What makes an exceptional animal trainer?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself several times. What are the skills or abilities that make one a good animal trainer? Or actually I should say an exceptional animal trainer?  Who has the ability to mold the animal nature into the direction we humans want it to be formed?dog love pieni 275x300 What makes an exceptional animal trainer?

I’ve had several discussions on this topic with my colleagues.  We have listed several skills that an exceptional animal trainer should possess; among them are patience, creativity, innovativity, joyfulness, being consistent, playful mind, visionary etc. All these describe the quality features of a good animal trainer. But as we know there are trainers and then there are those trainers who have something extra in their relationship with animals. What is it that makes the difference?

Good trainer has to know the animal and be aware of the circumstances the animals are exposed to; environmental wise and the reinforcements they are affected by. Surely we must know the ins and outs of animal behaviorism and the geometrics of animal behavior management, i.e.  different forces that  affect the animals in our care. How are we capable of changing the balance in reinforcements?

Basically, that’s all it is, the balance of reinforcement.  How do get our dog or any other animal to behave the way we’d like it to behave.  We just need to find a way to give a stronger feedback, reinforcement, than the feedback, enrichment or stimulus the animal´s environment is providing to it.

Needless to say, the training methods have to be based on positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. When we are talking about positive way of animal training we should remember that it doesn’t mean that everything is allowed for the animal in question. It is just the way we handle the animals, whether they are dogs, cats, horses, otters, dolphins or rhinos etc. The idea is to redirect the focus of the animal with positive and more powerful secondary or primary reinforcement into a trail of success.

But let’s get back to the original question. In my opinion what makes an exceptional animal trainer is the ability of closeness.

We all love and cherish our animals. Especial attention is given to domestic animals because we spend a great deal of time with them. The closeness I am thinking of is not the same as love. Of course we have to love our animals and get involved with them but love is a bit different matter than closeness. What I mean by closeness is:  all the quality features listed above combined with sensitivity, intuition and capability to read the small signals animals in our care are giving to us. It’s neither supernatural nor superstitious but a way to read the animal´s motions and signals, to be sensitive to what they might do next and to be just a little bit ahead of them – as no animal trainer should be surprised in training situation by our four legged companions.


Kai Mattsson



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About Kai Mattsson

My main work with animals has been and still is with marine mammals and especially with dolphins at the Särkänniemi Dolphinarium, Finland. With doplhins I’ve worked since mid 80’s and their fascinating world has taken my time ever since. I’ve gathered experiences all around the world. I’ve been a member to several international organizations related to animal training and marine mammals. I was elected to the board of EAAM (European association for Aquatic mammals) in 1997 and I worked for the association almost ten years. Since then I’ve been intensively involved with the international marine mammal society, by organizing Annual scientific Symposia’s and several regional and international workshops in animal training. At the beginning of millennium I was invited by the finnish ministry of environment to participate as one of Finlands participant to Ascobans meetings (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas), an organization under UNEP umbrella. Animal training is a challenge - fortunately I have been lucky enough to have several changes to chare bit of my experiences i.e. through lectures and workshops. My job description has included; animal training, foremanship, recruiting and staff development, facility design and public performance production. Nature and animals have always been close to my heart and I’ve been fortunate to work also with species like; horses & ponies, dogs, cats, fish and seals. Those mostly through my private consulting & production company Meritime. webpage; www.meritime.net Facebook; http://www.facebook.com/pages/Meritime/345171735503394 Find me from LinkedIn

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