What is husbandry training?

What do we mean when we say ‘husbandry’?

In the zoo world husbandry is anything to do with the management of animal care, this could be the enclosure design, nutrition, socialisation, health/vet care or anything else that may impact on the welfare of an animal. When I say husbandry training I mean anything that you may train the animal to do to be able to ensure the husbandry needs are met, for example, an animal such as a tiger is classed as a DWA (dangerous wild animal) and to clean their outdoor enclosure the animal(s) will need to be trained to shift to their indoor housing for it to be safe for the keeper to clean. Another example may be training an animal to accept an injection from the vet in case medication is ever needed to be administered. By training an animal to voluntarily participate in their own health care using positive reinforcement (R+), life becomes less stressful for the animal, trainer and vet.

Husbandry training has been used in the care of zoo animals for a long time and is now becoming a requirement for good welfare standards. In the zoo world animals are given regular health checks, either by the staff or a vet, which may involve weighing, blood tests, urine samples, body scoring, mouth/teeth checks, eye examinations or anything else that may be required. Doing any of these things through capture and restraint is very stressful for an animal and may cause injury, so zoo keepers have been training animals to voluntarily participate in their own health care to make the lives of their animals as stress free as possible.

Some base behaviours that will be useful for more complex husbandry training:

  • Station
  • Present body part
  • Stand/lie still
  • Mouth open
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Desensitization
  • Target
  • Recall

All the behaviours above will be a starting point to help towards more complex behaviours such as:

  • Injection
  • Teeth cleaning
  • Eye/ear drops
  • Nail/beak trims
  • Blood draws
  • Crate training
  • Scale training
  • Urine sampling
  • Ultra sound scans
  • X-rays
  • Heart rate monitoring
  • Body scoring

As you can imagine, training your animal, whether you’re a pet owner or zoo keeper, to voluntarily participate in any of the above behaviours would be really useful for daily health checks, vets visits and administering medication if required.

Even training your dog to accept having a harness put on to go out for a walk is classed as husbandry training!

To be able to train your animal you need to know everything possible about the species/breed and the individual. In the zoo world we ask ourselves questions like; Where is this species from? What is their social structure like? What is their natural diet? Do they encounter other animals in the wild? What does their natural behaviour look like? Is there anything else that would impact their life? Once you have answered all these questions then you can ask things like; What is this individuals favourite food? What is normal behaviour for this animal? Is the environment suitable for training? Is this a social animal, would it get stressed being separated from others? When all the answers have been taken into account we then need to start building a relationship with this animal and gain their trust, we call this ‘depositing in to the trust account’. Once trust is gained we can move on to the first step of positive reinforcement training: pairing a clicker (or the word “good”, a whistle or maybe touch for a deaf animal, anything that will ‘mark’ the correct behaviour) with something that is of high reward value to the animal such as a favourite food item or a toy.

Below is an example of some husbandry training. In the video you will see the beginning stages of some behaviours I did with a friends dog Opie. Opie already knew ‘chin target to hand’ so we transitioned this to ‘chin target to block’ so I could free up a hand and work towards injection training and health checks. There’s a lot I would change about what I did in this video, for instance, the down position he’s in would work for blood draws and injections but it was really difficult to do health checks whilst he was on the ground. I would change this to a chin rest on a chair whilst he was standing so I could do checks easier.

I will be going in to more detail about each behaviour listed above in future blogs. For now if you would like to learn more about positive reinforcement training and husbandry training please see the list below of recommended books and podcasts to help you delve deeper into the animal training world.

ATA Free Animal Training Course

Podcast with Bianca Papadopoulos

Husbandry with Laura Monaco Torelli

Don’t shoot the dog – Karen Pryor

Animal Training 101 – Jenifer Zeligs

Animal Training Successful Management through Positive Reinforcement – Ken Ramirez

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