and knew right away that their down-to-earth, easy-to-understand approach was for me. I initially purchased the appropriately-named “Stop Biting” course in hopes that it would help me to convince Paco to stop biting me. Like a lot of bird owners in this situation, I felt nothing short of desperate for help – and fast.

Obstacles I Faced

The main challenge I immediately ran into was that toucans are not parrots. I know – not a surprising revelation, but at first, it almost made me feel like I was set-up for failure because they are so different in behavior than the parrots featured in the training program. This excuse was tempting to give in to, but after realizing my only choice was to try or keep getting attacked, I decided to give the parrot program a go anyway.

The Bird Tricks team was super helpful in answering any toucan-related questions I had, as Dave and Jamie also have experience with toucans. For example, my question of “Should I put the toucans on a training diet even though they have a faster metabolism and no crop?” was answered swiftly so that I could proceed in the right training direction. The answer to that question, by the way, is NO.

The Outcome

Within a couple of weeks of implementing what I learned in the “Stop Biting” course, I was able to notice a significant improvement in the Three-Cans’ behavioral issues. Through touch training, I was able to coax Paz and Pepe to interact with me on my level and teach the command “down” – an important step towards encouraging other training and connection opportunities. Touch training also helped me to redirect Paco’s aggression towards me and stop the cycle of his attacks, teaching him that interactions with me could be positive and not so filled with wild stress.

The training program also gave me insight into their bird mindset and psychology, and helped me to understand how they might be interpreting my actions. I learned more about the ways I should be interacting with the Three-Cans that would move me towards, not away from, my goals of the relationship I so desired. Not only was their behavior improved for the better (no more biting – YAY!), they just seemed happier and more at peace.

I have since added to my Bird Tricks training library, purchasing the monthly “Parrot Magic” program, the “Spring Horror-mones” DVD, as well as the “Total Transformation” package. I am so satisfied with the quality of the information provided and continue to progress in my training prowess. My favorite thing about the training programs is that I am constantly learning – when I come back to portions I have previously watched, I always have fresh a-ha moments that become applicable to my current training goals.

One of the best ways to learn is to be inspired by the success of others, and that’s why I’m excited to share my story with you. Whether you have exotic toucans like me or more common feathered companions, the lessons I’ve learned can be applied to building trusting, positive relationships with any animal. So, what are you waiting for? Head over to GoldenExoticPets.com and get started on your own journey of exotic pet behavior and positive reinforcement!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top