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!


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  1. Have you done any more blogs about this subject? I'd love to read further about it. Thanks

    1. hi Christina! More blog posts will be coming. We also offer a 7 week intensive course periodically. There is ongoing discussion happening in real time in the Reptile Enrichment and Training Group on Facebook. Peter Amelia and I have articles published in the IAABC Journal. And, there are a variety of podcasts you can check out at Drinking from the Toilet, Animal Training Academy and Animals at Home. Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any specific questions as you continue on your learning journey!


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