Twycross International Animal Training Conference 2017

Well, what a conference! Four full days of learning and my brain is fried! Can’t wait until next year’s conference now.

The first day of the conference was a workshop with Chirag Patel and The Guide Dogs! Yes, I got to play with Guide Dogs, lucky me! Chirag is such a knowledgeable animal behaviourist and has such a passion for the animals and helping trainers understand the benefits of Positive Reinforcement Training. Here are a few Key points I learned from Day 1 of the conference.

  • Setting up your environment for success.
  • If your animal is confused, ask for an easy behaviour to give them their confidence back.
  • Think about the process of training rather than the goal.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your training plan to help the animal understand.
  • Reinforcing calm and relaxed stress-free.
  • Making sure Foundation Training is super strong.
  • Ignoring doesn’t educate, Reinforcing educates.
  • Find out why an aggressive behaviour is important to the animal and how it is being reinforced.
  • Always be aware of your body language!
  • And many more…

Okay, so Day 2 started with a talk by Barbara Heidenreich another extremely gifted Animal Behaviourist who I could happily listen to all day! She focused on how to know if you are a good trainer, repetitive behaviour (commonly known as vices in the horse world) and avoiding aggression.

We also had Alasdair Bunyan from the dog trust talking about the Passion of play in dogs, an interesting subject and something we forget is of great importance to our dogs. He explained how playing with your dog is a wonderful way to build trust and communication with your dog.

We then had two zookeepers talking about their experiences of training there two Southern Cassowarys and two Eurasian Lynx all using positive reinforcement. We also had a talk on how positive reinforcement training is being used in the media industry.

My favourite talk of the day had to be Melanie Watson of Instinctive Horse Training. She had such a passion for positive reinforcement training, something that is rarely seen in the equine training world. She was proof that positive reinforcement does work with horses and she is doing such an excellent job helping damaged horses and people.

DAY 3! So, we had the pleasure of hearing Barbara Heidenreich speak again, this time discussing maintaining behaviour the natural way. She spoke on the importance of observing animal’s behaviour in their daily routine and find out where they get reinforcement from, a certain toy/item, specific location, other animal/person and certain smell etc. You can then use these reinforcements in training when food is not available or for some reason or the animal is not allowed food for training.

We then heard about how at Ski Dubai they are training the penguins there to perform voluntary X-ray and various other husbandry tasks, all using positive reinforcement.

Then a real tear jerker talk discussing how positive reinforcement training of the chimps at Twycross zoo helped make the end of life plan for Chopper the Chimp stress free and painless. And trust me, there were quite a few tears shed throughout the room.

Then to cheer everyone one up we had the very fun and bubbly Missy Lamar and Kelly Elkins to lead the workshop. The focus was training games, which are always great fun! Basically, one person acts as the trainer and the other acts as the animal. You then pick one of the four concepts of training and the trainer then gets the “animal” to perform a task. It is a fantastic way to bring to light how positive reinforcement is really the best concept of training.

We then learned how they are achieving husbandry goals with sea turtles at The Deep Aquarium and how positive reinforcement training is the focus of Auckland University when training their research animals.

Next, we had Frantisek Susta talking on how to improve the mental awareness of trainers and how important it is to be in the “here and now” with your animal. Here are a few key notes from Frantisek.

  • Before each behaviour check, the animal is ready and focused.
  • Body language! Be aware, remember your body language acts as a cue for the animal.
  • Discard stories and labels from your head and stay in the here and now.
  • Accept not only the animal but also yourself.
  • Be focused on the animal, not the goal.
  • Maintain the same procedure always, even under pressure.

The last two talks of the day were both very interesting, we had Missy Lamar again telling us about the success and challenges that are going on at the Disney Animal Kingdom. Then the other talk was how at A World of Wings Centre they are training birds for Government Operational Supports! Sounds cool doesn’t it? But I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you, the rest is top secret!

And last but not least Day 4. So first talk of the day was by Steve Martin discussing the Top 10 Behaviours of Expert Trainers, so I will just go ahead and list them!

  • Commit to the most positive, least intrusive methods possible.
  • Empower animals with control.
  • Constantly adjust what you are doing, respond to what the animal does.
  • Build a large trust account.
  • Minimise the use of timeouts.
  • Accept responsibility for animal’s behaviour.
  • Demonstrates flexibility regarding training plan.
  • Practices two-way communication, give the animal a voice and respond to even the subtlest body language from the animal.
  • Backs up every bridge/marker with a well-established reinforcer.
  • Demonstrates commitment to animal welfare, always looking for better understanding and new understanding.

Then we then had Frantisek Susta again, this time discussing teaching a default behaviour. This is such a useful tool in training as it allows the animal to communicate when something is wrong and if the animal finds an aspect of training confusing/stressful etc.

For the workshop of the day, we had Chirag Patel back discussing Problem-solving behaviour and Training challenges. This was a useful topic for me, due to my work as a behaviourist and was a great reminder of the importance to find the root of a problem behaviour because the animal always has a good reason for behaving the way he is.

The last three talks of the day included Chimpanzee, Goat and Aldabra Giant Turtle Training! All really interesting and inspiring talks from some passionate Zookeepers.The remarkable thing about positive reinforcement training is it’s so transferable throughout different species as all animals learn the same way. Its all about putting the animal first and finding what motivates them and what they find reinforcing.

I have learned so much from the conference and it’s been great to spend time with so many like-minded people. I would definitely recommend anyone who wants to broaden their knowledge of training animals to attend next years conference, whether you work with rabbits or rhinos you won’t be disappointed!

Now time to put what I have learned into action!


Success for our team! Training Guide Dogs to rest their head on chairs to help their blind owners find a seat.
Chirag Patel showing us how it’s done!

ABWAK Workshop

‘Diesel’ target training!

On the 14th September 2016 I attended the ABWAK Wild Equid Training Workshop held at Hill livery in Bristol run by Terri Hill and Shawna Karrasch.

Too be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was just exciting by the idea of meeting the Somali and Zebras!

I was welcomed by friendly faces and a table full of food, tea, coffee etc. Just what I needed after a journey spent mainly sitting in traffic!

I soon got chatting to the other participants on the course, whom were mainly zoo keepers and all had very interesting story’s to tell.

We then sat down to a talk led by Shawna for a couple of hours, but to be honest I could have listened to her all day. Her passion for all animals welfare and well being was so inspiring  and she had so much experience and knowledge to share.

We were then all given our own clicker each to keep and a tub full of chopped carrots and were taken to see the Zebras!

We were introduced to the 4 Zebras and 2 Somalis and an accidental Zebra cross Somali whom had very interesting features!

We split into 3’s and my group worked with Diesel the Somali to begin with.

He was very nervous to begin with, Shawna had explained to us we must bridge (click) the first movement that the equid makes towards the target to begin with. So something as little as an eye movement is enough to begin with, and eventually over time you ask for more, until their nose is touching the target.

Diesel progressed really well, but was a little suspicious of the feel of the tennis ball. So we progressed to wooden targets hooked on the fence. Diesel was much more confident touching these and he was soon touching each target I pointed at straight away.

After a very satisfying lunch Shawna showed us how to begin teaching clicker training from scratch and demonstrated on a livery horse whom had never been clicker trained before.

I was surprised how quickly the horse was able to link the clicker sound to a reward. Shawna first taught him to move his head away and then trained him to touch a target, all within half an hour!

We were then all sent back to practice our techniques with another Equid. My group picked the lovely Zebra stallion ‘Forest’.

Forest was very willing to participate in the Target training! We were able to do more complex training with Forest, such as moving the target to different areas and holding it higher so he has to reach up to it.

I was really amazed how all the equids really appeared to enjoy the training and the interactions with people.

After we had finished, Terri led the session on aromatherapy and showed us the correct techniques and how to tell if a Equid likes or dislikes a certain smell. I was amazed how each horse we used liked or disliked different oils. Terri explained to us the animals know what they need, and will pick the oils they need, so each day they will pick different according to how they are feeling.

I had such a good day, learnt so much and didn’t want it to end!

I have used the techniques with my own horses with extremely positive results. They love the aromatherapy and go away extremely relaxed after a session!

The target training has been really good fun to teach and they really enjoy their training sessions, even choosing to leave their haynet to come and do some target training!

‘Forest’ target training!