Training the Animals in Your Life

Animal Tips

  • The Cost of Working with Animals

    Today's post was inspired by an article written by David Segal for the New York Times. This article is long but it contains a lot of valuable information for those considering becoming a vet. Click here for the full article.

    I think that it is is extremely sad that anyone that wants to work with animals gets paid so little. The cost of becoming a vet is extremely high while the starting salaries are relatively average for the general work force. DVMs are coming out of school with their debt to income ratio at 3:1. That is insane.

    Photo courtesy of wikicommons

    In the article, Segal states that the need for vets is declining in this country. While there are communities that are in desperate need of vets, most of the people in those communities are unable to afford vet care. A vet can see a need in a small, rural community and move there to open a practice, only to find out that the people coming to see them cannot afford to pay. I'm sure that the vet wants to help and offer their services for free, but with student loan debt approaching $300,000, they are not really in a position to do so. This reminds me of the book Water for Elephants, when the main character is left with nothing after his parents die because his dad was a vet and had been accepting vegetables from people's gardens for payment.

    I think there needs to be a total overhaul of all animal related jobs. Choosing to work with animals should not be a financial death sentence. Sure, you can choose not to go to school and try to get a job working at a zoo (not as a vet) but most job postings nowadays specify that a bachelor's degree is preferred and desired. With the amount of competition for all zoo jobs, it might take a while to land a zoo job without a degree. The reality is that most zoo professionals are highly educated, highly skilled individuals. Long gone are the days when zookeepers were all burly men hired only to do physical labor. The zookeeping profession now involves daily animal training, enrichment and behavioural studies as well as knowing the warning signs of animal illnesses.

    If you are able to come out of school with no debt then you can probably survive on these salaries. I know that people with debt still survive on these salaries but they often have credit collectors knocking on their door. Personally, I don't want to just survive, I want to get ahead and therefore had to leave the zoo profession, at least until I get my student loans paid off. People working with animals either need to be paid more or there needs to be more education about not taking out student loans for school. Something has got to change.

  • How to Weigh Your Animals with Little Stress

    Weight is often the best indicator of health in an animal. In some species, you will notice a change in their weight way before you notice that they aren't eating as much as they used to. A primary reason for a change in appetite or weight is usually some sort of health issue.

    So how do you weigh a porcupine for example? How do you weigh an 800 pound steer? This is an example of a husbandry behavior. You are training the animal to participate in their own health care so that there is as little stress to them as possible. You want for standing on a scale to become an everyday habit.

    Let's start with the porcupine. This is actually a multi-step process that I am going to speed through. First of all you need a large scale, but even when you have a large scale it is difficult to ensure that the porcupine is all the way on the scale everytime. You need something on the scale that the porcupine can stand on. We have found that a large dog carrier works well. You put the kennel on the scale and ask the porcupine to step into it. Then subtract the weight of the kennel from the weight of the porcupine in the kennel equals weight of porcupine. Obviously you first have to get the porcupine used to going into the kennel before you ever place it on the scale. You can do this by placing its food inside the kennel for several weeks. Don't mess with the kennel once the porcupine is inside. Let it learn that no harm comes to it while it is in the kennel.

    In the image below, the kennel is sitting on the scale and the porcupine is about to crawl into it. 

    You can also train a steer to walk on a large piece of plywood that is placed over a scale. The steer will most likely be afraid of the large dark thing on the ground. First just place the plywood in the enclosure for several days (make sure to give the animal plenty of room to get away if it wants to). After a few days you can start to throw a few bites of bread on the plywood so that the animal has to touch the plywood to eat it. It will start to learn that nothing bad happens when it is near the plywood. Ask the animal to step on the plywood by targeting over the wood. Step by step the steer will learn that nothing bad happens when it steps on the plywood. You can place the scale under the plywood and make it a daily routine to step on the plywood.

    Watch the video below to see an example of scale training.


    Scale Training with a Miniature Zebu Steer from Brittany Mead on Vimeo.

    The steer in the video above was terrified of the plywood. It took several weeks for him to even go near it or to go in the stall with it. The video above shows tremendous progress where he is ready for us to place the scale under the plywood and weigh him.

  • Why Is My Dog Attacking My Other Dog?

    Dog Eat Dog?

    A friend of mine is having a problem with one of her dogs attacking her other dog. She came to me to ask why this might be happening. There are several reasons that this could be happening and I could not fully judge the situation without observing it directly so I decided to put together the top 5 reasons that this might be happening.

    First, let's observe what we know. This particular situation involves two fixed, female dogs that have lived together for most of their lives without issues. The younger dog, let's call her Sadie, has just been diagnosed with Cushing's disease and is the one doing the attacking. The older dog, Molly, seems to be an innocent bystander in all of this.

    Reason #1. My first question was to find out if the dogs were fixed. Dogs have hormones and all storts of issues that come along with not being fixed. This can cause extreme hormonal changes that affect behavior. I want to add to this that even fixed females will sometimes still fight for dominance if there is a male around.

    Reason #2. Food aggression. Food aggression can seem to come out of nowhere. Dogs that used to be perfectly happy eating side by side suddenly cannot be anywhere near each other. Perhaps this is just grumpiness from old age or perhaps one dog has decided it doesn't like the way that the other one chews with their mouth open. Who knows. In any event, there are a few ways to try to work around this. Try to seperate the animals when you feed them. Bring one dog inside and have one outside. Seperate them before you even begin to prepare the food and do not allow them back together until all food bowls have been put away for a few minutes. I suggest keeping the dog that is being attacked on her "home turf" and removing the dog that is doing the attacking. That way, the attacking dog is the one that is out of her element and is being reintroduced to the other dog after eating. I have seen dominant dogs attack more submissive dogs everytime they are brought back into their home turf, even if they only left for a few minutes.

    Let's say that the attacking doesn't seem to only occur around feeding time. Sometimes, the dogs simply know that dinner time is in a few hours and they are already jockeying for feeding position. Try bumping feeding time up a few hours without warning (still separate both dogs to feed). This way the dogs are surprised and don't have time to argue about who is going to get dinner first. After dinner, the arguments seem to calm down most of the time. Fighting just doesn't seem as important when you have a full stomach.

    Sometimes the dogs are fighting over food that isn't even theirs. If a family member is snacking, the dogs may think that is fair game and are fighting over who is allowed to beg for scraps. I suggest trying to get the family to eat at one time and in one place. For example, everyone eats dinner at the table while the dogs wait outside. No food comes out until the dogs have safely been placed outside. This may help to eliminate some bickering.

    Reason #3. The dog being attacked may be sick. Animals can often tell when other animals are sick. In the wild, they would use this as a survival tactic. They might pick off the weak, sick or injured animals so as not to attract other predators, not to be slowed down, or to get rid of another mouth to feed. Sometimes dogs do this when they can sense the other animal has an illness. This could be cancer, heart failure or any other number of things.

    Reason #4. One, or both, of the dogs may be in pain. The reasoning I offered to my friend was that Sadie simply may not be feeling good and the other dog got on her last nerve. This explanation seems silly but I do think there is truth to it. Sadie may be developing arthritus and it hurts her to be touched, she may be lashing out at Molly either to tell her to stop touching her or because she thinks that Molly is somehow causing her pain. She also may be simply expecting the pain to come and so she lashes out in advance hoping to avoid the pain.

    Reason #5. Stress. I have heard of dogs becoming more aggressive during the winter due to being kept inside more. Any number of small changes in your home could have led to stress on your dogs. Did a family member recently leave for college? Did you get a new dog bed? Have you started leaving earlier for work? All of these can be stressful to a dog and she gets release when she snaps at her neighbor. I suggest looking for these changes and trying to spend more time with the dogs, perhaps one on one. Take each one out into the yard seperately and spend some running time with them.

    These clearly are not all of the reasons that your dog could be attacking another dog but I hope they help in some way. For more information, I recommend checking out this post by Pat Miller in The Whole Dog Journal. It has some very descriptive explanations.

    Do you have experience with dogs attacking each other? What are some of the things that helped you to solve the problem?

  • Bare Eyed Cockatoos

    Bare Eyed Cockatoos

    This is Pearl and Hobo. Pearl and Hobo are Bare Eyed Cockatoos that I worked with at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Bare Eyed Cockatoos are originally from Australia and are known for acting clownish and love to interact with their owners. 

    These two cockatoos lived together and it was extremely difficult to tell them apart. We learned to tell them apart by behavior. When you came in to feed in the morning, Pearl was polite and would wait off to the side while cooing 'hello' over and over again. Hobo on the other hand, would be more in your face and was clinging to the door as it opened, ready to jump on your plate of food. You had to be prepared or Hobo would knock the pan of food over. 

    Here is a similar image as above with a closer look at Pearl instead of Hobo. Can you see many physical differences between the two? 

    When you are working with a group of animals, you may learn to distinguish them by behavior before you can distinguish them physically. This is true if you are surveying animals in the wild as well. They all have their own personalities, quirks and habits. 

  • Ultrasound Training with a Porcupine

    To follow up on the post about stationing, I will fill you in on why we wanted this particular porcupine to crawl to a certain point on the fence. This porcupine lived in an exhibit with a male porcupine and occassionaly she became pregnant. Before this training, we did not have an easy way of monitoring if and when she was pregnant, much less have a way to monitor the development of the baby.

    We began to train her to climb to a certain point on the fence where we had cut out a small portion of the fence so that an ultrasound could be used to examine her belly. The vets could be on the outside of the fence, open the cut away portion of the fence and check her belly while we kept her busy with treats. In this image, you will see me reaching over and touching her belly so that she could get used to it. As the weeks of training went on, she was rewarded for staying on the fence a little bit longer each time.

    Touching her belly to get her used to the feeling so that she will be prepared for an ultrasound.

    Sometimes the male porcupine would interrupt and want a treat too.

    Training this kind of behavior is called a husbandry behavior. The animal is being trained to participate in their own care. This is much less stressful for the animal.

    All of this training was so that we could enjoy little cuties like this one.

    Have you ever heard of ultrasound training a porcupine? Have you ever participated in an endeavor like this one? I would love to hear about it!

  • Can a neck collar hurt your dog?

    I have to admit that I never gave this subject much thought until I came across this post by Emily Larlham on her blog, Dogmantics Dog Training Blog. I think that her reasoning is very sound and it will definitely make you think.

    Photo courtesy of Elf/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    I can remember having dogs in my youth that pulled on the leash horribly. These dogs also ended up having major thyroid issues. Could the leash pulling and the thyroid issues be related? Emily Larlham thinks that they can. She points out that a dog's neck is built much the same as a human's neck, and I can't imagine putting a collar around a human's neck.

    In the future, I will use a well made harness for my dogs. What do you think? Will you switch over to a harness or continue to use a collar?

  • What is a Bridge?

    Training Terms- Bridge

    In training terms, a bridge is a word or signal used to reward an animal when you cannot immediately give them their physical reward. For example, when a dolphin does a flip in the middle of the pool, the trainer cannot give them their fish right away. To let the dolphin know that they have done a good job, the trainer gives another signal, such as a whistle, to let the animal know that they have succeeded. The animal then knows that they can return to the trainer for their reward.

    This can work the same way with an animal at home. When you ask your dog to roll over, you can use the term "good" to let them know that they have completed the task to your satisfaction. The animal will know that they can return to you for their reward, whether that be a treat or a loving pat.

  • What is Enrichment?

    Enrichment basically means that you are providing something different in the world of an animal that causes them to be stimulated. This can take many different forms. An animal in the wild gets their enrichment from fighting for survival and trying to find food. When an animal is in the zoo, it doesn't need to hunt all day in hopes of finding food so they can tend to get bored.

    Zookeepers work hard to provide enrichment to their animals every day. This can be a change to the environment, such as scents and spices placed in their exhibit or a new fruit and vegetable. It can even be a great idea to provide the whole pumpkin, whereas usually it is cut up. Enrichment can also take the form of training. Training presents the animal with a problem and they must use their brains to solve it. You can also hide food that the animal must follow thier nose to find.

    Enrichment is an important part of a zookeeper's job and they must constantly be brainstorming to come up with new experiences to provide the animals in their care. Do you have some really great forms of enrichment that you have used? Please share in the comments below.


    Zamir, the miniature zebu steer, enjoying a pumpkin for his Halloween themed enrichment.


  • Species and Breeds I have Worked With

    1. Boer goats
    2. Afrian pygmy goats
    3. Nigerian dwarf goats
    4. Nubian goats
    5. St. Croix sheep
    6. Babydoll sheep
    7. Domestic rabbits
    8. Dwarf rabbits
    9. Flemish giant rabbits
    10. Chickens and roosters
    11. Cochin chickens
    12. Polish chickens
    13. Jungle fowl
    14. Ocelot
    15. Texas tortoises
    16. African Spurred tortoises
    17. Bare-eyed cockatoos
    18. Molunccan cockatoos
    19. Eclectus parrots
    20. Blue and gold macaws
    21. Chinchillas
    22. African hedgeog
    23. Ferrets
    24. Silky-feathered dove
    25. White-winged dove
    26. Pink headed dove
    27. African grey parrot
    28. Senegal parrot
    29. North American porcupine
    30. Indian runner ducks
    31. Toulouse goose
    32. Rouen duck
    33. Eastern screech owl
    34. American kestrel
    35. Harris hawk
    36. Bald eagle
    37. White tail deer
    38. American turkey
    39. Raccoons
    40. Miniature zebu
    41. Llamas
    42. Guinea hogs
    43. Tarantula
    44. Vinagaroom
    45. Tailless whip scorpion
    46. Red-legged tortoises
    47. Box turtles
    48. Bearded dragons
    49. Black and white tegu
    50. Red tegu
    51. Blue-tongued skink
    52. American alligator juveniles
    53. San Esteban island chuckwalla
    54. Greater plated lizard
    55. American crow
    56. Uromastyx
    57. White's tree frogs
    58. East Asian toad
    59. Houston toad
    60. Hogg Island boa
    61. Ball python
    62. Louisiana pine snake
    63. Milk snake
    64. Prairie kingsnake
    65. Speckled kingsnake
    66. Eastern rat snake
    67. Pancake tortoise
    68. Kenyan sand boa
    69. Glossy snake
    70. Lorikeets
    71. American Quarter-horses
    72. Domestic dog
    73. Domestic cat
  • How Did I Get Here?

    My credibility- If I'm going to write about animals and animal training, I figured I should share with you where I am getting my experience from.

    First of all I have always had a passion for animals and have soaked up every bit of knowledge about them I could get since I was a young girl.

    I attended Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas and graduated with a Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences degree. During my time there I was lucky enough to take lots of interesting classes about animals. A few of these were animal behavior, entomology, ornithology, ichthyology, natural history of the invertebrates, natural history of the vertebrates. Through these classes I got to meet with many interesting professionals in the animal field. For example, one time we got to watch a horse trainer that trains his young horses to sit in his lap while he sits on a bean bag chair. Strange and I can’t see how that turns out well once the horse is more than a few months old and used to sitting on his lap.

    After graduating I participated in the Walt Disney college program and moved to Florida for six months. I got to meet many more animal professionals here and had meetings with several of the animal keepers at Animal Kingdom. I also because an aviary volunteer for the Brevard County Zoo while I was there.

    Immediately after this, I returned to Texas for an internship with Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas. I worked in the Children's Animal Center as an animal caretaker. There was only one other woman who worked with me so I ran the center completely on my own for two days out of every week. The animals I worked with here included goats, parrots, an ocelot, and more (see complete species list). Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is an amazing place where the humans are the ones confined. You get to drive through this huge safari park and have animals poke their heads in your car while you feed them. This was an amazing experience. However, Glen Rose was a little too small of a town for me so next I moved to Houston.

    I worked at the Houston Zoo as a zookeeper in the Children's Zoo. This experience allowed me the opportunity to work with dozens of species. I was responsible for daily care, feeding, diet preparation, enrichment, cleaning and training of animals. I also got to participate in daily outreach stage shows and training demonstrations for the public. In my primary area I was responsible for packing up our animals to go out on educational programs. While at the Houston Zoo, I trained North American Porcupines, a miniature zebu steer and a Nigerian Dwarf goat. Again, refer to my species list for a full list of all species I have worked with. See my Houston Zookeeper bio here. (Keep in mind it uses my maiden name)

    While I loved my job at the zoo, I unfortunately could not stay there forever due to my need to pay off my student loans. My second love, writing and marketing, helped me to find a position with a busy law firm in Houston. I get to learn marketing and event planning while I write about and help to educate others about animals on my blog. I have also volunteered at the Austin Zoo and Houston zoo during various periods.

  • What is Training?

    There are so many different schools of thought when it comes to the subject of animal training. Some people think of training like you would potty train a child while others can only think of circus-like images of a bear riding a tricycle.

    When I mention training I am referring to the capture of a natural animal behavior. For example, a goat naturally raises up on its hind legs before it is going to head-butt another goat in play. When we are able to encourage a goat to rear up on their hind legs with a simple command, this is training.

    Training is used for many different reasons. We can train husbandry behaviors in animals. A husbandry behavior is an action that helps us to medically treat the animal or to care for it in some way. For example, I have trained a porcupine to make her belly available for ultrasounds. As you can imagine, it is very difficult for a vet to work with a porcupine. Having a porcupine that will actively participate in her own treatment is very helpful. Climbing is a natural behavior for porcupines, who spend most of their life high up in the trees. My colleagues and I simply trained the porcupine to climb a fence and stay there. Her soft underbelly was now available to the vets and the ultrasound machine through a hole in the fence that we had previously cut. This allowed us to check on her pregnancies in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.

    Another use for behaviors is for enrichment, or entertainment for the animal. In the wild, most animals spend the majority of their time looking for food. When they live in a zoo environment where their food is provided for them, their daily duties have effectively been eliminated. To keep them from becoming bored we can train them to participate in an interactive session and give them a portion of their daily diet as a reward. Parrots are a good example of this. A trainer can have a variety of verbal cues that they give the parrot and the parrot must perform a specific behavior to receive a reward. The parrot generally enjoys this exchange as it gives them a chance to use their brain in a novel way. Part of their daily diet can be given as rewards throughout the session.

    In my opinion, training is an integral tool in the bonding between an animal and its trainer. The trainer learns to trust the animal and the animal learns to trust the keeper at the same time.



  • How Do You Raise a Leopard Gecko?

    Leopard Geckos are often sold in pet stores but they have some very specific needs that you should be aware of if you plan to get one as a pet.

    They will need an aquarium of some kind with a heat source on the bottom. You can purchase flat heaters from pet stores to go under the glass of the tank (make sure the heater goes on the OUTSIDE of the tank!). The leopard geckos will need a hide of some sort and this is probably where they will spend most of their time because they like the dark. If you don't want to purchase a hide from a pet store, The Leopard Gecko Guy has a great tutorial on how to make one.

    It is best to keep your gecko on moss such as vermiculite or sphagnum moss. You can also keep this only under their hide area so that you use less.

    Moisture is very important with leopard geckos. You should keep a spray bottle with room temperature water and spray their moss every day. You don’t want the moss to get soaked but you do want it to be damp. This will help your gecko to shed more naturally.

    These geckos are nocturnal, which means they are awake at night, so don’t expect to see them often during the day.

    Leopard geckos are insectivorous which means that they eat insects. This means that you will need to provide insects, most likely crickets, for the rest of their lives. These can be purchased as needed from a pet store. You will want to purchase small crickets and dust them with vitamins and calcium before feeding. Some leopard geckos will ‘hunt’ the crickets on their own if you put them in their enclosure but others will want to be hand fed with tongs.

    A leopard gecko is a great pet but you have to be willing to give them attention every day as well as be willing to feed them crickets.

  • Money Saving Tips When Caring for Your Guinea Pig

    So you just brought home a new guinea pig. If you are like most first-time guinea pig owners, you bought your pet from a large chain pet store and all of its accessories ended up costing far more than you originally planned. Do you really need to buy all those fancy products? As a former zookeeper that worked with guinea pigs, I can give you the tips and tricks that we used to care for these cute critters without spending a fortune.

    First of all, there is no reason to buy the expensive guinea pig bedding that they sell in pet stores. Guinea pigs defecate almost constantly and their enclosures need to be cleaned out daily to cut down on the smell. You can quickly spend a small fortune if you buy specialized guinea pig bedding. A much cheaper and simpler option is to use newspaper. Ask friends and neighbors to save their old newspapers for you and use this to line the bottom of the enclosure. Stack the pages at least two sheets thick and cover the bottom of the enclosure. When it comes time to clean the enclosure, you simply remove the soiled newspaper and replace it with fresh paper. Shredded paper is another good option. If you own your own paper shredder you can use this or you can contact a local company and see if they will let you have their shredded paper. They usually send it to be recycled and will probably be glad to let you have it for free. I caution you that if you use shredded paper you need to make sure that there are no staples in it. Staples that have gone through a paper shredder can be quite sharp and can cut your guinea pig or accidentally be ingested.

    One more tip about using newspaper, try not to use newspaper that has a lot of red ink on it. The ink can run and look like blood. This has caused many a guinea pig owner a moment of panic when they glance in their pet's enclosure and think that their guinea pig has been injured.

    Make sure to provide your guinea pig with plenty of objects to chew and places to hide. The products sold in stores are unnecessarily pricey. Instead, save your old toilet paper and paper towel tubes. You can place a plain cheerio as a treat inside the tube to encourage your guinea pig to chew on the tube. Save old cereal, pop tart and other cardboard boxes. These are great "houses" for your guinea pigs to hide in and chew on. Just make sure to change them out as soon as they get soiled and provide a new hiding spot.

    With a little planning, these pets do not cost a lot of money and will offer you hours of enjoyment.

Hi! I'm Brittany and I started this blog to share my love of animals and to try and help save them in the wild. 

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