Training Snakes to Voluntarily Relocate
The following is an overview of two methods I have used to train snakes to voluntarily shift from their normal enclosure/living space into a temporary holding area or transport container. These methods have worked successfully for carpet pythons (Morelia spilota) and Bredl’s pythons (Morelia bredli) at the facility where I am a keeper (Behavior Education LLC at Spirit Keeper Equine Sanctuary) in Colorado. These are hands-off, non-emergency approaches to relocating a snake for enclosure cleaning, water changes, transport, or for any reason the snake needs to be removed from their normal enclosure to temporary holding. Note that in exigent circumstances, forced physical removal of the snake from their enclosure is generally the quickest method; however, if time is not a factor, these methods are a way to reduce handling stress by offering the animal choice and control over their actions.
Temporary holding tubs for snakes
Method one: Station training via operant conditioning
In this method, the snake voluntarily leaves their enclosure and stations in temporary holding when presented with a specific tub as a visual cue. They are then presented with a food reward. This type of behavior modification for a snake requires time and patience; however, once they make the association between the station being presented and the subsequent food reward, the process takes less time each session. Assuming the snake is already habituated to the handler and is comfortable eating in their presence, the following are options for consideration to shape this behavior.
Capturing the behavior
You can reinforce spontaneous occurrences of relocation by allowing the snake to come out of their enclosure on their own for monitored exercise or exploration in an area that has previously been snake-proofed for a free-roaming animal. Place the tub or transport container (opened or with the lid off) within the designated area. When the snake goes near the tub on their own and explores in or around the tub, present a food reward (using feeding tongs for safety). Repeat this each time the snake is allowed out to safely exercise and explore.
Exploring the surroundings
If the snake is given a food reward when they are near or in the tub, they very quickly learn to associate the tub with the food reward and will begin going to the tub more quickly or first thing. Initially reward the snake for being near the tub, then when they go partially inside, and eventually reward the snake for placing their entire body inside the container. At first reward every time the snake goes into the container; you may transition to an intermittent reinforcement schedule later. This method may be slow depending on the individual snake, but it is a very-low stress technique allowing the animal a large amount of choice and control during the process.
This method entices the snake into the tub by having them follow a food lure or scented target to the tub. Alternatively, the tub itself can be scented with a food item. If using an actual food item as the lure, make sure it is maintained at a distance far enough from the snake that they can’t strike and snatch it, but close enough that they can see and smell it. Once the snake has followed the food lure, scented target, or scent itself to the container and gone inside, offer the food reward. Repeat several times until the snake is consistently following the lure to the tub; eventually the lure can be eliminated from the process, as the snake should start to associate the container itself with the food reward, as in my description of target training below.
Physical removal and reward
This method involves picking up the snake and removing them from their enclosure, and placing them in the tub or transport container for feeding. The goal is for the snake to associate being in the container with food. Once the snake makes this association, the tub is presented (opened or with lid off) outside of the animal’s normal enclosure, the enclosure door is opened, and the snake makes the choice to exit their enclosure and enter the holding tub where they are then presented with a food reward. Initially, this is a faster but higher-stress method for both snake and handler because the snake has no choice or control over the initial process.
All of these methods may be performed in reverse to get the snake to return to their normal living space or enclosure; or, the entire tub may be placed into the enclosure and opened for the snake to come out on their own. When using one of these training methods to return the snake to their enclosure, and whenever food will be used as the lure or reward, remember to use a small food item. The initial food reward and the final food reward combined should not exceed the size of a normal meal. In other words, if more than one food reward is to be used during a single training session, all the food rewards used during that training session should add up to the size of one normal meal item for that animal.
When using food rewards, the training sessions should be timed around the snake’s normal feeding schedule. The “reward” for the snake returning to their normal living space does not always have to be food. Many times, the snake will find it innately rewarding to return to their enclosure because of security, heat, fresh water, novel items added, a freshly cleaned environment, or to investigate any added or changed enclosure furnishings. Returning to the enclosure voluntarily may be slow in the beginning, but the process generally speeds up with repetition.
Method two: Target training
Targeting is conditioning an animal to touch part of its body to an object when presented with the chosen object. The animal follows the object, or target, to the specific location that you want them to move to. Training a snake to shift from their primary enclosure to a secondary location using a target is a straightforward process. First, choose an object to use as the target. Next, pair the target with a food reward or scent (an unconditioned stimulus, something like a food item that the snake naturally will be drawn to) until the target becomes a conditioned stimulus (the target now elicits a response from the snake without the food or scent being paired with it). Once the snake is responding to the target (i.e., looking at it, moving in its direction, tongue flicking toward it, etc.) move forward with small approximations until the snake is touching their nose or tongue to the target, at which point they are presented with the food reward. When the snake is consistently looking at, moving toward, and touching the target, then begin moving the target short distances from the snake. This will require the snake to move to the target in order to touch it and receive their food reward. Eventually the snake should be able to follow the target completely from their enclosure to a secondary location.
Using a plate for target training
The following are the steps that I have successfully used as a keeper:
Plate as a food delivery system and target
- Choose an object as a target. Consider using a small plate or shallow plastic dish so that initially pairing the food reward with the target is easy.
- Put the food reward (thawed rodent) on the plate and, using tongs, place the plate with food reward already on it into the snake’s enclosure. The snake should retrieve the food from the plate.
- Repeat this for several feedings. When you notice the snake starts going back to and looking at the empty plate once they have eaten their meal, it is time for the next step.
- Place the empty plate in the snake’s enclosure. When the snake goes to the plate and looks at it or touches it, place the food item onto the plate.
- Repeat for several feedings. If the snake looks at or touches the plate and then takes the food off the feeding tongs before you get it placed onto the plate, it is time for the next step.
- Feed the snake from tongs for one or two feedings without the plate present at all. This is to make sure the animal is associating the target with the food reward but that it understands that the food reward isn’t coming from the target, that it is delivered separately. If the snake is taking a thawed food reward from the feeding tongs with no problems, move on to the next approximation. The main reason you want the snake eventually eating off the tongs and not directly from the plate is because you eventually don’t want the snake striking at the target. You want to teach them to touch the target and then look for the food reward elsewhere.
- Tape or glue the plate you had previously been using to a stick or pole. This now becomes the target. The pole should be short enough to easily control and direct but long enough to hold away from your body and hand.
- Show the snake the target, and if they look at it, move toward it, or touch it, present the food reward with tongs. If it is clear the snake is looking at and acknowledging the target, you can reward this.
- Once it is clear the snake is looking at the target consistently, the next approximations follow with subsequent feeding/training sessions: looking at the target, tongue flicking toward the target, moving their head and body in the direction of the target, and eventually touching the target with a nose or tongue. Remember to reward following each approximation. This will progress over several normal feedings.
- When the snake is consistently touching the target, the next step is to begin moving the target, rewarding the snake for following it and touching it no matter where it is moved. Again, this may be a slow process taking place over several feeding sessions until the snake will follow the target out of their enclosure and to a secondary location such as off-exhibit holding area, a tub, or transport container.
Alternate targets not used to deliver food
You may also use something the food reward can be placed inside of, such as a Kong or Squirrel Dude commonly used for dogs, as a target, rather than a plate. In this case, the food reward is not initially delivered with the target the way it was in step 2 above. Food can be placed inside as a lure, or the target can just be scented with the food to generate initial interest in it, and rewards are delivered separately.
- Attach the target object (i.e., Kong, Squirrel Dude, etc.) to the end of a stick.
- Holding the target stick in one hand and the food reward in the other hand (or readily available nearby), present the target to the snake.
- When the snake looks at, tongue-flicks at, moves in the direction of, or touches the target, immediately offer the food reward with the feeding tongs.
- Once the snake is consistently engaging with the target, stretch the snake by increasing the reward criteria each session. At first reward the snake for just looking in the direction of the target, then tongue-flicking at it, then for moving toward it, and finally for touching it.
- When the snake is consistently touching the target, the next step is to begin moving the target, rewarding the snake for following it and for touching it no matter where the target is positioned or moved to.
- Remember, this may be a slow process taking place over several feeding sessions until the snake follows the target out of their enclosure and to a secondary location such as off-exhibit holding area, a tub, or transport container.
Keep in mind that you may be rewarding only once per training session since snakes typically eat one food item per meal. As noted above, if you want to reward several times during one session, make sure the total weight of food items you give is equal to one normal meal so that you are not overfeeding the animal. Also, make sure the interval between feedings is a normal timespan; this may mean you are only training once a week, every other week, or once a month. Do not sacrifice the digestive health of the animal to train more often or to reward more frequently when using food as the reward.
To make sure that the snake is following the target and not simply viewing it as a signal to station in a familiar container, move the target and see if the snake follows it in different directions and to different locations. You can also confirm that the snake follows the target back into the primary enclosure.
Behaviors to look for
In my experience with training snakes over the past year, I have observed several behaviors that seem consistent across most if not all snakes during training.
Slow movement: While initially many snakes have assertive feeding responses and strike quickly at their meal items, I have observed that, once the snakes are engaging in the station or target training, their movements become slower. They generally move at a slow to moderate pace in the direction of the station or target, smelling and appearing to investigate along the way. Once they are at the station or touch the target and the food is presented, they take the food in a slower manner than before the training.
Approach and retreat: This is a very familiar behavior to anyone who has worked with or trained equines, and I observe it frequently in snakes as well. Do not be concerned if the snake approaches and then retreats from the target or station several times prior to making the commitment to touch it or move toward it. We cannot know what they are thinking; however, I speculate that the approach and retreat behavior is the snake’s way of investigating cautiously and assessing the object and situation before making the decision to proceed. Be patient and allow them the time to do this.
Distracted attention: While some of the snakes I work with are very focused on the station or target, others become easily distracted. They may be distracted by movement elsewhere, noise vibrations, or by something else nearby that they see or smell. If this happens, be patient; often they will reorient to the target on their own. You may also move the target or show it to them again to get them reengaged with it.
Failure to eat the food reward: Although this has been a rare occurrence, I have observed some of the snakes engage with the training, take the food reward, and then drop it or fail to eat it. Without knowing what processes are occurring in the snake’s brain, I can only speculate that in these cases the experience of exiting the enclosure is rewarding, and that the snake initially moves toward and takes the food reward out of habit or as part of the learned behavior rather than because of hunger. Do not be concerned; it is not unusual for snakes to skip meals based on reproductive physiology, photoperiod, and seasonal changes. As the training continues, some animals appear to develop a preference for coming out of their enclosures and spending time outside of their normal living space. Several of my study animals actively approach the enclosure doors and attempt to push their way out. When I respond to this behavior by opening their enclosures they come and engage in activities that do not involve food, such as climbing, full rectilinear positioning, smelling novel items, looking out of windows, and coming to rest on surfaces where they may spend hours in one spot. I speculate that, in these cases, the experience of being out of their normal enclosure has become the reward.
Voluntarily moving from the enclosure to a temporary tub
No one taught me to train snakes. There is very little in the scientific literature about snake cognition, training, or behavior other than what is related to reproduction. To decrease stress for the snakes and to improve ease of husbandry for keepers, I have drawn from my experience as an animal handler and applied my knowledge to snakes. I have primarily worked with mammals, extensively with canines and equines; however, through trial and error I have developed strategies to use with snakes, and they have resulted in the desired behavioral outcomes: shifting the snakes out of their enclosures safely and with minimal stress for the animal and handler when necessary for cleaning, maintenance, animal care, or transport.
Working with the snakes in this manner has had unintended, although interesting, consequences outside of the trained behaviors. The animals I am working with are demonstrating less fear, more confidence, and more ease around people. They are actively engaging more with their environments, seeking to exit their enclosures to explore novel settings, and exhibiting increased activity and physical movement within their enclosures. Snakes that have previously demonstrated very little movement within their normal living spaces, and that have shown no interest in enclosure furnishings such as shelving and perches, appear to be undergoing a cognitive awakening after a few training sessions. Observed behavioral changes include increased movement within the enclosure space, investigation and use of perching, shelving, and tunnels, and increased use of objects intended for environmental stimulation or exercise. Animals that had shown no interest in leaving their enclosures in the past, even when the doors were left open for extended periods of time, have increased their efforts to exit their enclosures.
The training methods I have come up with are working for the animals I keep, but they could be modified and added to. I encourage trainers and behaviorists to problem solve, brainstorm, and generate more ideas for reptile training, and specifically for snake training. These methods can be used for behavior modification as well as for the animal’s mental and physical stimulation. Snake training and behavior is an understudied and underdeveloped field that deserves more consideration. Based on my experiences working with snakes, humans are underestimating their cognitive abilities.
Lori Torrini has worked as a veterinary assistant, animal care specialist, and trainer since 1991, extensively with equines and canines. She was an instructor for the City of Colorado Springs Police Department and Office of Emergency Management during her 20 years there, which included training personnel in animal emergency response and equine behavior and handling. Lori currently works at Spirit Keeper Equine Sanctuary as an animal care specialist and trainer, and owns an animal training and behavior business, Behavior Education LLC.