Working With Animals in Presentations
As a puppy trainer, zookeeper, and zoo animal trainer working in an industry where we do a lot of presentations, the question I get asked the most is how can one keep up good presentation skills and get the message across whilst presenting with animals, in front of an audience. We’re talking about puppy classes, sea lion shows, keeper talks, dog training demonstrations and any other animal-related activities. There are many skills (many that are still being learnt) that are required in order to be able to present while still effectively monitoring the animal’s behaviour so that you may respond and train accordingly. This article will discuss key skills in being able to present your message to your audience whilst still focusing on the animal behaviour side of things.
A large part of our job working with animals involves presenting to individuals or groups of people. Whether it be a one-on-one dog training session with a client, a small puppy class, a zookeeper talk in front of a small group, or an animal presentation in front of a larger audience, we are not only required to think about our presentation skills but also keep in mind the experience of the animal we are working with.
Whilst being an animal carer and a public speaker are two very different skill sets, one cannot ignore the importance of public exposure and education in the field. It is for this reason that the ability to speak publicly and present what you know is so important. Whilst it is common knowledge that public speaking falls into the category of people’s worst fears, you can also find fear of spiders up there too…so how is it that one of the best presentations at my zoo is the spider talk? A combination of important keeper knowledge and key presentation skills, put together to make an enjoyable experience for keeper, audience, and spider!
Just as you use specific techniques, tools, and behaviours to help the animals that you care for, there are also techniques, tools, and behaviours that can help in presentations. Using some of these means you will successfully be able to present your animal either one on one or in a large group, while ensuring an enriching experience for both you and your animal ambassador.
As animal trainers we are always watching and monitoring behaviour, making sure that we can pinpoint exactly where to reinforce a behaviour or where not too. If every interaction with an animal is regarded as training, how does that come into play when we are presenting to an audience with an animal by our side? Is this 20-minute sea lion show also a training session? Is the puppy demonstration in class a presentation? If we look at it from the view of the animal, then I would say yes. Your animal ambassador doesn’t know the difference between a training session and a simple demonstration. For them it is the same experience, the only difference is you. That’s why it is so important to make every interaction with your animal a well-thought-out one.
Let’s look at what skills are needed to present to an audience whilst also training an animal. This way we can ensure the audience is receiving the message you are trying to impart whilst the animal is also getting the training attention they deserve.
So what skills are needed for a successful presentation? Success can usually be measured by whether the audience has had a meaningful connection with the message. What will they take away from your presentation, and were your goals met? There are a lot of “top tips” out there about presentation skills, but how can we relate this to situations where we have our animal counterparts by our side. Assuming we have all gotten to the stage of knowing exactly how to give a great presentation, what is the best way to transfer these skills to incidences where we also have our animal by our side.
Know your audience
When delivering a presentation, it is important to know and understand who you are delivering the presentation to. The wording, actions, and messaging will be different depending on what you are trying to communicate and what key points you hope the audience will take away with them. Knowing your audience means adapting your core message and presentation depending on if you are presenting to a single client, a group of preschool kids, school holiday family visitors, or even animal behavioural studies students. That is why your presentation skills and message should be flexible and adaptable so that it will directly suit the audience you are aiming for.
“Interpretation” is a form of communication used in zoos, museums and nature parks, where the audience makes an emotional connection with the subject. It relies on the fact that people will be more likely to absorb information presented to them if they understand its context in relevance to their own personal experiences. For example, in our sea lion presentations at the zoo we describe a sea lion’s flipper being similar to the audience’s own hand, or in the gorilla keeper talk we illustrate how by simply recycling their own mobile phones they can directly help gorillas in the wild. This is building that connection between animals and the individual audience member as they find something about the animal they can relate to.
The same can be said for other types of presentations. Small group puppy or dog training classes can often be more effective when the trainer relates the animal’s behaviour back to the owners. For example, one of the most common frustrations with puppy owners is the puppy chewing everything around the house. When I work with families (especially those with children) I immediately compare this with caring for infants. For instance, often with babies we need to “manage the environment’ and tailor safe surroundings by using tools such as play pens or soft toys. The concept of creating a safe space with appropriate toys for teething is exactly the same way we deal with a puppy in this environment.
People are more likely to respond to something, or better practice a behaviour, that they understand and can relate to than if you just tell them it’s the right thing to do.
Understanding the audience that you are presenting to and adapting the presentations to make it relevant, enjoyable, and meaningful will lead to a longer-lasting impact on the audience.
Know your animal
Knowing your animal is one of the key foundations for a strong training relationship. Desensitizing animals to the presentation factors is key in your planning. How many times do our animals present a behaviour on cue, and then in front of an audience there is no response? Making sure you approximate to the presentation is important. Getting them used to not only the environmental set up of the presentation but also to the type of audience can be instrumental in the success of the presentation.
I remember one of the first fur seals that I trained for a show — I had spent a lot of time desensitizing to different audience types and situations. From umbrellas and raincoats, to screaming children and a loud clapping and cheering audience, I felt that the fur seal had seen and heard it all. Until one day amongst the quiet audience someone wound their disposable camera (a sound that she had never heard before), and that was that… she became nervous and swam off stage. I realized that we can’t desensitize to everything in a presentation environment; rather, desensitization needs to be more general and focused on various concepts. What we want is to build up a resilience in the animal so that they are aware of how to react in common situations rather than specific ones. Whether it be loud and varied noises or the different sights and sounds of our audience, desensitizing our animals is a valuable tool.
When presenting to an audience, we want to provide an opportunity for them to connect to what we are saying and the significance of what they are learning. We need to have a strong understating of our animals’ behaviour to do this, but also of the audience so that everyone’s needs are met.
Plan your content — both human and animal
One of the key aspects of success for a meaningful presentation is planning the content. Knowing exactly what your message is beforehand is the best way to get that message across. We want to try to build a connection between the interests of our audience and our animals’ behaviour, so a well-planned presentation means that you are prepared and you know your subject.
Knowing exactly what your animal will be doing during the presentation will help you set goals for the session and work out what behaviours will be required. Plan how to bridge and reinforce the animal. If your dog is used to always having behaviour marked with a clicker, will you be able to use that when doing a training demonstration whilst talking? Will you present the information, then do the session in silence so that the dog is in a training environment that they are used to? Or will you use a different trained marker such as a tactile shoulder touch?
One of the challenges I have faced with this was with our sea lions. We would mostly use a whistle bridge, which we can’t use in a presentation when we are talking at the same time. We found that the sea lions were starting to pick up on other signals that we were going to reinforce, such as our hands going into the food pouch, and so we became more conscious of this and worked out ways to add the bridge “good” into the presentation in a way that was subtle for the audience but worked for the animal.
When working with animals, things don’t always go to plan, but we can preempt this and plan for how we will deal with the unexpected. Having some additional information about the animal’s behaviour (or lack thereof) to share with the audience is often helpful. Preparation is key. Make sure you have some back-up plans up your sleeve in the event that not everything goes according to plan. After all, we want our animals to have a great training session and our audiences to be educated and engaged. As long as this is the outcome, it doesn’t matter if things don’t go 100% to plan in between.
We need to be flexible in our approach but consistent with our standard in training.
Create great experiences for your audience and your animal
Giving people, no matter who they are, an awareness, appreciation, and an understanding of your animal is key to them having a positive experience. Giving your animal the appropriate training, reinforcement, and time is key to them also having a great experience.
Just as we may be translating the behaviour of the animals and its meaning to our audience, we are also translating what we want from our animals through training.
If the animal in your presentation is doing some awesome behaviours, be aware that your audience may be learning more from what the animal is doing than what you are saying. Use gaps in animal behaviours to explain things to the audience, and let the animal behaviour speak for itself, as that is what the audience will often focus on.
I remember my first sea lion show, I asked one of the senior keepers at the time for their top piece of advice. They said, “Don’t worry about what you say — no one’s even listening.” I remember thinking at the time, what’s the point if no one listens? With experience I learned that it’s finding the balance between getting your audience to listen, to learn, to enjoy, and to remember. Finding that right combination between your animal doing a behaviour, waiting, then explaining, and maybe doing the behaviour again is the perfect balance for a great presentation.
CAPTION: An example of a training session with Able, a young New Zealand fur seal that came into the Taronga Zoo wildlife clinic but due to his injuries he was unable to be released into the wild. We try to make the training session short and positive so that Able has a learning experience whilst training in front of an audience. Using a second keeper to present means the trainer can focus on Able and his behaviour and ensure that his behavioural needs are met. We would approximate up to this step by doing training sessions without an audience and then eventually we would not need a second keeper. Training solid foundation behaviours such as target and station helps with these presentations.
When running group puppy or dog training classes I often try to follow a teaching technique that allows the groups to learn — “Do it fast, then repeat it slow, do it together, now off they go!” Show the audience how to do the behaviour, then show them again a lot more slowly, work with them to get the behaviour, then let them do it themselves — a learning technique that works well for both human and animal.
Build conscious communication skills
Communication skills are important in any presentation, but even more so when you are also including animals. Especially for people like me who also tend to use a lot of hand gestures when they present, it is important to understand the impact this can have on the animal and what the implications may be on your cues. Is this something that needs to be practiced in training sessions? If so, I will practice having an animal sit still whilst my hands go wild.
It is important to have a clear understanding of exactly how your reinforcement will work during a presentation. Is it different or as it would be in any given training session without an audience? Is it based on the animal’s behaviour or has it become part of the script and thus predictable for the animals? Are the training techniques you’re using during your session the same as what you would do in private? Is the animal getting the same focus and attention that they’re used to? Is the audience response dictating what you ask, or is your training driving the outcome? Asking yourself these questions beforehand will make sure you have a clearer picture going into your presentation and thus help set you up for success.
We need to remember that how we teach matters as much as what we teach, and this is an important consideration in training whilst presenting.
Aim to practice and improve
We need to continuously improve on presentation skills just as we can always improve on our training skills. Practicing good communication and delivery allow it to become natural, and this aids in better training for our animals
One thing that can also differ between a training session and presentation is our physical response to being in front of an audience. This was made really clear once when one of my colleagues wore his new Fitbit to work. He measured his heart rate before, during, and after presenting in front of a thousand people. His heart rate was through the roof during the presentation. Animals are usually very in tune with their trainers, so you have to ask yourself, how would this impact the animal? How could this have an effect on their behaviour? What can I do to work on this?
One thing we can do to help this is work on controlling our physical response to nerves, which is what this keeper did. That way we can remove the impact this can have on our animal. If you need a moment to pause and regain yourself, you can add that into a presentation by saying “let’s take a moment to observe this animal” or train your animal on a solid “stay” with duration, so you can use that in times when you need to recollect your thoughts.
Practice by doing your training sessions in the area that the presentation will be given. Have someone watch and give real-time feedback so that your presentation skills and your training technique can be adjusted if necessary. Reviewing and critiquing both our presentation techniques and our training session will together build a better, stronger skill set. Identifying changes we can make to how we present, as well as identifying the animals response to cues during the presentation, will help us improve.
Working in an animal industry which prioritizes conservation through audience engagement and education means that zookeepers have an important role in doing talks and presentations with animals.
After speaking with some of the world’s best keepers, I’ve gathered their top tips to getting your message across whilst making sure your animal is a priority:
- The audience doesn’t know your script or what you planned to say, so when things go off track they won’t know it went wrong unless you tell them.
- Silences are never as long as you feel they are. Sometimes the best solution when things go off track is just to pause, gather your thoughts, and then keep going. It’s like a Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS) for trainers.
- If you run out of things to say, remember your animal. You know them best, and people are fascinated about the animal-trainer relationship. Worst case, you can just talk about animal poop (did you know wombat poo is cube-shaped?).
- Enjoy yourself. If you believe in what you are saying your audience will too
- Film your sessions and practice presentations, and review them. Practice makes perfect.
- Build strong foundation behaviours in your animals. These will be useful when presenting in front of others.
Presenting with an animal is a unique skillset which merges key presentation skills and animal training techniques. This first-hand knowledge you are presenting to an audience will have a lasting impact, as will the experience that your animal has during this “training session.”
CAPTION: Working with animals in presentations requires being able to work in a team, continuously monitoring and responding to the animals behaviour as well as to the audience needs. Hopefully these animals are ambassadors for their species and no matter the audience or idea, we get our message across in a way that meets our animals needs.
When a presentation is successful in its outcomes, the audience leaves feeling fulfilled, knowledgeable, and with a need to act. The animal should leave on a high, having had a good learning experience with their trainer. Whether it’s a zoo visitor ready to act for conservation or a dog owner ready to improve the welfare of their animal’s life, a good presentation will have that inspirational factor.
Combining knowledge of the audience, knowledge of your animal, good communication skills, and great training techniques is key for successful animal presentations.
It’s important to remember that it’s not only about you as the presenter. No one has ever come to watch me present (except maybe my parents). People come to your presentation for a reason, whether it’s to learn about their pet and how to manage their behaviour, how to settle their new puppy into their home, how they can save tigers in the wild, or to learn just a little bit more about their favourite marine species, we as presenters are the connection between that knowledge and the animal, in so many ways.
CAPTION: Practicing and generalising cues from different locations and heights allows behaviours like this cliff jump to be successful.
As William Glasser has so famously expressed: “We learn . . . 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss, 80% of what we experience and 95% of what we teach others.” Let’s keep on teaching both humans and animals!
Elly Neumann has worked for the last 20 years at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. As well as being a Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at the zoo she works for the Taronga Training Institute, teaching animal care courses in zoos across Australia. Currently Elly is living in Israel where she is working as the Coordinator of Welfare, Training and Enrichment at Jerusalem Zoo. As well as her work in zoos Elly runs dog training courses specialising in puppy training for families. She also runs The Animal Behaviour Initiative, which focuses on animal training and education for animals and those that care for them. Facebook: @theanimalbehaviourinitiative, Instagram @theanimalbehaviourinitiative and @when_lifes_a_zoo.