For practical, ethical and economic reasons, veterinary surgical education is becoming increasingly dependent on models for training. The limited availability and high cost of commercially produced surgical models has increased the need for useful, low-cost alternatives. For this reason, a number of models were developed to be used in a basic surgical skills course for veterinary students. The models were low fidelity, having limited resemblance to real animals. The aim of the present study was to describe the students' learning experience with the models and to report their perception of the usefulness of the models in applying the trained skills to live animal surgery. One hundred and forty-six veterinary fourth-year students evaluated the models on a four-point Likert scale. Of these, 26 additionally participated in individual semistructured interviews. The survey results showed that 75 per cent of the students rated the models ‘useful’/'very useful'. Interviews revealed that tactile, dimensional, visual, situational and emotional features are important to students' perception of a successful translation of skills from models to live animal. In conclusion, low-fidelity models are useful educational tools in preparation for live animal surgery. However, there are specific features to take into account when developing models in order for students to perceive them as useful.