Exotic Pets and Positive Reinforcement: Building Trust and Cooperation

Exotic Pets and Positive Reinforcement: Building Trust and Cooperation

Gaining the Trust of Exotic Pets: Lessons from the Zoo

What do tigers, owls, and wallabies have in common? Well, for starters, they’re all exotic animals that require a whole different level of care and training compared to our beloved domestic pets. As an experienced animal trainer who’s worked with a menagerie of exotic species, I can attest to the unique challenges – and invaluable lessons – that come with building relationships with these fascinating creatures.

During my formative years as a trainer, I spent a significant amount of time working in zoos and aquariums. These early experiences with exotic animals had a profound impact on me, shaping my approach to training in ways I never could have anticipated. In fact, I can trace many of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned back to those days working alongside tigers, macaws, and primates.

The Importance of Relationship-Building

One of the first and most crucial lessons I took away from my exotic animal training days is the stark difference between working with domesticated pets and their wilder counterparts. Relationships don’t come automatically with exotic animals. While our canine companions are often eager to please and form bonds with their human caretakers, wild and captive-bred exotic species require a much more strategic, intentional effort to build trust and cooperation.

Take the case of Juan, the scarlet macaw I worked with in Mexico City. Juan was well-behaved around the women on our team, but he viciously attacked any and all men who approached him. As an integral part of our daily bird show, I knew I had to find a way to work with this temperamental avian. So, my team and I constructed a special perch from which Juan could not climb down to attack me, giving me the opportunity to slowly but surely start building a relationship with him through patience, kindness, and lots of positive reinforcement.

It wasn’t an easy task by any means, but after six months of consistent, strategic effort, Juan and I were able to perform shows together without the need for a protective barrier between us. Developing that level of trust and cooperation didn’t happen overnight – it took time, dedication, and a deep understanding of what motivates the animal you’re working with.

The Power of Targeting and Stationing

Another crucial lesson I learned from my exotic animal training days was the immense value of targeting and stationing behaviors. While dog trainers may not always take full advantage of these techniques, they’re absolutely essential when working with dangerous or skittish exotic species.

Targeting – teaching an animal to touch an object with a specific body part – provides a safe way to interact with and shape the behavior of wild animals. I remember working with a rescued owl that had been through a tough rehabilitation process and consequently did not trust people. By using targeting, I was able to get the owl to focus on an object far from the trainer, and then gradually approximate that object closer and closer until the owl was comfortable allowing the trainers to touch him and participate in medical behaviors voluntarily.

Similarly, stationing – teaching an animal to approach and stay close to the trainer – is an essential foundation for successful training with exotic species. When I worked with tigers, I dedicated the first few weeks to teaching a rock-solid station behavior, where each tiger would reliably and comfortably sit at the front of their enclosure near me. Once that foundation was in place, the rest of the training process progressed rapidly.

The same principles hold true for our domestic pets as well. Stationing and targeting are powerful tools that can help build trust, cooperation, and a strong training foundation, whether you’re working with a tiger or a Terrier.

Navigating Protected Contact

Closely related to the importance of targeting and stationing is the concept of protected contact – a method of working with dangerous animals that involves a barrier or other form of protection between the trainer and the animal. This approach is commonplace in the zoo world, and it’s an invaluable technique I’ve carried over into my work with domestic pets as well.

When I started considering cooperative care as an area of training, I found that those of us with dogs and other domestic animals were far behind those who care for exotics and non-domestics. After all, you can’t simply grab a lion or tiger, restrain them, and give them an injection – that would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, zoos and wildlife facilities rely on protected contact to perform routine health care procedures safely and effectively.

I’ve found that the same principles apply when working with highly aggressive or fearful domestic dogs. By starting in protected contact and gradually building trust and cooperation, I’m able to make faster training progress and ensure the emotional comfort and safety of both the animal and the handler.

Reading Body Language: Lessons from the Exotic World

Observing and understanding body language is a critical skill for any animal trainer, but it’s especially crucial when working with exotic species. While we have a wealth of resources available on how to read dog body language, the same can’t be said for rhinos, eagles, or alligators.

Working with exotic animals taught me to pay attention to the smallest muscle movements, the slightest twitches in the eye, and even minor changes in weight balance. These subtle cues can indicate whether an animal is relaxed and comfortable, or poised for an aggressive outburst.

One poignant example that sticks with me is the time I observed two young trainers working with wallabies. Although they appeared to be handling the animals in the same way, one trainer, Zoe, was consistently more successful in keeping the wallabies near her. As I watched more closely, I noticed that the wallabies would sometimes squint their eyes and hesitate in their forward motion. Zoe responded by stopping her hand movement and withdrawing it slightly, which prompted the wallabies to relax and continue forward. The other trainer, Aiden, didn’t notice these subtle cues and failed to adjust his behavior accordingly, causing the wallabies to startle and run away.

Honing my ability to read and respond to even the most minute body language cues has been an invaluable skill, not just in my work with exotic animals, but also in my training of domestic pets. It’s a lesson I try to impart to all of my clients, because understanding what your animal is trying to communicate can make all the difference in building a strong, trusting relationship.

Rethinking Punishment: Lessons from the Exotic World

As animal trainers, we’re often taught that punishment can be an effective tool for modifying behavior. However, my time working with exotic animals has made me rethink my stance on the use of punishment, especially when it comes to our domestic companions.

When I’ve had the opportunity to work in free contact with large exotic animals like tigers, I’ve quickly realized that the risks of using punishment or any other tool that might cause frustration can be catastrophic. I recognized that it would be foolish to use a punisher in these circumstances, as it might be the last thing I ever did.

But the lessons I learned from those harrowing experiences with tigers and other apex predators didn’t just apply to the exotic animal world. I began to ask myself, “Why would I ever allow my learner to be frustrated?” After all, just because my dog will probably never kill me, they still face the same level of frustration as those larger animals.

So, I started searching for other options – ways to train my dogs (and all my animal clients) without ever allowing them to become frustrated. Instead of relying on punishment, I focused on building a strong foundation of positive reinforcement, targeting, stationing, and other techniques that allow me to shape behavior in a way that’s fun, engaging, and voluntary for the animal.

Seeing Things from the Animal’s Perspective

One of the most profound lessons I took away from my time working with exotic animals was the importance of seeing things from their perspective. When I first got into dog training, it was a common belief that dogs are here to please us, and considering the dog’s perspective was not a mainstream thought. But with exotic animals, I quickly realized that I couldn’t approach our relationship in the same way.

Instead, I learned to recognize the value and importance of looking at all things from the animal’s point of view. How do they perceive reinforcement? What makes them feel scared or comfortable? What do they get out of what I’m asking them to do? Adopting this mindset of seeing the world through the animal’s eyes has made me a better trainer, not just with exotic species, but with all of my animal clients, including our beloved domestic pets.

The Importance of Enrichment and Medical Behavior Training

Another crucial lesson I learned from my exotic animal training days is the immense value of enrichment and medical behavior training. Zoos and wildlife facilities were at the forefront of these practices, and witnessing their systematic approach to enhancing the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of the animals in their care has had a lasting impact on me.

In the zoo environment, I learned the importance of collecting data, setting specific goals, and monitoring the effectiveness of the enrichment we provided. Whether the aim was to teach new skills, reduce stereotypic behaviors, or encourage better habitat use, we always had a clear objective in mind.

Too often, I see pet owners simply providing toys without much thought about whether their animals are actually using them or deriving any benefit. But the lessons I learned in the zoo world have taught me to be much more intentional and strategic about enrichment, always with the animal’s needs and preferences in mind.

Similarly, the widespread use of medical behavior training in zoos and aquariums has shown me the immense value of preparing our domestic pets for routine veterinary procedures. If exotic animals can learn to voluntarily cooperate in their own healthcare, why shouldn’t our dogs and cats receive the same level of consideration and care?

Bringing It All Together: Positive Reinforcement for Exotic and Domestic Pets

As I reflect on my journey from exotic animal trainer to pet parent educator, I’m struck by the remarkable parallels between these seemingly disparate worlds. The lessons I learned working with tigers, owls, and wallabies have had a profound impact on the way I approach training and behavior modification with our domestic companions.

Whether I’m working with a high-strung Chihuahua or a majestic Bengal tiger, the core principles remain the same: build trust, foster cooperation, and always keep the animal’s perspective in mind. By incorporating targeting, stationing, protected contact, and a deep understanding of body language, I’m able to create training programs that are safe, effective, and – most importantly – fun and voluntary for the animal.

And when it comes to the use of punishment, my exotic animal experiences have made me a firm believer in the power of positive reinforcement. Why would I ever want to risk frustrating or frightening my animal learners, when I can achieve the same (if not better) results through patience, kindness, and a rewards-based approach?

So, if you’re the proud pet parent of an exotic or domestic animal, take heart in the fact that the same science-based, force-free training methods that work so well with tigers and owls can also work wonders for your furry (or scaly) friend. By building trust, fostering cooperation, and always keeping your animal’s needs and perspective in mind, you can create a bond that’s truly out of this world.

And who knows – maybe one day, you and your pet could even put on a show worthy of the world’s most prestigious zoos! After all, with the right training approach, the sky’s the limit.

Visit GoldenExoticPets.com to learn more about caring for your exotic companions and honing your positive reinforcement training skills.

Leave a Comment

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

Scroll to Top