To make animals comfortable on a movie set, the first step is to imagine as much as possible what the new environment will be like. However, each day on each set is different. Anja reports that the environments her animal partners have and will encounter include a studio, the busy city, the woods at night, a mountain-gondola, [always] a large number of strangers, glaring light, loud noise, strange smells, crazy costumes, hectic set changes, and so much more! Anja’s goals for her movie animals are “a bomb-proof temperament and a strong positive reinforcement history in multiple environments.”
Offering more peeks behind the scenes of movies “starring” trained animals, Anja emphasizes that the animals always work with strangers. “A movie animal not only works with me, the trainer, but needs to be able to work happily and reliably with others. Some takes require work with two or more trainers. And then there are the actors (singly or in large groups)—tall, small, young, old, plump, nimble, kids, men, women, with beards, with helmets, with hats, etc.” With each and every one of them, the animal must work readily and without hesitation. Anja relies on clicker training to build a powerful reinforcement history with ever-changing human actors.
Anja relies on clicker training to build a powerful reinforcement history with ever-changing human actors.
A movie animal masters a lot of tricks, but that is not all! “The challenge is to have great stimulus control in huge distraction, over long distance and duration.” For example, Anja may need to stand far away, or remain positioned somewhere the animal cannot see her. In other takes, the sound of the scene is recorded, so she cannot talk to the animal. “Each behavior must have a verbal cue and a visual cue, and both need to be trained to great stimulus control. Plus, the animal needs to be able to respond to cues even without eye contact,” according to Anja.
Anja asserts that clicker training is fabulous for training behaviors to great fluency. “Working and training on set is full of surprises. Requirements, as well as the director’s wishes, can change instantly!” Often, Anja uses the clicker to train a new behavior on set. "Lucky for us, our clicker trained animals are up for the challenge!"
Another bonus of Anja’s movie animal work is the opportunity to train many species. “I love working and, let’s be honest, playing with all kinds of animals. Dogs, cats, chicken, doves, goats, sheep, pigs, mice, rats, a tortoise—and that’s just last week’s roll call!” As part of her successful training plans, Anja always learns about the animal’s lifestyle, language, and preferences. “I especially love working with birds—chickens or birds of prey. When your training partner flies off, that is a fascinating and humbling training experience,” laughs Anja. At that point Anja rearranges the training set up, re-evaluates the reinforcers, and starts keeping track of the rate of reinforcement.
Anja employs positive reinforcement philosophy outside of training classes and movie studios, too.