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Image by Lui Peng
Sara Richter, CDBC

With over 25 years of experience as an equestrian and 15 years of working with diverse animal species, I have dedicated my career to behavioral science. My passion for handling and training animals has led me to specialize in addressing problematic behaviors with scientifically sound and humane solutions. I have trained thousands of animals and developed creative and effective training methods that prioritize animal welfare.

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What is Learner-Centered Animal Training?

I've been on a mission to revolutionize the way we train and modify animal behavior. By translating learner-centered strategies from the human behavioral health industry, I've developed creative approaches that incorporate two-way communication, choice, and agency. These strategies not only create a more enjoyable learning experience for animals, but they also result in more efficient and effective outcomes. Before diving into training or behavior modification, I always perform behavior analysis to ensure that we're meeting the learner's needs outside of the learning context. When constructing a plan, I emphasize the relevance and value of learning to the animal, incorporate simple gestural mechanisms of communication, and provide learners with the ability to make choices about their learning. By creating a safe, model environment, learners can explore and develop critical skills that will help them navigate their world safely and independently. My approach cultivates agency, self-advocacy, and self-efficacy, empowering learners to solve problems and achieve their goals.

6 Pillars of Learner-Centered Instructional Design

Before embarking on training or behavior modification, behavior analysis is performed to identify relative factors, ensure that potential medical/physical causes of behavior are ruled out, and the needs of the learner outside of the learning context are met. The following pillars are fundamental and necessary components of any learner-centered plan, and apply to all of our learners (both human and animal): 

  1. Emphasizes Learning That Is Relevant to and Valuable for the Learner - Behavior modification strategies often attempt to change too many variables at one time, or may depend on arbitrary or functionally irrelevant variables which can result in inefficient processes and unsuccessful outcomes. When we construct a plan with an emphasis on preserving functional relevance, the learning process holds a greater degree of intrinsic value, resulting in a learning and generalization process that is often more efficient and robust.

  2. Two-Way Communication - My approach to animal training is all about communication. By teaching animals simple gestures, they can easily convey their preferences throughout the learning process. As a trainer, it's my job to work with both the animal and human learners to find creative solutions that benefit everyone. And the best part? Our streamlined gestural system means less memorization and more success for pet owners!

  3. Choice & Agency - Unlocking a learner's potential means giving them the power to choose and take control of their own learning experiences. But don't worry, we're not just setting them loose in the wild! As trainers, it's our job to carefully craft choices that are safe and strategic, ensuring that learners can explore and grow without any harm.

  4. Safe Environment (Models) - Learning is situated in, and relevant to real life. Modeling and dress rehearsal create productive risk-free space for exploration and inquiry in which the learner (humans and animal) is able to develop an understanding of how new knowledge or skills may serve them in real-life contexts without the pressure of navigating those unpredictable contexts in real-time.

  5. Competency-Based - Deviates from a compliance-based model in that our overarching goal is to empower animals with the skills to successfully, independently and safely navigate their world. Advancement is contingent upon demonstrated mastery of foundational elements, and assessment is a positive experience that facilitates future learning. Differentiated and personalized support is given based on their unique learning needs, with the goal of minimizing our role in prompting or evoking target responses over time.

  6. Cultivates Critical Skills - This approach reaches beyond the goal of achieving obedience, empowering learners to solve problems, and cultivating agency, self-advocacy, and self-efficacy. Effectively recruiting the help of their human counterparts where necessary to meet their unique goals. In this way, a learner-centered approach also prevents and provides transferable skills toward the resolution of any future behavioral concerns.

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