equine clicker training

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ASAT 2020: Barbara Heidenreich – Exotic animal training: The constructional approach to addressing extreme fear and aggressive behavior

This is the fourth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2020 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Hurst, Texas on February 22-23, 2020.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking.  If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share. Barbara’s talk contained a lot of video, and my notes looked kind of lonely without them, so I have added some pictures.

Barbara Heidenreich – Exotic animal training: The constructional approach to addressing extreme fear and aggressive behavior

Barbara Heidenreich’s presentation was immediately after Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz talked about CAT (constructional aggression treatment). This worked out well because he introduced us to the general CAT procedure and she was able to jump right in and talk about why she might choose to use CAT as well as some of the challenges she faces when using CAT in a zoo environment.

Why CAT?

In her work as a consultant, Barbara travels to zoos where she is often presented with a variety of “training problems” that require quick results under less than ideal conditions. The zoo may also ask her to train the resident zoo staff so that they can carry on after she has gone. Adding CAT to her list of possible problem solving procedures has given her another option that can be used when conditions are not suitable for other approaches.

Some common problems are:

  • Extreme fear responses
  • Extreme aggressive behavior
  • Often above threshold
  • Usually not receptive to food

What are the options?

  • Habituation?
    • But some animals won’t habituate if the fear response is too strong
  • Systematic desensitization?
    • Need the animal below threshold and it works better if paired with counterconditioning.
  • Counterconditioning?
    • Won’t work if the animal isn’t comfortable enough to accept food and/or other desired items/experiences in the presence of the trainer or “reluctantly” does so.

CAT: the process

  • Start far away
  • Observe the animal
  • Present the stimulus (she is often the stimulus)
  • Approach until the animal observes the stimulus
  • Wait for any acceptable behavior
  • Retreat/remove stimulus

Note: She had a more detailed slide on this but I didn’t catch it. The general process was the same as that presented by Jesús in his talk.

Examples of CAT

She shared videos that showed the basic steps of CAT and how she adjusted it for different animals.

Example: Approaching a fox

The fox at the zoo had become scared of people and would not allow the keepers to approach. He was kept in a long pen and she was able to start at a distance and approach while he was resting. She eventually got close enough that he became interested and she was able to toss food to him.

Example: Aggressive body language from a tiger

The tiger was being trained to touch a target. He was lying down near the side of the cage and while he would remain lying down when the keeper approached, and even touch the target, he was showing some unwanted body language and vocalizing throughout the whole session. Barbara showed the trainers how to use CAT to shape a calmer behavior by leaving before the tiger got upset. At the end of the session, the tiger appeared much calmer when she was able to approach close enough to ask him to target.

Example: spectacled owl prefers one keeper

In this case, the owl needed to be handled by two different keepers. It was comfortable being handled by the woman, but not by the man. Barbara had the man use CAT to approach the owl while it was being held and they were able to use tactile as a reinforcer once the owl was comfortable with the man standing in close proximity. Once the owl would accept tactile reinforcers from the male keeper, he was comfortable being handled by him.

Challenges with CAT in a zoo setting

In the previous examples, the conditions allowed her to use CAT without much modification. But, this is not always the case. Some of the challenges she faces are:

  • Inability to see body language (dark, distance)
  • Eenclosure designs (visibility and suddenly in view)
  • Herds/flocks- natural history of the animal makes it more likely to flee
  • Might have to accept reduced aggression vs. calm
  • Is it really CAT or desensitization/counterconditioning?

Inability to see body language (dark, distance)

Some exhibits are dark or have dark areas where the animal can hide. This can make it difficult to see what the animal is doing and approach and retreat at the right times.

Can it really be hard to see a gorilla? Yes – if it’s dark. She wanted to use CAT with a Gorilla, but it was difficult to see him in the dark areas of the enclosure. It can also be difficult to use CAT if the enclosure is large and the animal is too far away.

Enclosure designs (visibility and suddenly in view)

It’s important to be able to find a good starting point, one that is far enough away that the animal remains calm. Sometimes the animal is living in an enclosure that makes it hard for Barbara to see the animal because of the enclosure’s shape or because her view is blocked by objects inside it. If the enclosure is set up so that Barbara suddenly pops into view, it’s much harder to use CAT.

Herds/flocks- natural history of the animal makes it more likely to flee

With herd or flock animals, you need to be able to approach without “tipping the herd” into flight. Barbara learned that it was better to approach and retreat before you get a response. Working with herd animals can also be complicated if the animals have become accustomed to moving away from people for shifting to another enclosure, etc.

Might have to accept reduced aggression vs. calm

It might not always be realistic to expect calm behavior as the outcome of using CAT with every animal. Depending upon the constraints (time, intensity of response, etc.), she may have to accept a reduction in the problem behavior.

Is it really CAT or desensitization/counterconditioning?

Even when her intention is to use CAT, it’s possible that other procedures are happening as well, and that they are more relevant to the animal. The line between CAT and desensitization/counterconditioning can become blurry, especially if she has to modify her own behavior because she’s working under challenging conditions. It’s a good idea to remember that even when you are choosing one approach, others might also be tagging along.

Examples of more difficult applications of CAT

Example: three legged ocelot

The main challenge with the ocelot was that it was difficult to start far enough away and still be able to see him. Luckily even though she couldn’t see him clearly, she could hear him and they were able to use his vocalizations as information about his comfort level.

  • CAT applied for several sessions
  • Used vocalization to indicate comfort to approach or not
  • Animal began showing more comfort in approaching to eat
  • Transferred to new locations with better training options
  • After CAT, he participates more readily in training sessions
  • After CAT, he added more behaviors to his repertoire

Example: moving seven wolves to a new exhibit

Barbara was asked to help move seven wolves to a new exhibit. The wolves were currently in an exhibit that was not designed for them and it was awkward to set up an area to capture them. If they couldn’t teach the wolves to move voluntarily, they would have to dart them, which was something they would prefer not to do. The goal was to teach the wolves to voluntarily approach the front of the enclosure and then to go into a narrow area from which they could be transported to the new exhibit.

Why we chose CAT:

  • would not approach people for food
  • On other side of exhibit when started
  • Needed to shift to reduce stress for transport


  • Exhibit design not conducive to applying procedure easily. It was quite large and only had one smaller area (the chute) up near the front.
  • Chute and holding not designed for species
  • Group dynamics – some wouldn’t pass alphas or be in the same small space. This made it difficult to work with all the wolves and she had to concentrate on the alphas.


The wolves needed to learn 2 behaviors. They needed to come to the front of the enclosure where the chute was located, and then they needed to enter the narrow chute. She was able to use CAT to get all 7 wolves running to the front of the pen when she approached. But then the group dynamics limited how much training she could do with each wolf.

With the two alpha wolves, she was able to use CAT to get them to enter the chute and reinforced them with food and dog poo (yes!). She was also able to use CAT to get the next two to approach and enter the chute. She ran out of time for the last three and while she was able to use CAT to get them to approach the chute, they did not have time to teach them to go into the chute. Those wolves had to be darted. Using CAT made it less stressful for all of them.

Example: wildebeest showing aggressive behavior

Why we chose CAT:

  • Would not accept food from people
  • Male presenting aggressive behavior


  • Holding design limits visibility for animal and trainer when approaching – makes it hard to avoid surprise
  • Natural history learning curve: Turning back, walking fast can trigger alert, charging, vocalizations, etc.
  • Need to differentiate charge vs. approach
  • Environmental distractions

The plan:

  • Using eating as a calm behavior
  • Approach and when the animal alerts – wait until it goes back to eating and then move away.
  • Next day the animal approached and ate from his hand.

This was a good example of how important it is to know about the nature of the animal you are training. The keepers had to be good at recognizing the difference between a calm approach and an aggressive approach. They also had to modify their own behavior (walk slowly, no sudden moves) to avoid triggering aggressive behavior.

Example: Wild Ass

Why we chose CAT:

  • Would not approach people for food
  • Extreme fear responses to people
  • Habituation not successful


  • Holding area small – but room for trainer to move far away
  • Group dynamics- different levels of fear responses


  • They started approaching


  • Give as much time as needed for animal to relax between reps
  • Be careful not to much push for each rep if it is not warranted – be true to what the animal is saying with its body language
  • Use peripheral vision or look at feet/other body parts instead of dead on.. know your species!
  • Ok not to push for an observable response at all, especially with herds/flocks
  • Using “eating” as an obvious “relaxed” start/end behavior
  • Walk at a normal pace, depends upon the individual/species
  • Shape a specific behavior? intriguing/ haven’t tried it…yet


  • It is another tool in the toolbox – under certain conditions
  • Especially when the animal is not very comfortable accepting food or other desired items/experiences from the trainer
  • Really helpful when extreme fear response/aggressive behavior is observed
  • Can produce results in a relatively short time frame
  • It opens the door to allow the use of R+ (less intrusive than excessive food deprivation, or many sessions of desensitization/counterconditioning

She finished with the statement that thoughtful application of CAT has yielded results that improve animal welfare.

Want to learn more about Barbara? Visit her websites:

Katie’s notes:

I always enjoy Barbara’s presentations because it’s a little glimpse into what it’s like to work with exotic animals. She is very skilled at adapting her training according to the species, environment, and goals. In many of her examples, the animals first tolerated but then became curious about the presence of the person. They clearly showed how we can tap into an animal’s natural curiosity and the value of taking time to introduce yourself. Accepting the presence of the keepers makes zoo animals less stressed and can lead to further training.

In the examples shared by Barbara and Jesús, CAT was used to address problems with approaching people or dogs. However, CAT can be used for a wider variety of stimuli. I know several people who have used CAT with horses that were scared of people, objects, or locations. Jesús once told me that any time a behavior is being maintained by negative reinforcement, you can use CAT to change it.

After the CAT sessions, there was a discussion period where the audience could ask questions. One of the questions that was asked was why they don’t use a clicker with CAT. This is a common question because markers usually make training easier. Jesus answered the question with particular emphasis on using a clicker, so I’m not sure if he would say the same if you chose some other type of marker. But it’s food for thought, if you are considering using some type of marker.

Jesús’ answer contained the following points:

  • It is not always practical to carry a clicker.
  • Their goal is to use CAT to teach a response that the animal will generalize to other stimuli. Using a clicker creates a distinction between training sessions and “real life.”
  • Negative reinforecment (using distance) comes with a marker – the removal of the stimulus.

I’ve been blogging about the ASAT conference for several years now. You can find a list of them in the articles page on this blog, but some older ones are on my website, www.equineclickertraining.com.

If you are interested in learning more about how to clicker train your horse, check out my book, Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement, available on Amazon.

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2 replies

  1. i sure appreciate you posting the notes from this conference. i have attended in the past and really enjoyed it.


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