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Humility in Animal Training: Bridging the Communication Gap

“The animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

Henry Beston, naturalist and author (1888-1968)

Simply stated, understanding the place of humans in a world of other species requires humility.  Animal training requires that same level of humility to allow open minds and continuous learning.  Add communication, and humans have the power to change behavior and build relationships between members of different species.

Squirrels have learned a lot about how to thrive in a world driven by humans! This squirrel is holding a pecan, sitting at the top of a fence, and probably making a decision about what to do next in the midst of who-knows-how-many other stimuli! Photo credit: Tiffany McGallian

Animals are learning all the time

They have senses we can’t attain.  They are different species and evolved through different pathways.  Animals do quite well finding their way through their lives, surviving, thriving, and reproducing.  But humans are in the picture, deciding that animals need to live in our houses, apartments, barns, pastures, and yards.  Living within fences, having no control over which other animals live nearby or perhaps even right next to them, provides boundaries that animals have to deal with.  These new features limit instinct-driven behaviors.  Animals are often expected to give up instinct-motivated behaviors and live according to the desires of humans.  Within these boundaries, animals still learn.  They can’t help it – learning happens, no matter what the circumstances.  Learning is a factor of life and without it, life cannot be.

We didn’t invent learning

Learning has always been a part of life.  Evolution could not have occurred without it and the shaping of neural pathways begins at birth or hatching, or even before.  Animals in the wild exhibit amazing adaptations based on behavior changes resulting from exposure to stimuli that threaten or attract them. 

There is some evidence that wild animals have learned to avoid traffic, much like it appears that street-wise dogs do. Game animals may have learned ways to avoid hunters, whether based on visual, auditory, or olfactory stimuli, or all three.  At the same time, hunters have taught game animals to come to them, using food, scent attractants, and other environmental adjustments. Crows have learned to use cars to crack nuts so they can more easily eat them!

Animals that don’t learn where to find food, how to acquire it and how to eat it – well, they simply die.  Left in every type of environment and situation are the animals who figured out how to live within their circumstances – the successful learners. These are the ones who reproduce.

Deer have become ubiquitous among human populations in many areas. They are learning all the time how to thrive in these circumstances. Photo credit: Tiffany McGallian

We discovered how learning happens

The pioneers of behavior science studied and taught how learning occurs. Humans benefit from that information by being able to understand what animals are dealing with and how to help them thrive.  Training is simply directed learning.  It can also be called teaching – there’s no magic in the chosen words. 

Children are taught in school but adults are often trained in job skills.  High-level executives, very smart people, are trained in the use of new software that can help them do their jobs better.  Almost everyone who has a job is trained in the safety protocols of the workplace.  These people are smart; they have been living life successfully for many years and have the intellect to figure out how to be safe at work. Employees are trained because it is simply more efficient to teach everyone necessary behaviors rather than wait for each individual to circle around and sneak up on the correct behaviors on their own.  Companies provide training because it’s productive to effectively communicate what people are expected to do and provide opportunities for them to practice the skills. The same is true of training animals in the necessary skills for thriving in a human household.


Training requires communication; it can be considered a form of communication that acts on a goal behavior.  Goals for children in school may include which desk to sit in every day, how to work a math problem, or how to properly spell a word.  Employees in the workplace may need to learn behaviors like choosing correct safety gear to wear for a particular task, how to properly dispose of a hazardous material, or where the panic button is located and when to use it. 

With dogs and cats, training includes where to poop and pee, what items they can play with or tear up and which ones they should leave alone, when they can safely go out the door, how to not damage their tracheas by pulling on leashes, and that a fence or baby gate is something they should remain behind (not leap or climb over). These communications involve arranging the environment for success, providing opportunities for practice and reinforcement, and testing for fluency.

Trash or Toy? Gladys’ owner has reinforced playing in this box as a useful behavior for keeping Gladys out of trouble when she is working in the kitchen. Photo credit: Angela Wenk

Non-humans in a human household

Human households require animals to learn how to live there.  Dogs are a great example because people often have more than one.  Dogs were never wild animals, so their behavior “in the wild” cannot accurately be discussed; however, when the canine species is understood, it’s easy to imagine what they might naturally do in given situations.  For instance, when a dog sees food or an item of interest, it’s likely he will grab it if he can reach it. Dogs can be taught to accept food and play with items that are approved by their owners, but they would probably not discriminate this on their own. Dog rules are something like, “If you want it and you can reach it, grab it!” Humans have to use training protocols to help pets understand what they can have and what they can’t.

Sheila happily plays with her ball. Photo credit: Chris Ainsworth

Communicating for change

The exciting thing about training is that behavior science has shown over many decades that behavior can be changed; hence the term “behavior modification”, which is used in animal training and also in human counseling.  It means just what it sounds like – changing behavior in broad terms, across time and multiple situations – basically, creating a new habit of response that replaces the old habit.  Behavior modification techniques change habits like smoking, drinking, and drug use in humans.  In animals, they change learned responses to various stimuli like the presence of another animal, an open door, thunderstorms, staying within a fence, and being alone.  It’s based on communication without the use of language, as non-human animals don’t use language. 

Communication must come in the form of reinforcement of behaviors or creating associations between stimuli and feelings. Effective communication between humans and non-human companions influences learning in big ways and it happens very quickly.  “Knowing one’s audience” is key. 

The message must be easy to understand and allow the learner the control they need to make a choice to perform the desired behavior – that’s motivation.  Motivation is sometimes described in punitive terms, but because it is the reason for performance of a behavior, it may be more effective to think of it as making that behavior an enticing option.  Another part of communication is ensuring the “listener” or “receiver of the message” is calm, curious, and open to a new message.  Again, “knowing the audience” is key.  Feeling scared or coerced is not conducive to being open to a new idea.  

Humility in animal training

Training animals is all about goals.  The trainer must remember that someone else – the animal learner – will perform the desired behavior that achieves their goal. That’s where humility comes in.  The learner most likely doesn’t have the same goals!  The trainer has choices, but so does the learner.  Convincing the learner to go your way is not as effective as enrolling them in the possibilities for themselves when they do.  This is foundational science.  Neural pathways in the brain change when reinforcement of a behavior occurs.

Different species, different goals

The trainer’s goal is to change a behavior.  The learner probably doesn’t want to change the behavior because it’s working really well for him or her.  For example, why would a dog want to “stop” counter-surfing when that’s how she gets the very best food samples?  We can’t know what a dog is thinking, but imagine how you would feel if you had discovered a behavior that commonly results in great rewards?  You might feel proud, accomplished, satisfied, or excited to do the behavior again!  You probably wouldn’t immediately question how to make this habit go away.

“Hmmm. . . . what’s this?” Counter-surfing is simply exploration for benefits. Dog owners often like to see their dogs following animal trails, sniffing about for information, or chasing treats across the floor. Counter-surfing is the same activity, but people don’t often like for their dogs to take food from the kitchen counter. Seeing things from another species’ point of view is not always easy.

The challenge of potty training

Professional trainers often encounter dog owners who don’t understand why their dogs won’t potty outside, even though there’s a self-service doggie door.  Well, it can be cold, hot, and sometimes rainy or even snowy outside.  Indoors, the temperature is pretty constant, one’s feet don’t get cold or hot on the carpet or tile, and it’s a comfortable and safe environment for relieving oneself.  Dogs don’t “naturally” want to potty outside.  A dog’s previous conditioning drives his tendencies regarding where to relieve himself, just as it does with any other behavior.  Changing the habit of pottying in the house to going outside is something the owner/trainer desires, but the dog doesn’t.  Potty training is achievable with humility, understanding, time, and effort.  Check out our article on housetraining here. This way of thinking about behaviors that humans want to change is helpful in general, not just with potty training.

Humility allows understanding

Bringing together the needs and desires of a trainer and learner of two different species is the challenge of animal training.  It is a challenge that becomes simpler when the human with the very large brain and high-level cognition applies humility to learn to understand the other species.  Humans are the ones with the big plans.  How can trainers enroll animal learners in the training process? 


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