For local young animal lovers, a unique summer program is being offered — “Junior Animal Trainer.”
Encinitas-based animal expert Britta Wilson is heading the program. This is its pilot year, but Wilson said she hopes to offer the workshops year-round in the future.
Children will learn to train animals using positive reinforcement and clicker training techniques proven to be effective for training dogs and other pets.
Workshops, held in a private Leucadia residence, are designed for students 11 through 14 years, and 14 through 18 years, who may want to work in the animal field someday as caregivers or trainers.
Classes for the younger group will be held from 9-10 a.m. Tuesdays on June 30, July 7, 14, 21, 28 and Aug. 4.
Classes for the older group will be held from 9-10 a.m. Thursdays on July 1, 9, 16, 23, 30 and Aug. 6.
There will be home assignments to practice new skills, and the last class will be an opportunity for students to showcase their techniques and the new behaviors their dogs have learned. All students will receive a Junior Animal Trainer Certificate, and the dogs will receive a graduation present.
“I’m expecting children to bring their family dog to class, so the dogs must already be friendly and social,” said Wilson. “I’ll send out a questionnaire to students ahead of time and have them fill it out to make sure that their pet will be able to attend the class, too.”
The clicker training she offers may be generalized to any animal. “So you can learn with your pet dog, but you can train any animal that can perceive a cue, even your pet turtle, guinea pig or cat,” Wilson explained.
The method uses a clicking sound that lets animals know that a treat will follow when they are compliant with the handler’s request.
“Eventually, that sound becomes more reinforcing than the treat itself and it’s something the animals really enjoy. It’s a fun way of training and is mentally stimulating for the animal,” Wilson explained.
Unlike some training methods, clicker training doesn’t involve any kind of corrections, dominance or punishment for the animals. It’s all voluntary, said Wilson. “You are working with their minds. I see animals blossom with this type of training.”
The workshops offer a rare opportunity for young animal lovers to have hands-on learning with Wilson, whose background includes a lifelong love of animals and certified credentials through the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior.
It is the same type of training that Wilson used when she worked as a zoo keeper, an endeavor that she undertook starting in 1993 when she was an intern at the Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park in Santa Ana.
She graduated from Long Beach State University that same year with a bachelor of arts in psychology, a minor in biology and an emphasis in animal behavior, and was offered a full-time position at the Santa Ana Zoo. From there, she held various positions at San Diego’s Wild Animal Park and the San Diego Zoo. In 2003, she transferred to the San Diego Zoo’s Shows Division, training, handling and caring for exotic animals, which included cheetahs, an arctic wolf, red-tailed hawks, binturongs, a red river hog, clouded leopards and more.
An eighth-generation San Diegan, Wilson is a descendant of the Osuna family, one of the original local Spanish land grant owners.
She grew up in the North County coastal area loving the outdoors and always felt that she was born to be an animal protector and advocate, she said. “My mother taught me to love animals and treat them with kindness, and that has helped shape me.”
Wilson left the world of zoos in 2012 to launch her animal training, dog walking and animal care business, offering her expertise in the animal field to pet “parents” in San Diego County area. She is eager to share her love and knowledge of animals with youth who will represent future advocates for animals.
Visit www.junioranimaltrainer.com for class sign-up and location, or call Wilson at 760-351-6967. Class sizes are limited to four students for one-on-one attention. An adult must also attend with students under 18. Visit https://www.brittasanimaltrainingandpetservices.com/ to learn about Britta Wilson’s other pet services.