Using Skills – Animal Handling

Welcome to part 2 of my weekly series on using the skills of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. Last week we covered Acrobatics, and this week we’ll be going over Animal Handling

As mentioned before, the point of this series is to clearly define what each skill is as well as provide examples and options for using it in your game. Some skills, such as Animal Handling, seem (to me) to not be used as much as they should. Hopefully this series of posts will inspire you to try something new in your games, or provide your PCs with the opportunity to do so themselves.

Using Skills – Animal Handling


A woodsman coaxes a bear cub, badly burned by a bushfire, out from under a dead log. A hunter watches warily as a dire wolf stalks nearer, trying to figure out if the thing is curious – or hungry. A charging knight guides his stallion to jump over a thorny wall of brambles with only the slightest touch. Animal Handling is the domain of those with a connection to the beasts of the world, and the desire to control them in some way.

The Player’s Handbook describes Animal Handling as: “When there is any question whether you can calm down a domesticated animal, keep a mount from getting spooked, or intuit an animal’s intentions, the DM might call for a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check. You also make a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check to control your mount when you attempt a risky maneuver.” (PHB 178)


Normal Usage

Animal Handling has two important functions in usual play: it’s the go to skill for mounted challenges, and it serves as a sort of animal empathy. When you’re trying to keep a horse not trained for battle calm in the middle of a melee, a DM should call for a Wisdom (Animal Handling) check. This is also true for when you are trying to determine if the creature sniffing you is curious or assessing a threat, as well as if you attempting to teach a hound a trick.

Animal Handling is especially useful for mounted combatants in order to pull off impressive stunts without your mount becoming spooked. It could also be useful for attempting to circumvent a combat encounter with animals by figuring out a way to calm hostilities – either with food, body language, or a calming voice.

Note the above PHB citation’s language in regards to domesticated animals versus other animals. This seems to indicate that you wouldn’t be able to calm a wild animal as you would a domesticated animal though no other skill would seem to cover this. (As a personal aside, I would allow it and just set the DC accordingly.)

A good number of adventures will call for Animal Handling checks for certain encounters or challenges, such as the wolves guarding the Goblin Cave in the starter set adventure Lost Mines of Phandalin.


What it is Not

  • Nature – Animal Handling is not a lore skill. While it might indicate certain basic knowledge of animal behavior, it’s not meant to be a skill check you use to recall animal or beast lore or other such information.


Optional Uses

The following are optional uses or edge cases for using Animal Handling, and are entirely dependent on the Dungeon Master.

  • In the same way one might train a proficiency with a tool or a language, with the DM’s permission you might be able to spend the requisite amount of downtime days training an animal if you are proficient in the Animal Handling skill. A hawk, hound, or other animal trained in such a way would become a low-level Follower as described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG pg.92-94), though would not gain experience. It would be best to allow this only for low-level creatures that are easily trainable. A mastiff, rather than a displacer beast.
  • An animal trained for battle, such as a Warhorse, shouldn’t require soothing in the midst of a blind melee. And under abnormal circumstances, the DM should consider giving the Animal Handler advantage with such a creature trained for battle.


Dungeon Master Examples

The following couple of examples are meant to inspire the Dungeon Master to design with Animal Handling in mind. Remember that a medieval fantasy world is dependant on animals to even work. Horses were a revolutionary force from ancient times that were the fastest way to travel until the industrial revolution. Animal agriculture is a huge part of the world economy even now – even more so in a medieval setting. Humankind’s obsession with taming and eventually domesticating animals paved the way for settled society. There is no reason why Animal Handling shouldn’t play at least a small role in your sessions.

  • The Quintessential Guard Dog – Almost every popular fantasy tale dealing with thieves involves the slavering guard dog just over the wall. An animal as a guard is a cheap alternative to a humanoid henchman, and easier to replace. Consider having a lot more animals used in such a capacity, as it was truly common (and still is to this day) in the medieval era. In order to bypass this obstacle, the PC will need to calmly soothe the beasts into forgetting their training. The DC would depend on the training and intelligence of the beast, but it should never be easy. A DC 15 is a good starting point for regular guard hounds. Providing a distraction, such as fresh meat, might give them advantage on the roll. Of course, if they fail, the animal will raise a loud ruckus and attempt to attack.
  • The Cowboys – Another way to look at Animal Handling from a broad view rather than a single situational view is to challenge the PCs to use it to complete a task that takes days. Herding animals across terrain would make for an interesting use of overland travel; each day have the one in charge of the herding roll for Animal Handling and if they fail half the amount of distance they can cover that day. They might be herding the animals as a side job to make money, or perhaps a village sent them to herd them as an offering to a savage orc tribe nearby to stave off any raids. For animals such as cows or sheep the roll should be easy, DC 10. For more temperamental animals such as bulls, or even Aurochs it should be increased to 15 or even 20. Of course, traveling across the land always has the chance to go awry with hostile encounters. If a battle might occur, the PCs will need to make sure to keep the animals calm when defending them.


Thanks for reading! What did you think? Feedback will be incorporated into the series as I go!
Next week we’ll be taking a break from this series as it is the first tuesday of the month. As such you will instead be getting a crunchier monthly post. Expect next tuesday to find a new Paladin Oath: The Oath of the Quest! The week after we’ll be grappling the only Strength based skill, Athletics.

Author: Patrick McGill of 9th Key Press

Content creator for 9th Key Press.

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