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New Trainer? No problem! Jessi shares the steps she uses to teach new people how to work with animals who already have established behaviors. The steps can be applied to pets and any other animal cared for in captivity.

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Hello everyone.  As an animal behaviorist, caretaker, and trainer, I love seeing animals being contempt and living with confidence.  Recently, I had a great experience teaching my employee and fellow animal-keeper Taylor how to work with an animal that has been, until now, only trained by myself: Serafina the red fox.

I'm so proud of both of them, and I'm excited to see their relationship grow, but it got me thinking that it would be fun to share how I've successfully trained and taught others to train animals that I've cared for.


So, say I want someone else to take over on an animal that I've trained.  I need to go through a certain process of steps in order to successfully turn the animal over to them with the least amount of confusion for everyone involved.  Here's how I do it.  The first two tips are about laying good groundwork with your training methods, so number one: establish accurate cues.  Make sure you have specific hand gestures or something you say that corresponds to the behavior you're asking for.  It can be helpful to make a list of the established behaviors you've trained with a description of the exact cue given next to it.  As an example, this is what Serafina's behavior list looks like.  

Number two is consistency.  Make sure you give the same cue when corresponding reward each time the animal does the behavior, so the animal knows what to expect and can feel safe interacting with you.  The rest of these tips have to do with introducing the new person.  Number three is relationship building.  Presumably at this point, you have already established a strong trust bond with the animal, but now it's time to work on introducing a new person so they can build that trust bond with the animal, too.  Make the first sessions brief and completely positive.  This could be having the new person give them a few treats or a new toy.  

For example, Taylor spent two years cleaning and feeding Serafina, but the weeks leading up to her first training session, she began giving Sera extra treats every day.  The following relationship building sessions should  progress to extended time, praising the animal, and possibly touching the animal if they like to be touched.  Taylor increased her one-on-one time with Serafina and then offered chin and neck rubs, which Sera accepted.

Remember, every time the new person interacts with the animal, it should be a good experience.  Never force the animal to interact or have the new person try a training session before a good foundation is established.  Number four: turnover.   This is the step where the new person learns what the animal's established behaviors are and the corresponding cues.  It's essential that they know what the behavior looks like when done correctly.  They also need to practice giving the cues before working with the animal so there's as little confusion as possible.

Taylor and I practice by having her watch a training session with Sera and me, and then Taylor rehearsed the cues by having me pretend my hand was Serafina's head and Taylor practiced getting the precise positions of the cues correct.  Yeah, we're real fun at parties.

Number five: small steps.  This is super important to remember.  Most animals won't do every behavior they know for a new trainer in the first session.  Some might, though, especially if their repertoire is short and simple.   Often the new trainer will give a cue that's slightly different than what the animal knows and the animal will get confused.  Either the animal simply won't do the behavior or they will try and guess what's being asked of them and will offer another behavior instead.

Here's an example of what happened with Serafina and Taylor in their first training session.  Taylor asked her to wave and Sera thought she wanted her to target.  Both got confused.  This is where it's important for the new trainer to know all of the animal's established behaviors and their cues so they immediately know the animal is confused and they can move to a different behavior before frustration sets in.

Sometimes the animal will be more easily distracted when working with a new trainer or they will be less confident and that will affect how they offer their behaviors.  For example, Taylor asked Serafina to rise up and Sera didn't want to complete the behavior.  Instead, she gave a half-hearted attempt, tried something else, and then completely refused.

Understanding that the animal might not act the same with a new trainer is important to be prepared for.  In the beginning, you can give a little leeway for your criteria, both with the trainer's cues and the animal executing the behaviors, but working toward accurate cues and precise behaviors should be the goal.

Number six: reviewing after training sessions.  Talking with the new trainer after each training session is essential for catching any hiccups that could turn into bigger bumps in the future.  Overall feelings about the sessions are as important as talking about the details of specific moments.  For example, Taylor and I both felt her first time training Serafina was overall positive, which was great.  We also both found ways that she could improve on future sessions, and seven: communication.

Once the new trainer is feeling confident and the animal is successfully completing the behaviors, a line of communication between the two trainers is critical.  If an animal has a bad experience during a training session that causes them to avoid a certain behavior in the future, it's the responsibility of either trainer to share that information with other trainers for the well-being of the animal and vice versa.  If the animal has a great training session, their trainer should let the other trainers know so they can determine if there's something that could be repeated so the animal has the best experience with training as possible. 

So these are the steps that I use to introduce an animal to a new trainer and I hope you can take this information and apply it to your own situations in your home or at work.  I always find it fun and rewarding to see an animal thrive and having multiple people who challenge them mentally and physically is a great way to improve their life.

Thanks for letting me share!  If you want to keep learning about animals, don't forget to subscribe and go on a new adventure with us every week and for those of you that don't know, Animal Wonders is a Complexly production, who produces over a dozen channels, including Nature League, where host Brit Garner explores life on Earth and questions what we think we know about the natural world.  For a taste of what you can expect, we've linked their 'Best Of' playlist in the description below.