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Conservation Training

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One of my greatest passions is conservation training; I lecture about this topic at every opportunity. I always end my talks with a call to action, inviting more experienced trainers to get involved in this type of conservation work. I am gratified when people approach me afterward to ask how they can get started. After a few years of answering each question as it came, it finally occurred to me to share my answers with a wider audience through my monthly Letter.

What is conservation training?

Conservation training is the use of behavior science to benefit wildlife conservation, either directly or indirectly. Here are a few examples:

Training animals to allow the collection of biological samples that can be used in conservation projects. My first exposure to conservation training occurred when I worked with marine mammals at Marineworld of Texas. Our team was approached by scientists who were seeking to understand an unexplained die-off of wild bottle-nosed dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. The scientists needed blood samples from a healthy population to use as a baseline for comparison with the sick and dying animals in the wild. My team and I trained our dolphins to offer us their tails for the required blood samples. Our work led to eventual policy and management changes. It was a thrill knowing that I had contributed to scientific work that improved the well-being of wild dolphin populations!

Testing devices and protocols in a controlled setting prior to them being used by biologists with animals in the wild. While I worked at the Shedd Aquarium, I collaborated with researchers who wanted to design a tracking device for beluga whales for monitoring their movement and migration patterns in the wild. Over several years, I trained two belugas at the facility to wear the devices on their pectoral fins, while the designers adjusted the comfort and functionality of the trackers until the trackers were put to use on wild belugas.

Remote Training

Sea otter Kenai rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Photo Credit: Brenna Hernandez/Shedd Aquarium
One of my favorite types of conservation training is training in which the trainer is not perceived by the animals to be part of the learning process. My first exposure to this type of training was during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, when I participated in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of oiled sea otters. After the otters were rescued, cleaned, and nursed back to health, they could not immediately be released because oil still contaminated their natural habitat. We needed to care for these animals for several months without habituating them to people. We wanted the animals to maintain their fear of people so that they would not become a nuisance to fishermen and boaters after their release (other releases in the past and since then have resulted in sea otters begging for food at fishing boats, climbing onto boats, jumping on kayaks, and biting people on multiple occasions, putting both people and sea otters at risk). Food, toys, and other reinforcers could not be perceived as coming from us.

We used underwater tubes to deliver the reinforcers to the otters while training them to go through a gate or step on a scale for weights. The otters only saw people when they were being restrained or handled for a medical procedure. More than 300 sea otters were released after the oil spill cleanup, and their successful integration back into the wild was a testament to the good use of remote training procedures.

In the last few decades, I have used remote training techniques in a variety of unique projects: my team and I taught chimpanzees in Sierra Leone to scream in unison as an alarm call when poachers threatened them in their habitat; I used remote training to help guide polar bears in Alaska away from villages and toward better food sources; and, currently, I am working with a team in Zambia on changing an elephant herd’s migration route to avoid poachers (read more). These are just a few examples of the remarkable ways in which remote training can assist animals in the wild.

Using dogs and their scent-detecting abilities to aid in conservation projects

Scent-detection dogs can detect plants, animals,

and scat that people can't
Scent-detection dogs are often used for search-and-rescue work, explosive detection, and narcotic detection; conservation is a new and exciting application of this type of training. Scent-detection dogs are used for an array of conservation projects: detecting invasive zebra mussels, which can wreak havoc on local ecosystems, on ships before they are cleared to enter port; helping find the dens of endangered lizard species so that researchers can count and monitor the waning population; detecting sea-turtle nests at oil-polluted beaches so that the eggs can be dug up and relocated to safe hatching sites; finding rare or ecologically important animal scat; and more. I am excited to see the new and creative applications where scent-detection dogs will be used in the future!

Where to start?

There is no easy or clear path to lead trainers into conservation training. Each trainer must create his or her own path and explore options that are specific to personal interests and talents. I am a big believer in research, preparation, hard work, and initiative. What follows are some suggestions to get you started.

Expand your training skill

Conservation training requires creativity and an ability to work in unique and less-than-ideal situations.
Conservation training requires creativity and an ability to work in unique and less-than-ideal situations. First, gain as much training experience as you can. I encourage all trainers, no matter your long-term goals, to keep stretching your training skills! Be creative, even if you only have one pet at home and no access to other animals. Here are a few ideas to get your imagination flowing:

  • Train a new behavior with your pet every day. Keep your training sessions fun so that your dog, cat, or horse looks forward to each new session.
  • Try new things when you feel you and your animal are ready: longer durations, work from a distance, present cues in a new manner, work in new environments. Keep challenging yourself to train more difficult tasks.
  • Offer your training services to friends, family, and neighbors. Work with new animals whenever you can and find different species and different types of environments to enhance your experience.
  • Give yourself remote training challenges. Set up a webcam that allows you to watch your animal, and then try to train some behaviors while in another room or in another location completely. How will you reinforce the animal? How can you set up the environment for success? Give yourself easy challenges at first and make them more difficult as you gain experience.
  • Train basic scent-detection tasks. Teach your dog to play scent-detection games and increase the difficulty of the task as you and your dog gain experience.
  • Volunteer for a shelter or a small zoo that will allow you to try some basic training with their animals. Not every organization will be open to this idea, but it never hurts to ask. Even if you only assist and watch trainers work with other animals, it will expose you to new ideas and techniques.
  • Teach your friends and family to work with your pet. Improve your communication skills, discover what happens when someone else works your animal, and become comfortable transferring skills and techniques to non-trainers.

There really is no limit to the many ways you can keep pushing your skills. This list is just a place for you to start.

Expand your knowledge

Continue to expand your understanding of behavior science and the ways in which trainers apply it. Learn more about conservation projects and organizations. There are many ways to stretch your knowledge:

  • Take classes, attend seminars, go to conferences
  • Follow behaviorists, training organizations, leading trainers, and conservation groups on social media
  • Join professional organizations, follow the organizations’ publications, and keep track of trends in the field
  • Read behavior literature, both scientific and practical
  • Read about conservation issues and familiarize yourself with the types of conservation projects that are already underway
  • Keep track of the organizations that are involved in conservation work: universities, not-for-profit foundations, zoological organizations, etc.

Do your research

When I started, I followed the work of various zoos active in conservation work. I became a member of international wildlife conservation groups and devoured every article about conservation initiatives and challenges they faced. I volunteered at a zoo so I could learn about the animals up close. It is up to you to keep track of conservation concerns and efforts with species that interest you. Join wildlife conservation organizations that appeal to you and follow their activities. Keep up to date with the challenges that species of interest to you are facing in the wild. Look for opportunities to participate in conservation work, either as an environmental tourist or as a volunteer for local data collectors.

Listed below are a few organizations where you can start your search for information, but these are only a few of many. Narrow your search by focusing on specific organizations that do the type of work that interests you most. When there are major conservation issues facing certain communities, there will often be public community meetings held to share plans and needs with that community; sitting in on these meetings can introduce you to the important players in that region and expose you to the politics and challenges of conservation work.

Create your own path

Determine if there are opportunities for you to use your unique skills.
Ultimately, it is up to you to find opportunities—they will rarely come to you. When you approach organizations in your search for opportunities, you will often be directed to a membership or fundraising division, because that is where they can use the most help and that is where the majority of people provide the best assistance. Investigate further and determine if there are opportunities for you to use your unique skills. Most organizations will not see a need for animal-training assistance. In the majority of cases where I was able to help, training ended up being a last resort and it was only considered when all other options had failed. It may be easiest to get your foot in the door by offering to assist in other ways. Most organizations use volunteers for menial labor, food preparation, data collection, or other odd jobs Don’t be picky—any way you can assist serves a function and gets you involved in the organization. You may get rejected or turned away often, but don’t let that discourage you. Look for another avenue or a different organization. Your interactions with these organizations should always be polite and respectful. Don’t become a pest or the door to working with that organization may be closed permanently. If you start communicating with an organization that seems like a promising opportunity for you in the future, stay in contact. Be politely persistent (but not too persistent!)

Successful conservation work is time-consuming and requires a huge team effort; becoming part of a conservation organization’s work takes the same effort. Lack of success at the start should not discourage you. It takes persistence. Remember that good conservation work is far bigger and more involved than being on the front line, working in the field; help is needed making phone calls, filing papers, logging data, and with dozens of other unglamorous tasks. If you are not willing to take on some of those tasks, it is probably best not to pursue conservation work, because that is the path that you may need to take to do the work that ultimately interests you. My first conservation project out in the field was the sea otter project I described above. It took 12 years of volunteering and working at other jobs before I acquired the skills and experience necessary to land me there. So, if you are looking for a short cut, I am not aware of one. If conservation work is important to you, be ready to take on lots of ancillary tasks to start. If, however, you follow the advice above and look into some of the resources below, you can make a difference!

Happy Training,




This list is neither comprehensive nor all inclusive. I am providing these resources as a starting point, a way to generate ideas and get you thinking along the right lines. There are many more resources out there, so take some time to investigate on your own!


Conservation News Websites


Mongabay: News and Inspiration from Nature’s Frontline,

An article about Mongabay Conservation Training


Most major news outlets (BBC, CNN, etc.) have conservation-focused divisions that you can follow


Conservation Dog Organizations


Working Dogs for Conservation, Boseman, Montana


Conservation Canines, Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington


Conservation Dogs, in the UK


Canine Detection Unit, African Wildlife Foundation, Washington, D.C., and throughout Africa


Articles about Conservation Dog Work


Do You Have What It Takes to be a conservation dog handler?


Career profile, Louise Wilson


Using Scent Detection Dogs in Conservation Settings


Wildlife Conservation Organizations


African Wildlife Foundation


Gorilla Doctors


International Crane Foundation


International Rhino Foundation


International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)


The Nature Conservancy




Project Aware


Wildlife Alliance


Wildlife Conservation Society


World Wildlife Fund

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