Okay, so training a rhino is something that only a few people get to do. However, working close quarters with any animal can be enormously rewarding, especially when you achieve something together. Positive reinforcement training is the primary method used by professional animal trainers to work with their charges and it is a fantastic way to enrich an animal’s life and reduce potential stress.

Think about useful behaviours

dog trainingTraining can be done just for fun of course but it has endless uses in veterinary care and husbandry. Rhinos can be quite stubborn creatures and like all animals, do not enjoy any experience that frightens them or may cause them pain. Just getting them to stay calm when faced with unusual situations (known in the field as desensitisation) can be very beneficial.

Older animals can often suffer with foot problems. Without the right care, these conditions can become quite painful and, sadly, can result in euthanasia to end their suffering. Training these individuals to be comfortable for their feet to be manipulated and have treatments done without the need for sedation can increase their welfare enormously. In the same way, a pet can be habituated to pet carriers, new people (including vets!) and new environments.

Training can even make an already enjoyable experience more fun and increase safety. Having your dog respond and return to you when out on a walk can often be important. Teaching them not to jump up at people removes the need for restraint, very useful with larger, stronger breeds. Design a plan for your training and keep a log to see how long it takes to advance. This will help you decide what behaviours to start with and gives you a great sense of achievement as you tick successes off the list.

Put yourself in their place

Despite what some may think, animals cannot speak our language but they are very good at reading human non-verbal signals such as body language, much better than we are ourselves. Domesticated animals such as dogs have evolved alongside us and things like tone of voice and gestures speak volumes to them. Bear this in mind during your training sessions. It is up to you as the trainer to get the animal to interpret your meaning correctly.

This is where the reward or reinforcement comes in. The animal will quickly learn that if they perform a particular behaviour then they will receive something they want. In the same way, toddlers learn that saying please when asking for something means they are far more likely to get it. Thus, the behaviour is reinforced and more likely to be repeated.

It’s also a good idea to think about your own state of mind when you’re training. Are you tired or fed up? If your body language is indicating boredom or frustration, your dog can easily become the same and not work with you. They will always respond more to your physical demeanour rather than your voice. If you appear enthusiastic then you will get a much better response. So keep smiling!

Choose the right reward

Rhinos have a sweet tooth and are very partial to a chunk of apple or carrot. However, the reward doesn’t always have to be food related; just choose something the animal enjoys. That may be a toy or just lots of attention. If you do decide to go for the food option, remember to go for something that doesn’t involve the animal putting weight on during their training. It needs to be something you can deliver quickly in bite-sized portions so the animal doesn’t get too distracted by it.

The bridge

You need to link the desired behaviour to the desired food. When starting out you reward the behaviour you want by giving a morsel of food straight away. It’s a very good way to get the animal associating what they want with what you want. Timing is crucial in reinforcing the right action as even a small delay may encourage the wrong behaviour. As it is not always possible to reward the animal straight away (for example they may be a distance away), a signal is used to indicate that the animal has performed as you wanted them to.

A bridge is a signal that ‘bridges’ the gap between the right behaviour and the reward. This way the animal knows it has done the right thing and that it will get a treat later for it. Whistles and clickers are common tools to use as a bridge signal, as they are easily distinguishable from other sounds. As with the food reward, the timing of the bridge signal is very important. It must be given immediately after the animal has performed the correct behaviour, for example, lifting a hind foot to be examined.

Patience is vital!

Just like children, learning new things takes time. If you get impatient, the animal will pick up on that and go backwards with their progress. If they fail because you’re asking too much too soon, they’ll get frustrated and lose interest. Start small and give them time to understand what you want them to do. When they succeed, make a big fuss of them. There’s nothing a rhino likes more than a good belly scratch after a foot inspection session! Like us, different animals learn at different speeds but give them time and you’ll get there.

This blog has been kindly written by Vet student Jennie Cook.