Tuesday, January 19, 2021

No Legs, No Stress, No Problem

Strategies and Tools to Decrease Stress and Fear When Performing Health Checks and Providing Medical Care with a Choice Based Handling/Training Protocol

When making the decision to start a voluntary handling program with a snake in our care, inevitably we will have questions about what to do when we seemingly have no choice to obtain consent from the learner. For more common challenges like getting a visual health check, taking a weight, or administering light medical aid, here are some tools and strategies that have proven useful and effective. They can be used individually or combined, in part or in whole. While we might not be able to completely remove stress from our captive snake's life, we can certainly reduce it. 

Let's slither on in and unpack some of these things now. These strategies and tools mostly assume that we don't have trained behaviors in place yet, but if you do then you have even more tools and strategies that you can use!

Assess What Is Medically Necessary to Do

Are you doing a general health and welfare check or giving an injection every other day? One might require more hands-on care than the other. Do you need to see a specific spot in their body? Do you just need to see body condition and movement? Do you need to observe for regurgitation? Do you need to get a weight? How often? What is your specific goal? This information will help to inform which strategies might work best for your situation.

If I want to get them out but it is not medically necessary, I generally try to wait for training to progress further. Keeping in mind that snakes usually start to show more behavior that I would label as outgoing and confident within 2-3 weeks of ceasing non-voluntary handling, I typically even cease taking weights for that period of time. Understandably, we are not always training our own animals though and this choice might not be one that we have the freedom to make. We also may need to form and adapt our plan based on veterinary advisement. 

Once you have assessed how frequently you need to get them out and for what purpose, here are some things that might help you accomplish what you need to do with less stress and in the least restrictive way.

Habitat Modifications

Here is a non-snake example of using paper to cover the large areas
of the glass to make the habitat feel more secure. 

When working with a medically compromised animal, if I am housing them in a habitat with a lot of glass walls or large glass doors, I like to partially cover all or most of the transparent sides with paper or cloth. This usually results in the snake using more of the habitat and being more likely to be out in the open where I can see them by briefly pulling back the cover and then putting it back. Using a camera when doing this can be very helpful because you will only need to peak in long enough to snap a couple of photos and then you can assess condition and symptoms from the photos. I think it is helpful to use a camera anyway when treating an animal for a medical condition because you can more objectively track progress than relying on memory for what they looked like previously.

As the snake becomes more comfortable and healthier, I start to gradually remove the covering.

Use a Good Adjustable Beam Flashlight and a Dental Mirror

If you are just wanting to look for signs of life and rule out any overt symptoms of disease or illness, a flashlight can be useful for shining into hides and areas of cover. An adjustable beam is useful, as you can use only the brightness level that you need. You can also easily source a flashlight that has different color options, including red or moonlight. While still visible to snakes, the light will not be as harsh as a bright white light. Finally, look for one that has an adjustable or fixed tight beam. This will allow you to shine it in one direct spot versus flooding the entire habitat. 

A mirror on a stick is also useful for sticking into tight spots and getting a good visual. This removes the need to take hides out or remove a lot of furniture and keeps overall stress levels lower. You can usually find a tool like this in the personal care or automotive sections of brick and mortar and online retailers. Some versions even have a light included on the device. Super handy!

Use a Wi-Fi Camera

Before assuming that an animal is never out naturally, which might necessitate me going into the habitat and digging around for them, I like to try setting up a short-term camera trap. Wi-Fi based cameras that you can set to record movement or simply be able to view from a phone app can usually be purchased for 15-30 dollars. This type of small camera can be useful for other applications during training and is a good investment. In a pinch, I have also been able to borrow one by asking around in my friend and family groups. Another low-cost option is to set your camera on your phone to time-lapse and point it at the habitat. While this might not be convenient for everyone, sometimes we must work with what we have.

Maximize the Potential of Feeding Time

When working with a snake that is not coming out of the habitat a lot, puzzle feeding for physical and mental enrichment becomes an even higher priority. Providing even a simple food puzzle will also stretch out the duration of time that they are active and allow me to get a better picture of their overall health. I will have more time to observe for any signs of illness and to observe overall body condition and fitness level. Depending on their overall health, I can adjust the difficulty of these puzzles to be easier or harder and adjust the placement in the habitat to help me get eyes on the body parts that I need to observe. By scheduling feeding times carefully, I can often get more detailed health checks accomplished during those times with no added stress to the snake. 

An example of a more complex feeding puzzle that uses 
commercially available rodent enrichment tunnels/tubes.

I typically use things like repurposed Tupperware or glass jars to make these puzzles. Cardboard boxes also work well. Your puzzles can also be more complex.
If you don’t want to use a physical object, even dragging the pre-killed prey item through the habitat and over different objects can help to increase and prolong interest in the feeding process through scent trails.

Use Scents

When the above strategies are not sufficient and I need more frequent eyes on an animal or I need them to voluntarily come completely out of a hide, I can often use a new or unique scent to coax even shy or fearful snakes out of hiding. This is especially useful when combined with other strategies like partially or completely covering the habitat and minimizing unnecessary handling.

I frequently use a new plant, branch clipping, sticks, or rocks from outside. Rubbing an object in soil outside or rubbing it through the leaves of a tree or bush will also transfer some scent. If this isn’t effective, I will often use a frozen or defrosted prey item. Herbs, perfumes, lotions, etc are also options. I recommend spraying or rubbing onto nonedible objects vs. spraying into the air of the habitat itself. Spraying a perfume into the air outside of the habitat and running an object through what you sprayed will often pick up enough of the scent. You can then introduce that object. Remember their olfactory abilities are a lot stronger than ours!

I have frequently had success with just misting items already in the habitat with plain water, as this will release new and interesting scents. The ability to do this may be limited depending on species and/or husbandry and medical needs.

Additional Tools and Habitat Modifications

Sometimes, it can’t be avoided that we have to remove a snake from the habitat and remove them often for medical treatment. In these situations, I like to keep the major furniture pieces easily removable so I can remove the furniture before I go into the hide to remove them. This minimizes wrestling around. An even better option though is to make the hides themselves removable. I like to use boxes with smooth sides. As this too makes it easier to remove them without struggle, do the procedure and quickly get them back into their habitat to recover and destress.

This partial hide is easily deconstructed allowing for fast and easy access.
When paired with removable hides, removable furniture can be helpful. It can
also be partially removed to get a good visual and then replaced.

Hides with removable tops and/or sides can be useful. Any device that can allow you to lift them out of the habitat without struggle and easily remove them from the hide once the hide is out of the habitat will reduce the duration of stress that the snake is exposed to. I also try to allow enough time for the treatment that they can have time to come out of the removable hide voluntarily if possible. Anywhere that you can reduce some degree of stress will be helpful and it will take your snake less time to return to a relaxed state. If you only need a weight, by lifting out the entire hide with them in it, you can get the weight, and put the hide back, without ever removing them from it. Weigh all of the hides before placing them in the habitat and you will already have the weight of the hide handy to subtract from the overall weight that you obtain.

A large pillowcase or couch cushion cover with the pillow removed can also be useful. This can allow the snake to move around in a circle and push tight against the sides without completely getting away from you. Being able to move, even if slightly restricted, is often less stressful than a full restraint. This can be helpful for things like some injections and giving fluids. This won’t work for everything, but ideally more aversive procedures like blood draws or x-rays are not going to be a daily or weekly event, even in active treatment. In an ideal world, we will also have time to train for these activities that require more restriction, which we can discuss in a future post.

Have a Cue That Means Choice is Not an Option

Even when your snake is fully trained and you have more learning history together, you could likely encounter a situation where you will not be able to allow them to act fully voluntarily. In these situations, it can be helpful to have a cue that means the choice is off the table. While it may take a couple of sessions for the snake to understand the meaning, a behavior never occurs in a vacuum and they can understand how context and environment impact the options available to them. While I have used mainly visual indicators like a different transport box, using a particular scent or a certain color of card or light or different target would all be options that you could consider. Making a clear distinction between when it is safe to offer new behavior with a lower or no risk of aversive can help you experience fewer setbacks in your training. I do not use this for non-emergent handling needs but in situations where stress can’t be avoided, clear communication is helpful.

Closing Thoughts

These have been some of the strategies that have been very effective for getting general health check information for both shy and fearful animals in training and those under active medical care. Reducing stress can help your animal to heal faster by keeping their body focused on healing versus being actively in fight or flight for long periods of time. It can also propel your training forward by helping them to see their habitat as a safe place where very little that is aversive and stressful happens. The more we can reduce fallout from punishment and aversives, the wider behavior repertoire our animals will have. They will have an overall better quality of life and we will have a better relationship with them.

Have you used any of these strategies to reduce stress in caring for fearful or medically compromised snakes? What have you found most effective? Do you have any tricks that we didn’t discuss here? Let me know in the comments or join the discussion in the Reptelligence FB social learning group here.

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Saturday, January 9, 2021

Encouraging Voluntary Interaction with Snakes: Part One


Voluntary Handling with Snakes: First Steps

Bruce the Eastern Indigo, at 4 months old, being curious 

All vertebrate animals are capable of learning through operant conditioning and other types of associative learning. The pivot towards and preference for utilizing primarily positive reinforcement to shape behavior with both zoo and pet animals has dramatically increased welfare for captive animals. Snakes and other ectotherms have often been overlooked and thought to not benefit from this type of learning. The work of countless private and professional caretakers over the last half a decade have proven this misconception to be not only false but potentially damaging to overall welfare and also to the animal and caretaker relationship. 

As a constant part of the environment, our animals inhabit and must navigate as captive animals, we should try to minimize unnecessary fear and stress in interacting with us. Animals in captive care, as living things who have bodies that function should utilize the full behavioral repertoire of their wild counterparts so that they remain mentally and physically fit and healthy. 

Utilizing aversive stimuli as the first resort in training is counterproductive to these goals. Punishment reduces behavior. Animals trained through punishment will offer less novel behavior and less quantity of behavior overall. By adopting a training plan that utilizes less aversive methods and introduces positive reinforcement for both preferred and natural behavior, we can better accomplish improved welfare and a better relationship with the animals in our care.

One of the areas of captive care that we have an opportunity to improve is allowing snakes more choice and control in being handled. By increasing the opportunity for choice, aversive stimuli may not be completely removed from our interactions, but the animal has agency in determining how closely and for how long they interact with things that cause them fear. For the purposes of what we will discuss today, handling includes moving animals out of their habitat permanently or temporarily for a variety of purposes from cleaning and health checks to just wanting to spend time with them and hold them. The extent to which different animals will tolerate and find handling reinforcing is influenced by a variety of factors, including their personal learning history. We should keep this in mind as we move through the steps outlined below.

Let’s begin.

Step 1: Stop Handling

The first thing that we can do to start getting more voluntary behavior from the snakes in our care probably feels both obvious and counterintuitive. If something we are doing is aversive to another living thing, of course, the fastest way to remove the aversive is to stop doing it. This seems wrong because if we have any history in the reptile hobby in any capacity, the narrative has always been the opposite. The widely accepted advice is to keep holding them until they tolerate it.  We frequently use words like habituate, tame, tolerate, desensitize, build trust, etc. 

I would invite you that when we are confident in our understanding of the way that associative learning works, we do not need to depend on habituation occurring as a passive process. We can consciously and ethically implement an operant training plan. The first step in this plan is to create a good environment for learning – this means creating a safe space. If the animal is not currently moving towards you in a calm inquisitive manner when you invite handling, this may mean ceasing handling completely for a time, until you start to see signs that the animal finds handling reinforcing. I encourage you not to become discouraged if you need to do this. While many go into this stage with a heavy heart, most snakes seem to readily start making progress within 2-3 weeks. Even snakes labeled as extremely shy or aggressive by their caretakers have shown dramatic change. 

I know the fear. I know what we have been told. If you stop handling, the negative behavior will become worse or they might not tolerate handling at all anymore. I know what we have been told. I can tell you with certainty after working with snakes in zoos, my own snakes, and coaching many many private pet owners and professional animal keepers and trainers, I cannot give you a single example of it making the behavior worse.  The behavior has a function. If your snake is hiding, striking, biting, flinching, tensing, hissing, huffing, running away, etc. These behaviors have function for them. These are largely avoidance behaviors motivated by the pressures we have introduced. If we remove the context for those behaviors, the behavior will not increase. What you will accomplish though is reducing overall stress, introducing the habitat as a place of nearly absolute safety, reducing rehearsing of the behavior you do not want, minimizing flooding, minimizing aversives, and minimizing unintentionally shutting down or discouraging behavior you do want.

Step 2: Watch

Whether overtly aversive due to a lack of learning history or a negative history, or somewhat aversive due to lack of clear communication and lack of agency, taking a break from handling should lead to some new or even just increased quantity of behavior. This is where you take the role of learner. What behaviors are they doing? In what context? What objects do they interact with? When are they more active? Are they not doing anything? What does not doing anything look like? What does the snake’s natural behavior look like in the habitat? This information will be valuable to you as you continue to move through the steps. You can continue to return to this step at any time for more information on how to move forward.

Step 3: Introduce Novel Stimuli

So, you have reduced handling to what is medically necessary or stopped it altogether. You have had a bit of a reset and have spent some time really watching your snake and seeing what they gravitate to and when. You are ready to move forward. Great! Now, we will start to introduce some new things. 

The items can be natural or non-natural. It can be as simple as trading out a water dish for a new one or adding a branch. Add one small thing in an area of the habitat where preferred or necessary resources are not. That work you did when observing will help you here. Do not add anything that might be swallowed. Remember if you are adding scents, a little goes an exceedingly long way.

Now, watch again. Is there any direct interest in the object? Is there any increase in overall behavior? Rinse. Repeat. As you continue, allow what you learn from each set up to inform the next. Think about what behaviors you would like to motivate and allow that to inform what you introduce to the habitat. 

Starting to build an enrichment program in this way is accomplishing several things. 1.) You are learning what things your snake naturally gravitates to. You will be able to use these things to motivate and reinforce behavior going forward. 2.) You are increasing the amount and diversity of behavior that your snake is offering. It is generally easier to shape behavior that is occurring than to start from a snake that is stationary and not moving. 3.) You are increasing your snake’s learning history with moving, making choices, and seeking out reinforcement on largely their own terms. You are teaching them that they have agency and can make decisions. Their own problem solving and what they do or do not do has significance. Their curiosity can lead to reinforcing things. If your snake has largely been handled on your terms and had other aspects of husbandry highly managed, this is an important skill to learn. 

Go slowly. Add things gradually and with intention. Continue watching.

Step 4: Reinforce What You Get

At this point, you should be seeing an increase in behavior. If you are not seeing new behaviors, you should at least be seeing an increase in the quantity of time that your snake is active. If you are not seeing this, my first recommendation would be to try to observe at different times of the day or set up a camera. Assuming any medical or husbandry issues have been ruled out, I then look at things like seasonal behavior changes and shed cycles. Once all of these things have been looked at, there are still things that we can do. We will discuss more troubleshooting in a future post.

Assuming that you are in fact getting more behavior, now you can start to look for the behaviors that you want to see more of and introduce things to motivate and reinforce those behaviors. What an individual snake finds reinforcing may vary. One example of this might be something like opening the door of the habitat. For one snake, opening the door of the habitat could reinforce moving towards you. For another snake, this could be aversive. It is important that we watch for if the behavior we want is increasing or decreasing based on what we do.  Regarding the door example, often this is the first important piece of training that you will do. This is especially true if your snake has a negative learning history with handling or things happening without consent when the door opens. 

When first starting out, I like to offer interesting things inside of the habitat and then close the door and stay somewhat close by. How close I stay will depend on the snake’s level of comfort. Then, I will move to putting interesting things inside the habitat and leaving the door open, and walking away a bit. Only do this if you can do it safely. Then I move to placing interesting things inside the habitat and leaving the door open and not walking away and staying close to the habitat. Ideally, I am moving to a point where I become another interesting novel thing for them to explore.

Another behavior that you might want to reinforce is coming out of hiding or peeking out of their hide when you come in the room. One way to do this is to have a small box or basket of items that you intend to use for the enrichment and nonfood reinforcers. When you see behaviors that we might label as curious, you can offer a new item from your collection of things into the habitat. These items can be things like snippings of plants, rocks, tubes, something you have rubbed a food item on, sprinkled herbs, fresh water, a mirror, boxes, fluffy things that are too big to eat, different substrates, etc.

If you are not getting any behavior that you would describe as curious or orienting towards you, you can still reward general activity and exploratory behavior. Leaving something interesting and not scary in the habitat, even if your snake was active and left to hide when you arrived can still reinforce that you bring interesting and non-threatening things and help them habituate to you in a positive way.


It is simply not possible to discuss everything on this topic in one post, so let us end here for today. Problem-solving and troubleshooting, as well as what to do once you are ready to start taking them out of the habitat will be covered in future posts. Following these first initial steps should not only get your snake acting with more agency and help you support that behavior but grow your overall communication and understanding of them and their needs. This will continue to be helpful if you choose to take on more complex training tasks with them. 

It should go without saying that this is not the only strategy or method that can be used. I have however found it to be very low stress for both snake and handler and very successful. I have also opted for the purposes of this post to not go into the bits and bobs of why traditional handling and non-choice based handling can be aversive and how flooding and force work. These are very valid discussions to have, but discussions for another post.

Utilizing positive reinforcement in snake training will continually build your observation skills, patience, and creativity. While the concepts are the same as with any species, the mechanics can have a learning curve. The rewards are worth it for you, your snake, and your relationship! I hope this introduction has been helpful. You are doing a great job! Happy training!


You can go here to learn more about reading snake body language. You can go here to join the Reptelligence Facebook community learning group. You can go here to support Reptelligence by buying cool reptile and reptile training themed merch. If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more content like this you can click here to directly support this work.