Ken Ramirez: Animal Trainers Need People Skills Too!

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Ken Ramirez, the head trainer from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, spoke about the skills necessary to be a good animal training consultant at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. His talk, titled Wanted: Animal Trainer Consultant, those good with animals need not apply, emphasized how a good consultant or instructor MUST have good people skills. Many people want to become an animal professional because they enjoy working with animals. However, many animal training jobs are really about working with people and teaching people to train animals. Because of this, an ability and desire to work with people is essential.

Here’s a few of the tips Ken Ramirez gave that I thought were really important. Most of these suggestions are beneficial for any situation where there’s multiple people dealing with an animal, even if you’re not a high paid animal consultant.

1. Clearly Identify the Problem
Does everyone involved see the same problem? Are different goals or principles getting in the way of a solution? People will disagree. A good trainer will help people negotiate and agree on a common goal. Everyone involved must agree on a plan and be committed to be consistent, otherwise the animal will get conflicting information.

2. Identify and Explain Sacrifices
Many people call in a consultant looking for that magic bullet, a quick and easy solution. Most animal “problems” have dozens of possible solutions. However, many solutions require a change or sacrifice, such as money spent, more time, additional personnel, or an change in thinking. A good consultant shows people that there are lots of possible solutions, if the client understands the effort required to implement them.

3. Communicate clearly and speak your client’s language
Understand the client, where they are coming from and what examples and terminology will make the most sense to them. Make sure they are open to listening. Importantly, don’t demean or belittle any past training they have done.

4. Encourage a shift in thinking
Find solutions and help expose half-truths, myths and excuses. Shift the questions from “What’s wrong with the problem animal?” to “What behaviors do I want to see and how can I train it?” A good trainer gives clear guidance for thinking about alternatives and has a system for finding the least intrusive method to approach the problem.

5. Positively Reinforce your clients
Build relationships with your clients, gain their trust and then don’t betray it. Find out what motivates the people you work with and make sure they’re getting something out of it. What’s in it for them? What’s going to motivate them to follow through with training or instructions? Learning more about your clients will help you to implement better training solutions.

Ken Ramirez is a great speaker, his lecture was full of all sorts of interesting stories from consulting with zoos and other animal programs. These stories ranged from training sharks to a past client asking him to provide marriage counseling (he declined).

As Ken said during the lecture, “Training the animals is the easy part!” If people could easily understand and solve a problem, they wouldn’t need to call in a trainer or consultant. A great animal trainer knows how to train animals AND understands how to work with people.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the rest of my notes from the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference or my notes from the 2009 conference. Better yet, bookmark the ORCA website and come to the 2011 conference next spring! Sign up for e-mail updates to make sure you don’t miss any of the great posts from

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