Voluntary Handling with Snakes: First Steps
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.
Step 1: Stop Handling
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
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.
Step 4: Reinforce What You Get
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.
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