Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Middle Flipper is....(Part 10)

....a sea lion who helps herself to her own snacks.

Tina the Wonder Sea Lion

You know, as a trainer you're always learning.  I think that's a really amazing and important thing to embrace, that you never really know everything.  You've never seen EVERY situation.   It's really nice to have people on your staff who can teach you about experiences and concepts that you've never encountered.  But let's face it, many of our important lessons are taught to us by the animals.

Such a lesson was bestowed upon me by a California sea lion named Tina.  Maybe wasn't so much of a lesson as it was an exercise in humility, which we can all use once in a while.


Let's first talk about Tina.  She's 19 and high-octane.  She has crazy eyes, like one eye is lookin' west and the other is lookin' east.  But she sees everything.  Everything about her (appearance and personality) is intense.

 I'm pretty sure this is because her mother was a movie star.  No really, her mom was in Andre (you know, the movie about the orphaned harbor seal pup that a little girl finds in Maine, but Hollywood can't fathom how a harbor seal pup could possibly be a movie star considering the camera adds five pounds and seals look like giant oceanic blobdogs so let's just completely use a different taxa?).  And during the filming of Andre, her mom was pregnant with her.  In fact, Tina was named after the actress who played the little girl.

Tina Majorino with an in-utero Tina

Tina came to the facility I'm currently at in the early 2000s and has been causing trouble and stealing hearts ever since.  She is one of those animals who can look at a situation in about 0.0003 seconds and know exactly how to cause complete chaos.  She is also an insanely fast learner with a steel trap memory.  She is smart like a velociraptor* in Jurassic Park.  You know that scene where all the dinosaurs are running around eating lawyers and flipping cars and the survivors are smugly sitting in the control room sarcastically stating, "Pshaw, velociraptors* can't open doors" and then uh, they DO open doors?  That's Tina.  Except the analogy ends at the point where the raptors enter the kitchen and try to eat the kids.  Tina would enter the kitchen and throw around all the kitchen equipment, then find the kids and smile at them.

Tina's great great great great great great great great great second cousin twice removed

Tina has this smile, which I automatically chalked up to superstitious behavior when I first started.  And in some cases, it is.  But I'm not talking about a classic superstitious scenario in which the animal is asked for a behavior and emits a bonus one.  She used to do that, but we've more or less extinguished it.  I'm talking about when there is something novel that's just happened, like a training approximation or she destroys a basketball (more on this in a later blog), or you do something so variable it's just the best thing in the world, she makes this face:


Those of you who work with pinnipeds might be all like "UHHHHH CAT THAT FACE IS AN AGGRESSIVE PRECURSOR!!!!!" and if I didn't know Tina I'd probably be like, "OMG YOU'RE RIGHT!!!"  But we have not seen any correlation between her Crazy Face and aggressive behavior; it appears as though at some point in her life, it was reinforced and so that is now how she rolls.   And to be honest, we got bigger things to accomplish than to worry about extinguishing a 19 year old Crazy Smile Habit.  So we just enjoy it when it happens.

I don't know if Tina's smile is cuter, or our assistant supervisor's polar bear sweater (I think it's a tie)

Here's another example of Tina's insane cleverness.  Because of Tina's tendency to destroy all objects on a Godzilla level (and then smile about it afterwards), she was not allowed to have any toys that she could pop, like basketballs or soccer balls.   So several years ago, her trainers chose to give her a bowling ball.   

In the time that followed, another sea lion in an adjacent habitat was learning a ball-balance behavior.  Tina, instead of doing normal sea lion things like smearing poop everywhere and/or sleeping, observed these ball-balance approximations with her next door neighbor.

So does it surprise any of you that one day, on her own time, a trainer saw Tina attempting to balance the bowling ball on her face?  No, no it shouldn't.  Because in fact, that's what she did.  It was as if she thought, "What?! Why does SHE get to learn that?  I can do that *&#(!"  and then upped her level of Awesome by doing it with a giant bowling ball.**  She quickly learned how to do the behavior with a more appropriate prop, but that required a lot of desense training as you can imagine.

Level 20 of Sea Lion Ball Balancing

Another thing Tina tends to do, and this isn't very uncommon, is help herself to snacks.  Some facilities (including us) call this behavior Bucket Diving, and it sounds just about as dramatic as it is. Now let's just get out of the way the fact that Bucket Diving is not good for a few reasons.  First, there's a safety situation; a giant sea creature is rooting around in your bucket and it's usually a pretty sudden and powerful burst of GIVE ME.  If you are attached to your bucket, you could get injured.  if you are in the way of the bucket, you're set up for potential aggression.  Even if your animal is the most laid back animal in the entire universe, Bucket Diving is a dreaded Self-Reinforcing Behavior, meaning no matter what you do, that animal got reinforced.   

Deep philosophical question: Would Tina (sea lion) dive her namesake's (Tina Majorino) bucket of boondoggle keychains? Discuss.

It'd be like if you were like, "Hey Cat, here is a jar full of Keebler Rainbow cookies.  All the cookies are for you.  But I will remove them one by one and give them to you as you do your job.  All you have to do is-"

BAM! I double fist the cookie jar and rip it form your hands and pour the cookies directly into my mouth because like, isn't that how everyone eats?

"CAT!!!!!!! STOP!!!!!!!! NO!!!!!!" you scream.  You might even try to pull the cookie jar away from me, which makes me just hold onto it tighter.  Nothing you say to me, no matter how severe, can make me part with the jar until all the cookies are ingested.  

"Don't you ever do that again!" you say.

"Ha!" I think.  "All those cookies were well worth getting in trouble.  I'm going to do that again real soon."

See what I'm saying?  


So back to sweet Tina and her Bucket Diving tendency.  She is a big girl and did I mention she's a sea lion?  An animal like that Bucket Diving is not good.  But nonetheless, it happens and so as a trainer all you can do is reduce the possibility of a Bucket Dive, and reinforce her for not taking opportunities to do so.  A plan like that can significantly reduce the incidents, but it is virtually impossible to eliminate a behavior like that once it's happened a few times.  I mean, unless you have buckets that are totally impervious to Diving (they exist), and/or are manipulating different dimensions in space and time.

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.  It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.  It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears, and a giant bucket of capelin with no cover.

Well, the other day I happened to have Tina during the last show.  I am usually very careful with my bucket placement.  I also have great fun with this extremely bright animal.   

Not that there's an excuse for what I'm about to tell you (you see where this is going, right?), but the major difference for me during this show was our geriatric male sea lion Kyle was there.  It's been several years since he's been in the show, and at the time of this event he had only been in show for about three days.  Kyle is a big baby, but he's still an uncut male who had just spent a day uh, "cuddling" with Tina a couple of days before.    So I wanted to make sure I was careful around him.

Okay, I'll just stop avoiding the issue at hand here.

So I was at a part of the show where the sea lions are pretending like they can't swim in the water because there's a "shark" in there (which is actually THEM pretending to be a shark).  They haul out of the water and convince the narrator that they were all bitten by the big brown fuzzy sharks terrorizing our facility.  One by one, and very dramatically, the narrator leads the audience down a path of deception and lies as each sea lion show cases where they were bitten in comedic places (e.g., the butt).  And in many shows, the final animal to disclose her injury is Tina, because she just sticks out her tongue.   And when she sticks out her tongue, she really throws it out there, and squints her eyes, and sort of rocks on the seat.   And the entire audience laughs and laughs.

"Pssst...Cat, I'm going to dive your bucket in three weeks."

So I moved to Tina's side, bucket in hand.  My first mistake? The bucket was on the same side as Tina.  It was held up high and not right in her face, but it was definitely in a CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION zone.  But she looked great and wasn't even looking at the bucket, so I reinforced her and waited for our cue.

Kyle's debut was up.  

"Where did you get bitten Kyle?" the narrator asked.

And then this thing in my brain happens where the blond hair momentarily (like so fast you can't even see it) suddenly disappears from my head because it's shot back into my skull cavity and completely fills my brain with stupidity, and then it shoots back out like nothing every happened but it wipes my brain clean of all reasonable thought.  

k bye!

The last time this really happened in a severe situation was when I was 18.  I was babysitting for a family for the first time after they'd gotten a great recommendation for me.  Their youngest daughter wanted to make soap, which I'd made a lot before, and her mom said it was okay.  So there we are, making soap.  You know, putting a flammable substance such as glycerin into the microwave, heating it up to melt it, then adding scents and pouring it into a mold.  

"Let's put the soap in for 15 minutes," the little girl said.

"Uh, no, we only need to put it in for 15 seconds," I replied.  I took the bowl with the glycerin cubes from her.

"No," she grabbed the bowl back, shoved it into the micro hearth (the Really Expensive Microwave) and punched in 15 minutes.

An example of a microhearth (upper left).  You'd think since it cost so much it'd be like oh, I don't know, fireproof.

As is the usual pattern when I make a terrible decision, I make a first stupid one.  Alright, I reasoned with myself.  I'll let this kid get what she wants with punching in 15 minutes, but I'll take the glycerin out after 15 seconds when it's melted.

"Do you want to do some Mad Libs in my room?" the little girl asked.

POOF.  The blond hair did its mind-erasing thing and I suddenly forget everything ever and was like, "MAD LIBS?? I LOVE MAD LIBS! YES LET'S GO!"


...and left the glycerin.  In the microwave.  For 15 minutes.

As I sat up in the little girl's room, tossing out adjectives and nouns, I smelled something pleasant.  Like a barbecue. 

"Do you smell that?" I said.

"What?" she asked.

"Oh, someone's having a cookout."  Then I paused.  I smelled something different, like a fruit smell.  "That's weird, it smells kind of like fruit."

OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!! I realized.  I tore down the stairs into the kitchen, where black smoke was pouring out of the microwave and oh, should I mention that the bowl was on fire?  Also, there may or may not have been flames coming out of the microwave door.

Fire. Fire everywhere

Don't worry, everything ended up being fine.  I paid for a new micro hearth via babysitting for the family for enough times for them to afford a new one (they were a very, very, very forgiving family...and apparently they trusted me to not set fire to their property a second time).  But do you see this issue I have?

A mini version of this happened to me in the sea lion show.  As Kyle was called out to show his behavior, POOF.

OMG! I thought to myself.  I wonder what behavior Kyle will do for this!!! I haven't seen him in show yet!!!

Unfortunately, I'd missed his behavior (we're still working on the old guy's duration of show behaviors).  So I just looked at the narrator as she called the audience's attention to Tina.  And I swear, she waited until every last head turned to look at her before

I felt her jump up and aim her head into my bucket, which had been placed conveniently in direct line of fire when I'd turned slightly to look at Kyle and the narrator.  

There was an explosion of ice cubes, like fireworks launching out of the bucket and falling onto the floor.  Tina had only stuck her head in for a split second, grabbed a mouthful of ice, then left me to stand ashamed of my ridiculously rookie mistake.  And as I watched Tina grab all 89,000 ice cubes she'd spilled on the ground, the audience collectively laughed at my situation.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" one dude said.  The kind of "ohhhhhhhhhh" you say when a waiter drops a tray full of breakable things.

No comment necessary

You might think I'm lucky that a) I wasn't hurt (you'd be right) and b) at least Tina didn't get a single fish out of the Bucket Dive.  But I'll have to burst your bubble, thanks for trying to make me feel better, but unfortunately Tina appears to enjoy ice cubes arguably more than fish.  She goes nuts for it.  So I'm sad to report that Tina had a very self-reinforcing experience, and I am just here to enjoy the humiliation of being complacent.

Ice. Ice everywhere.

I've since had Tina in shows and training sessions, and can tell you with absolutely certainty I will never make the same mistake again, nor has she attempted to go after any more buckets.  I also had to take a giant slice of Humble Pie.  Okay no, more like I ate Thanksgiving Portions of Humble Pie which might have added up to two or three entire pies.   Because you know what? I did make a really stupid mistake.  But that happens, and you have to learn from it and take your medicine.  Not only that, it's important to admit your fumble to your team if only to make sure everyone knows what happened, so that they pay extra close attention.  But let's be honest, it also sets a good example right?  Better to be like, "oh man, I am so dumb, listen to what I did and never do what I did" than it is to try to talk your way out of something (or worse, pretend it never happened).

The infamous smile

But it also calls into the light the fact that the animals are equally important teachers as are our human counterparts.  Sometimes, the lessons they teach are only detectable by the open-minded and observant trainer.  Other times, the lessons are as No SH** as the one Tina taught me.  But clearly, I needed to be schooled.

So is Tina's action truly a Middle Flipper Event?  Eh.....I guess not.  The only way I could've made it easier for her to help herself to a good helping of ice cubes was if I had literally handed her the bucket and said, "Here you go!"  But still, she showed me that things happen on her terms.  

Ohhhh I adore you, T.

What are some of the NO DUH! lessons you've learned from your animals?  

* Not actually velociraptors....and I can barely pronounce what they really are, which is sad because they're definitely my favorite animal-that-is-no-more

** Of course the trainers removed the bowling ball after seeing this happen so she couldn't accidentally drop it on herself.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

When Failure Is An Option: Why We Have To Let Animals Mess Up Once in a While


Failure is sometimes an option, Gene.  Well, at least in animal training.  Maybe not so much in space.

How does that word make you feel?  For me, it used to make me feel really yucky.  I totally dreaded doing poorly in school because I thought my parents would get mad.  Then as I got older, I thought it meant I'd never get into college, and then I thought I'd never get a job with bad grades.  When I got a job, I thought failure meant I'd never make it as an animal trainer, nor would I climb the career ladder.

At some point though, I realized that I learned a lot from my failures and mistakes.  I slowly learned that failure doesn't always have to be a bad thing.  Maybe it feels rotten at the time, but it can provide a lot of opportunity.  It is sometimes even a badge of honor, because it means you may have gone out on a limb and took a risk.

There are probably a gadrillion (give or take) resources on how mistakes and failure to certain extents make us stronger and better.  And by us, I mean us humans.

But what about the animals we train?  What about when they mess up?

Penguins both mess up AND make a mess.  And boy, do they make big messes.

For those of you who don't know, this blog was named The Middle Flipper because a) I was inspired by the animals who tell me NO WAY MAN and b) an awesome former supervisor of mine used to always joke that a dolphin was giving us the middle flipper whenever they'd refuse to do something.  Side note: if you didn't know why this blog was named the way it was, I hope you have a hilarious story to tell me about what you thought Middle Flipper meant.

Anyways, so I dedicate this entire blog to the animals who say no thanks, and to the concept that the animals have a choice in their training.  But what about when they try...and fail?  What happens then?  Not just simply, "Nah, I don't want to do that" but more like, "Whoa, I can't do that" or "Uh, wait I thought I was right?"

Pick up any book on positive reinforcement training, ESPECIALLY marine mammal training, and you'll see a common phrase like, "always end on a positive" and "set up the animals for success."  Those are amazing concepts and are used a lot, because of course you want the animals to find the training sessions reinforcing.  It's also, I think, a pendulum swing away from the old-school methods of training involving a lot of correction and positive punishment* where animals were routinely set up to fail and were essentially coerced into performance.

Heinz Getwellvet may have used old school animal training methods.

I am a huge advocate of positive reinforcement training, d'uh.  I'm also a big fan of the "set your animal up for success" methodology.  But is it possible to go too far to the "always end on a positive" spectrum?  The answer is yes.

Animals, like us, can learn from failure.  In fact, learning how to mess up is a critical skill.  It's a skill that requires careful and empathetic training, knowing that in the long run, the animal will benefit if they are taught how to think outside the box and deal with occasional mistakes.   You as the trainer must teach the animals in your care how to fail.  And you also have to know when it's okay to not end on a high note, for the sake of the animal's learning curve.  So let's explore these ideas.

First, how do you teach an animal to accept making a mistake?  In many facilities, the LRS is the answer.  For those of you who don't know, the LRS stands for "least reinforcing stimulus" or "least reinforcing scenario".   The LRS is a 3-5 second neutral response following an undesired behavior.  That means if I ask Augustina the seal to wave and she sticks her tongue out at me**, I simply stop giving the wave SD and count to three.  

Here's a cute picture of a seal, because when I typed in "LRS" in google, a bunch of surgical photos came up.  Don't believe me? Try it.  You'll thank me for my photo choice.

Depending on your understanding of operant conditioning terminology (which may or may not be as technical as the vernacular of Trekkies), you may have your own opinion about what an LRS is,  but in practice it is a simple way to tell an animal, "Ehhhh that wasn't quite right, but if you react calmly to this stimulus which basically tells you you were incorrect, we will move on to something reinforcing/fun."

What are they even saying?

One of the key elements of the LRS is the animal's response while it is being administered.  If while I'm LRSing an otter and she decides to take this time to wander off, find an insect in her habitat and pull its legs off one by one, that isn't the correct LRS response.  If a sea lion becomes frustrated with the lack of reinforcement due to the LRS happening and charges me, that isn't the correct LRS response.  Why? Because it doesn't show that the animal is capable of accepting being wrong.  It shows the opposite.

If however, the animal sits calmly at station (whatever criteria you've established) for the LRS, that is the ideal LRS response.  Why?  Because the animal understands that it's worth his/her while to stay in the session, fully attentive.  They have learned, "Eh, it's okay I messed that up.  My trainer's going to help me out."

However, you HAVE to teach the LRS response.  You don't just automatically get it.  Even if you have an animal who is really laid back and doesn't seem to mind not getting everything correct, at some point, if you don't reinforce/maintain the LRS properly, you will end up with an unmotivated or potentially frustrated animal on your hands.

Calvin! How are you supposed to teach Hobbes an LRS response if you can't keep your &@%# together?!

So okay, you might think the LRS spiel is a no brainer.  LRS's are standard in most marine mammal training programs, because it clearly marks undesired behavior without the animal getting all down in the dumps.   But not every place uses them, and they have their reasons.  I've worked with a couple of groups of animals who did not know an LRS.  I've talked to people who don't believe that they are the most effective way at teaching an animal, and that is totally okay because their animals have learned another method (still positive reinforcement) of dealing with mistakes.

But what about when the animal just isn't succeeding?  When your session has taken a turn down Oh God Nothing Is Going Right Lane?

It's time for a time out, or to end the session for a while.  

A time out is usually 30 seconds to five minutes long.  Some facilities use an Extended Time Out or ETO, which is basically when you're like, "okay, let's just come back at the next scheduled session."  

What's the benefit of a time out (including ETOs)? There are a lot, but for the sake of this blog topic, the obvious one is that you communicate that something or series of things were so undesirable that it merits ending the session.  Some of those things may involve animals who displace each other, an animal who just doesn't want to do anything he or she is being asked, or an animal who is being well, naughty.  Like if they keep stealing toys from you or something like that.  Or perhaps they repeatedly refuse to do a behavior that's really solid or is making a lot of progress.

Here's a recent example.  One of our older sea lions learned a voluntary blood last year.  She has been really amazing at it.  The entire behavior is 100% voluntary (as it ought to be), and she at any time can just get up and walk away.  Does that mean her session is over? Sure, maybe for that time.  But she knows because of her behavioral history that she will get many other sessions throughout the day in which time she'll receive all of her food, unless she chooses to not eat it all.

No thank you!

The trainers who have worked on this blood behavior have made it very reinforcing.  They've been spoiled in a way, because this sea lion has been super solid at the behavior, even despite some health issues related to her very advanced age.  The trainers and the sea lion have been on the same wave-length for a while and it's proven to be very beneficial medically for the old gal.

But, as things tend to happen, nothing is perfect. 

A few days ago, we tried for a blood on this animal.  And she chose to say no.  She was very polite; she slowly pulled her rear flipper away from the needle stick, turned her head around towards the trainers and did a little, soft vocal.  

After the LRS, her trainers set her up again.  Again, the sea lion said no thanks.  

At this point, we are at a fork in the road aren't we?  On the one hand, we are thinking, "Oh man, I have to end this session on a positive!!! I can't let this end on a negative, not a behavior that's been so solid and is SO critical!"  But on the other hand we think, "Wait, this sea lion is normally so good at this.  What are we communicating to her if we take a severely regressed approximation?"

So which path do we choose?

Choose your own adventure books are...amazing.

My suggestion is to look at it another way.  Depending on what decision you make, which one will the sea lion learn the MOST from?  We as trainers always say the training is primarily for the animals' benefit, not for our own.  That includes deciding as a trainer (TEACHER!) what is best for the animal's learning, not what's best for compliance, or our ego, or our need for the animal's success.

In this particular case, the sea lion is choosing to say no.  I wouldn't even say it was a Middle Flipper Event, because there was no dramatic refusal.  It was a series of simple, subtle gestures.  But still, she said nope, not today.  Positive reinforcement training is based in empowering the animal to make a choice; to not feel as though they HAVE to do something.  If they want the particular reinforcements we offer in a session, then they'll emit the behavior.  But if what we have to offer isn't enough or what they want in that session, they may choose to decline.

By continuing on with this sea lion just to get a positive, we would (in this case) be appealing to our own egos as trainers.  Not to the animal's best interest.  Perhaps I'd have a different answer if we continued to see this behavior break down in future sessions, but in one session, we don't have enough information to see a pattern.  All we know is that for some reason, she doesn't want to do it NOW.  If we back up and take approximations that are WAY regressed from the solid, maintained blood behavior, what does the sea lion learn?  One of two (and potentially both) things:

1) If she refuses the behavior that she's been great at for almost an entire year, she will still get reinforcement for doing significantly less.  

2) Her refusal is not respected by the trainers.  She is not "allowed" to say no.

If she learns #1, well now we have a consistency problem on our hands.  Do we want her to understand that she has to lay out for the entire blood behavior until she is bridged?  Yes.  Has she been doing that behavior to criteria for a long time? Yes.  So why would we then change the rules just because of one failed session?  Are we positive that this sea lion understands why we are suddenly taking much earlier stages of the behavior after she's just refused to do the full thing?  Absolutely not (unless someone on my staff can speak to sea lions, which would be awesome because I have a lot of questions such as why they bark at their butts when they fart really loudly).

...when you're fast asleep?
More fart shirts here:

If she learns #2, then you've got a big motivation problem.  Letting the animals say "no" in the moment is a tool to significantly reduce or eliminate animal frustration.  Again, please understand I'm not suggesting that you do ANYTHING 100% of the time, but if an animal suddenly stops doing something they are consistent at, you let them say no and end your session.  It's not a bad idea to just give them their space, even if in your head you say it's because you're giving them a time out.

Now what would this sea lion learn if we took a time out?  Essentially the opposite of the aforementioned list.  

1) If she refuses the behavior that she's been great at for almost an entire year, the session is over.

2) Her refusal is respected by trainers.  She is allowed to say no, which means the trainers will go back to the drawing board to troubleshoot the behavior and set her up for future success.

Future success.  That's long-term success, not just the immediate WIN you get by saying "oh, I got a positive on a train wreck of a session".  

So it was understandable when the trainers decided to respect the sea lion's refusal and end the session, that they were bummed about it.  They talked to me about it later, saying, "Man, she is normally so good at that!! It kills me we had to take a time out."

But does that really affect the sea lion the same way?  Probably not.  It bothers us more as trainers/teachers because we want our animals to succeed, and let's face it, we also don't want the reason they messed up to be us (newsflash: sometimes it IS our fault, but that's okay!!).  Of course, it doesn't help when two of your bosses are watching you.  But it's important to realize that your ego cannot be a reason you make a behavioral decision.  The reason must be because it is what teaches the best lesson to the animal in your care.

Luna agrees it's all about her.

Cognition training is a great example of how failures can teach as much as successes.  When I was training a dolphin to do a match-to-sample behavior, where I basically showed her a toy and she had to go find its match in a line up of different toys, I learned this lesson well.  Even though the dolphin obviously did not get every single trial correct, she learned each time she chose an object, right or wrong.  All of her responses and the consequences afterwards (hearing a whistle if she was right, not hearing one if she wasn't) gave her information to make future decisions.

"Ending on a positive" or "set the animal up for success" is a rule of thumb.  We should have WAY more successes than failures.  There's no doubt about that.  We can look to our own preference in learning.  Would you rather be called out on 90% of what you do well, and 10% of what you need to improve on?  Or would you rather be told about 90% of your mistakes, and only 10% of what you do right?  No. Brainer.

But it is so so so so important to remember that we LEARN from mistakes, and so do our animals.  Some mistakes are so big, or come so out of left field that it's BETTER to let the animal learn that lesson than it is to completely confuse them or remove their choice to refuse something just because we think we have to End On A High Note.  We can allow a session to be a catastrophe behaviorally (obviously, not talking about safety scenarios here).

Not all catastrophes are bad.  Some are just adorable.

Hey, I've done it before.  We all have.  Especially when you're really making progress in a certain behavioral scenario, with a new behavior, or with a particular animal.  It SUCKS when a great session (or at least one with great potential) goes down the toilet.   And I am just as guilty as anyone else in trying to get some semblance of the behavior "back on a positive".  Like, if I lay out a dolphin for a blood and they refuse it,  I've definitely fallen into the Trainer Pit Of Despair and called a session "positive" because hey, at least the dolphin let me kind of sort of touch the peripheral molecules of their flukes for 0.000000000001 seconds, instead of what they normally let me do which is GET A BLOOD.

But maybe next time we're in a situation where we think the session is tanking, we think to ourselves, "Is it possible to salvage this session in a way that is meaningful and consistent to the behavioral history of this animal?"  The answer may very well be yes.  In fact, I hope many times it is.  But you also have to be open to the idea that it isn't.  That the best thing is to take a time out or ETO.  

The last idea I'll end on is a phrase I heard a former boss of mine use.  I really like it, because it's simple and very, very true.  

"LRS's do not fix problems, positive reinforcement does."

Also, donuts.

Totally, totally agree.  That concept can still be applied to everything I've just said.  Our sea lion may be better at the blood behavior the next time we do an approximation thanks to us just calling it quits on that one particular session.  But that's not where the troubleshooting ends.  We have to make sure that the elements that appeared to cause the refusal have a high reinforcement history when the sea lion chooses to emit them correctly.  That is what will fix the problem.  But before that can happen in this case, we must first allow the animal to screw up without us freaking out that we ended on a "negative".

I hope I'm being clear on how letting an animal fail once in a while can help him or her learn.  It is a delicate balance and requires experience, confidence, patience, and of course the willingness of ourselves as trainers to make the wrong decision and learn from it ourselves.  Positive reinforcement is a powerful, amazing way to communicate to and train animals to do amazing things.  But we all have to struggle once in a while in order to grow. Even us Homo sapiens.  :)

* If you think this is an oxymoron, just know "positive" doesn't mean "yayayayay", but "adding to".  So basically, adding an aversive stimulus as a consequence to behavior you want to see decrease in frequency.  Example: I don't do the dishes, so someone puts cockroaches on me.  The cockroaches are the positive punisher.  And also they are disgusting. 

** This happens all the time

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Middle Flipper's Guide to Good Interning (Part Two)

Hi everyone! How was your week?  Ready for part 2 of how to be a good intern?  No?  You should probably take a gander at Part One, then come on back for some more.

Be good!

For those of you ready for more, let's get this show on the road.

As a recap, last week we discussed the pitfalls of overly-focusing on hands-on experience, not spending enough time observing and asking questions, not taking advantage of rare opportunities, and being overly-competitive.  The over-arching concept is to remember to focus on your own development so that one day you can be a great animal trainer and caretaker.

So let's start with the second half of the common mistakes interns make (and as always, solutions!).  Remember, it's OKAY if you've made some or all of these mistakes.  We all did to varying extents.  What matters is learning from them and moving forward!

Mistake #5: Not Being An Obnoxious or Silent Ninja (a.k.a. Not Being Yourself)


Starting an internship is terrifyingly exciting, ain't no other way to slice it.  There's a particularly raw and unique feeling when you start the process of defining yourself as a marine mammal trainer hopeful.  You're at the bottom of the ladder, you're in competition not only with your fellow interns at your facility, but everywhere (because you're all applying for the same jobs!), AND you're trying to prove yourself to the trainers.  That's on top of all of the normal nervousness that naturally comes with starting a new job.

This is what nails a lot of interns.   They get so wrapped up in the competitive, holy-capelin*-I'm-in-the-field-kinda atmosphere that they start to lose their identities and become Obnoxious or Silent Ninja.  Both Ninjas develop from a place of tremendous insecurity, which of course is something we all suffer from when we are interning.  

I'd call him an Obnoxious Ninja if he wouldn't think that was a compliment

Obnoxious Ninja (herein referred to as ONs) is someone who over-compensates for their insecurities by becoming Pushy, Overly-Competitive, Bossy, and/or Just Really Loud Without Any Filter Whatsoever.   ONs don't have to have all of the aforementioned qualities.  There are ONs who are not bossy at all, but who constantly interrupt people talking so they can get their opinions heard.  Or maybe they are very socially polite in conversation, but push people under the bus.  I'm sure you all know the type and their various ON traits.   ONs may or may not be hard-workers; it's hard to tell their work ethic because their loud or aggressive tendencies distract from the actual work they are doing.

Are Shy Guys Silent Ninjas? Discuss.

Silent Ninja (SNs) is someone who completely disappears.  If they speak, it's either very quietly or with a lot of very under confident words.  They apologize profusely for doing anything that makes them visible.  Usually, SNs work very hard, but you never can tell because you never see them.  They make a point to not talk to any trainers above an entry-level, unless there is some pressing need to discuss something with a senior staff member.  The SNs completely cloak their personalities, which has the same effect as the ONs on noticing their work performance: it is impossible to see what they're really doing.   You look around and go, "Hey, where's that Silent Ninja? They've been missing for five hours!"  They've been working, but you had no clue because they are avoiding being near anyone with authority.

If you've just read all of this and are like, "oh my god, I am obnoxious!" or "Hey, I'm just SHY! That's not a big deal!" take a deep breath.  And then another.  

Cheesy but true.  Plus, cheese is awesome.

It's completely understandable that for the first couple of weeks at your internship, that you're just figuring out your role and place not just in a work setting, but in a social setting too.  Most people are a little shy around people they've never met.  Some people (like yours truly) have a personality that is a little uh, loud.  If you're a class clown, that's long as you know how to be serious and professional in appropriate situations.  If you're a quiet person who's naturally introspective, that's okay too.  You just have to know when to ask questions and turn on the charm around park guests and to some extent, your coworkers.

Let's take a look at some scenarios in which ONs, SNs, and a normal intern take a stab at the situation.

Networking with a senior staff member

ON: Hey boss, just wanted to say that Alice, you know that intern with the giant head? I helped her out today.   I decided that I'd help her clean buckets since she's not very efficient at it.  Then I decided to do you a favor and took the opportunity to tell her that she'll NEVER get a job in the field if she doesn't get her act together.   Anyways, I've noticed you bridge late on some of your behaviors.  You also give the fluke wave SD differently than anyone else, but I think you're much better at showmanship than a lot of the other trainers.

SN: ............ sorry to bother you, nevermind.  

Normal:  Hi boss, I have a question about that training session I saw you doing earlier.  Do you have some time now to talk about it?

Conflict between interns

ON:  I need to talk to you.  You are such a kiss-ass.  You make everyone look bad!!!!!!! I know you're telling everyone I'm mean, I heard it from like three other people. 

SN: .....sorry, nevermind.

Normal: Can I talk to you for a second?  Lately I feel like there's been some tension between us, and I wanted to talk about it so we can get on the same page.  I enjoy working with you, but sometimes I feel as though we don't work as a team.  Here is a specific example of a situation where I felt this way. 

Confessing to a mistake

ON:  Oh, I didn't do that.  Oh, I misheard you.  Oh, that's not what you said.  Oh, she told me to do it this way.  Okay well, that isn't how I interpreted that situation.  Oh, well you didn't see what I did before/during/after that.

SN: I'm sorry. 

Normal: Okay, I understand.  I'll make sure to do better/differently next time.  

Some ninjas are cool.  Like it's okay if you're a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

See the difference?  Think I'm being extreme in my examples?  Don't.  I was a Silent Ninja for a few weeks at my first internship, even at my first job.  I was so scared to screw up around the trainers and my bosses that I figured I'd just keep my head down and work hard.  I realized (with a lot of help) that that wasn't helping my coworkers really see who I was.  I wasn't a quiet, shy, terrified person.  I was only like than when I was nervous.  But once I started asking questions in sessions, and started letting my personality show, I started making a good impression.  You can do that, too!

The lesson here is to BE YOURSELF.  No one is naturally a Silent or Obnoxious Ninja.   Ninjas are created, and when they operate they are intense.  There is no stopping a ninja (unless you're another ninja? What about a samurai? Could they stop a ninja? I'm confused).   So regardless of your brand of Ninjaness, you're essentially embodying the most extreme forms of not-so-flattering personality traits.

What's the solution?  A leap of faith in yourself, and self-checks.  Tell yourself it is NORMAL to be nervous and unsure...everyone feels like that.  If your insecurity makes you suddenly start noticing the mistakes and actions of others, that's your first self check.  

"Okay," you tell yourself.  "I am focusing a lot on other people, maybe because that's easier than me focusing on my own journey.  Good thing I noticed that, so I don't become an ON!  Time to refocus on MY goals."

I did a search for "self-check", which now I realize was dumb because you can imagine what images I found...ugh!  So here's another inspirational thingy, to spare you from what I can now never unsee. 

If you notice you've gone weeks without talking to staff members above an entry-level position, or if you've never chatted with a senior staff member, that's a good self check.

"I'm only here for a couple of months," you say.  "I need to make the most out of my time here.  I'm nervous to talk to the senior trainer, but they were an intern once, too.  It's okay to ask them a question about their own career development, or about their training ideas and experiences."

Being yourself in a professional setting, one that focuses on your own stuff and puts teamwork as a high priority gets you as close to guaranteeing success as anything.  Show how great you are through your actions, remind yourself that you have a right to ask questions and engage in conversation with your coworkers and bosses.  There's no need to be a ninja of any sort!

Mistake #6: Doing Too Many Internships

Too many kittens? Impossible.  Too many internships? Possible.

I can hear hearts stopping!!!!! 


No! Don't worry! Remember, these are mistakes you can come back from if you've made them.  This blog is here to help!

I have to tell you, every intern group I encounter I have this conversation with at least one person.  The chronic internship-doer.  

Why are you guys avoiding applying for jobs?

If you're still in school and you just want to fill your summers up with internships to network more, to see how other facilities operate, and to beef up your resume, I totally get that.  But that's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking you all of the rest of you, the ones who are about to graduate or are out of school and have already done an internship.  Why are you applying for a second or third one instead of a job?


"Because," you answer.  "I don't have enough experience."

There's that blasted word again.   If you had a successful first internship, and you're done with school (or almost done), it's time to apply for jobs.  It's okay.  You can have one internship; that's enough in many cases.  

Here is a list of good reasons to do a second or third internship:

1.  You've applied for jobs for six to twelve months and haven't had any luck
2.  You have two or more years left in school
3.  Your strategy is to get an internship at a facility that tends to hire a lot of interns
4.  You didn't have a great first internship experience and want to apply what you've
     learned to another one
5.  You want to know what it's like to work at a place that's completely different from the
     one you were just at (e.g. you were at a show facility and want to know what an
     interactive place is like)

If your reason isn't on that list, you should be applying for jobs.  But just in case that's confusing.....

Here's another list (I LOVE lists, can't you tell?)!!!  

Not-so-good reasons to do a second or third internship:

1.  To gain experience
2.  Because you're afraid of applying for jobs
3.  Because you think you're not qualified to apply for jobs
4.  You think prospective employers will look at your resume, see you interned a year ago
     and have been working at a retail store or something and think, "oh, why didn't he stay
     current in the field?"
5.  Because you think lots of internships look good on your resume

Do you gain experience in a sense doing multiple internships? the sense that you are seeing another facility, you're meeting new people, and you may be learning what it's like to work with different types of animals.  Those things are great, but here's the thing you have to remember:

Your experience at internships does not carry over to the next one.  It is not cumulative.  So for all the reasons why doing a second internship makes sense, it is not often enough to boost your resume.  It doesn't automatically look better if I have two resumes of strong candidates who did different numbers of internships.   

Less is more!

In fact, some employers start to wonder why a candidate has done a bunch of internships (if they've been out of school) instead of getting a job.  Is it because they are having trouble landing a job...and if so, why is that?  You might think this an unfair assumption, but I'm just here to tell you like it is.

If you're concerned about an employer seeing a "gap" in your resume, don't.  We all know how hard it is to get into the field.  If we see someone who did an internship a year ago and they've been working at Whole Food just to pay the bills, we aren't going to think they are somehow so outdated that they couldn't possibly be a good candidate to interview.  We'll think, "Oh man, I remember when I was in that position!"

Because for many of us, it's financially impossible to do back-to-back internships to "stay current".  The good news is, you're not really staying current if you do back-to-back internships because remember, you start from square one at your internship, no matter how many others you've done before.  You don't get perks just because you've already learned a bunch of stuff previously.

Gaps are okay in this case!

The solution? Of course, apply for jobs.  But you can be smart about it, even if it's just to make yourself feel like you have a safety net.  Set goals for yourself, like, "If I don't have a job offer in the next nine months, I'll apply for internships that are more likely to hire interns.  But I'll still apply for jobs, too."  That way, you have a it's financially a little easier to manage.

You can also apply for jobs WHILE YOU ARE INTERNING.  It's OK!!!  Why are you doing an internship?  To get a job.  So why not start the process?  One of the interns I mentored came to me really scared about five weeks after she started.

"Cat," she said.  "I need to talk to you about something."

Oh god, I thought.  "What's wrong?"

"I'm so sorry," she said.  "I got a job offer at SeaWorld and it starts in two weeks."

"That's great!! Congratulations!!"

She was shocked that I was happy for her that she got a job.  Did that mean we were short an intern? Yes, but that's okay.  We can manage.  In this competitive field, it's never a bad idea to try for every opportunity to land that first paid position.  Is it likely that you'll get a job while you're interning?'s possible, but not likely.  But it is POSSIBLE.   You won't burn a bridge by informing your intern coordinator that you have to leave the internship early because you landed a job (and intern coordinators, if you have a problem with that, re-check your priorities.  I know it's great to have intern help, and we all rely on it because they do great work, but remember you can always fill their spot). 

If you've done a bunch of internships, and you're panicking now, because you did all the things on the not-so-good reasons list, it's okay.  Just put your two most current internships on your resume, and focus on applying for jobs, networking, and polishing your swim test and interviewing skills.  It'll be okay!

And just in case I wasn't clear, APPLY FOR A DANG JOB!

Mistake #7: Never Making A Mistake

The master of happy accidents!

Do not be afraid to mess up.  Do not.  I don't care how intimidating your boss is, or how competitive and fast-paced your facility may be.  I know how scary it is to make a mistake, especially if you have a strict manager.  But just as we set the animals up for success in animal training, set yourself up for success and do not expect perfection.  No one is perfect (except Chris Hemsworth), so if you expect you will never make a mistake, you're already failing.

The only mistake is that he's not sitting next to me right now.

What does it mean to mess up?  It means you tried something, and it didn't work.  There are obviously extreme cases of this, like if you make the same mistake repeatedly.  Or if you do something really, really, really bad (like blatantly disobeying policy, being dishonest, or doing something that hurts you or a human or animal coworker, or guest).  You can spend your career avoiding making those kinds of mistakes and be set up to succeed.

But the other mistakes? The one where you forget something?  Or accidentally do the wrong thing?  Or try something and totally mess it up?  Those are normal mistakes.  Those experiences mean you're taking calculated risks and GROWING from them.

Look, I've worked for a number of different managers.  Some are easy to make mistakes around, others are not.  But they all shared something in common: They wanted me to learn how to do my job well.  

Poor Dolly.

I remember so well when I made the first mistake at my internship.  In those days, we weighed out the dolphins' diets in the morning but didn't water thaw the fish until about twenty minutes before the session.  We'd go down to the fish kitchen, weigh out the session amount, and water thaw it.  The only exception to this was before lunch, when we'd come down from the last morning show and weigh out everything for the next afternoon show.  That was just how things were done, so the trainers could enjoy their lunch without having to do cram in fish prep.

Well, I totally forgot about this.  I took the buckets downstairs from the morning presentation, cleaned them, and went to lunch.

When the trainers went downstairs to get their buckets a couple of minutes before the afternoon show, they realized nothing had been separated, weighed, or thawed...a process that took at least 15 minutes, and they didn't have that time.   The head trainer found me and told me of my mistake, which of course made me feel so embarrassed and ashamed of myself.  I thought the world was over, who would hire me now?

I took my medicine for that mistake.  It didn't matter how the feedback was delivered to me from my boss, what mattered was what I did with that experience.  I could let it destroy me and make me terrified to ever do anything ever again, or I could look it like, "That sucked, but I won't do that again!"

The solution?  Do your best.  Seriously.  Do your best, and don't freak out when you mess up.  Embrace the fact that you're going to mess up.  Yeah, maybe that means you'll get yelled at depending on how your senior staff manages people.  You can't control that, you can only control how YOU respond to the situation.  Even if your boss has a short temper and flies off the handle, you can bet they'll notice the difference between an intern who accepts their mistake calmly, versus one who gets defensive or shuts down completely.  

All of this sums up into the next mistake....

Mistake #8: Putting Your Ego First

Not to be confused with Eggo.  You can put Eggo first.

Every mistake I've mentioned can really be traced to this one.

Putting your ego first can mean you try to be the best at the expense of others, or you are so scared to mess up that you protect your ego from being judged or criticized and never let yourself grow.  

WHY are you interning? 
Because you want a job.

WHY do you want a job as an animal trainer?
Because you want to make the lives of animals better, both in your care and in their natural environment.  You want to inspire the general public to care, so that they too can make a positive difference in the lives of the animals we love.

The animals are why we do what we do

How do you become the BEST animal trainer possible?  By putting their needs first.  By working hard, but taking constructive feedback well, by taking a risk and being yourself, by focusing on your own journey while supporting your team members.  Why?  Because all of those things make you the best animal trainer you can be.  The earlier you learn this concept, the better off you'll be in your will all of the animals under your care. 

Not only that, but you LEAD BY EXAMPLE when you correct the mistakes I've listed over the past week.  People see how you take calculated risks, how you are kind to others and how you find professional methods to network, how you are yourself without trying to take out "the competition" or by diminishing your self worth.  Those people see that and go, "I want to emulate that", and then boom, you've started influencing MORE people who focus on the right things.........which means MORE animals benefit.  

You are interning to learn how to give the best possible care and training to all animals you encounter.   Keep that as your focus, and you'll stay on course for the most part.  And when you stray off course, you have the tools and the drive to get yourself back on track.  How cool is that?

Put me first!!

So good luck out there, all current and future interns.  Use this as a resource, in addition to checking out IMATA, checking in with your current or previous coworkers and bosses, and feel empowered to be the best you can be for the sake of a greater good.  And as always, I'm here to answer any questions you might have!

For trainers reading this, please feel free to comment your opinions on this topic!  Even dissenting opinions.  Lively discussion is always welcome, as long as you're not a butthead.

* Ha ha! Occupational humor is punny.**
** I'm out of control!!!!!