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Voluntary nail trims for ambassador animals

“Aren’t his nails really sharp?” This is a question that we Ambassador Animals Team members get many times while out during various programs with our animals. Well, believe it or not, many of our animals in the Ambassador Animals Department are trained for voluntary nail trims!

Now, you may be wondering how on Earth we train something like an owl to let us trim his nails. The answer is simple. We use positive reinforcement and lots of approximations, or baby steps, to get us from an unlearned behavior to a behavior that is complete. With a lot of the animals, we start with just asking them to present a foot, whether that be them holding it up for us against mesh, standing on a special platform, or even allowing a keeper to pick a foot up. From there we will slowly introduce the tool we want to use to trim the nails, either a nail clipper or a Dremel. Over a period of time we will make approximations by moving the tool closer and closer to the nail, making sure the animal is totally comfortable during the whole experience and reinforcing them with a lot of yummy treats along the way. Once we are done approximating the tool coming closer and closer, we are then able to actually start putting pressure on the nail, once again ensuring that the animal is totally comfortable and reinforcing as soon as we are done trimming each nail. From there the animal becomes more and more confident in what we are doing and with what their role in the behavior is and we can safely and quickly give a nail trim whenever it is needed. This behavior helps to keep handlers’ arms nice and scratch free, helps the health of our animals by keeping their nails at an appropriate length, and most importantly is just one of the many ways we are able to give our animals control of every situation, including grooming!

Justin E.
Lead Keeper, Ambassador Animals

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