I've also written an overview on this topic. But I still get asked, "But what REALLY happens when a marine mammal refuses a behavior?" And still further, people assume we do some crazy things when that happens. So here is yet another post on how to deal with a Middle Flipper response.
|This dolphin trained me to put a whistle in my mouth|
Crack open any comprehensive text on operant conditioning and you'll see an answer that goes something like this:
"If an animal refuses a behavior, provide an LRS and move on to a high-probability behavior or approximation."
So what does that mean exactly? Let's first talk about why an animal refuses a behavior (or in some cases, an entire session). Newsflash: I can't read any animals' minds (this of course includes human beings), and I hope to god no one can read my brain*. With humans, I can ask someone, "Hey, why didn't you do that?" And they can respond back to me (and hope they tell the truth). Of course, I can't have a similar verbal exchange with an animal unless we just vocalize back and forth in our own way. That means all of my decisions as a trainer are based on the following:
1) My relationship with that animal
2) My knowledge of that animal's learning/training history
3) The history of the behavior that's being refused
4) My powers of perception
5) How gigantic my ego is
I can't possibly know why a sea lion politely declines to do a flipper stand, or why a dolphin takes a show off because I can't ask them. So my job is to focus on the positives, not get into a tizzy because the animal isn't doing what I asked, and figure out what MIGHT have happened.
Now, there are some common reasons why animals refuse behavior(s). I've listed them here, in addition to providing an example of how much easier my job would be if the animals and I could have a level-headed discussion about the situation.
Reason For Refusal #1 Distraction
Me: Flipper stand!
Sea Lion: stares into the audience
Me: What is he looking at? It looks like he's looking at someone in the audience. Oh my god, that woman is wearing the ugliest hat I've ever seen. Let me either wait until Sea Lion is done staring at that atrocity or maybe I will refocus his attention. Then I'll make sure I have his full attention before I ask for that behavior again.
If we could talk
Me: Hey Sea Lion, how come when I ask you for a flipper stand, you're just staring at me?
Sea Lion: What? When did you ask me to do that?
Me: Just now. I gave the hand signal and was all like, "Flipper stand!"
Sea Lion: Oh, wow dude. I totally missed that. I was spacing out looking at that chick in the audience with the huge, floppy sun hat. Do you see that thing?!
Me: That is one ugly hat! Hey, let's check that out after the flipper stand.
Sea Lion: Yeah yeah, no problem! I got this.
|Hey, nice hat.|
Reason for Refusal #2 Reinforcement history
Me: This dolphin isn't breaching. She's just staring at me like I'm some kind of idiot. What is going on? I know she can see my hand signal clearly. I don't see anyone in the audience with a ridiculous hat on, nor is she staring at any of the other dolphins. How baffling. I mean, I've been feeding her heavily for this behavior. In fact, that past ten times I've given her the same reward: fish fish fish. Wait, maybe I've become too predictable in my reinforcement. Maybe I'll give her a break for today, but tomorrow I'll ask for her breach and make sure I reward her with a variety of things. And from now on, I'll make sure I keep it fun and different.
If we could talk
Me: Is there a reason you aren't breaching?
Dolphin: Yeah, you know, I've been meaning to talk to you about that.
Me: Oh, okay. What's the problem?
Dolphin: The thing is, I have a really great breach. The people love it, dolphins are envious of me for it, and frankly, I feel under compensated for the work that goes into it.
Me: Wow, I had no idea. I thought I gave you a lot of fish for that behavior.
Dolphin: Yeah, I mean, sure. The fish is great. But that's all you've been giving me these days. I breach, you give me a bunch of fish. But I'm more than just a mouth who does stellar breaches. I have complicated needs beyond that of food.
Me: I'd do anything for donuts. All day.
Dolphin: Yes, I'd expect that from an animal who has a brain your size. But focus. I'd happily breach again if we could work some variety into my pay schedule. Let's keep the fish, but add the soccer ball and a couple of tail rubs every now and then.
Me: That sounds fair. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
Dolphin: That's why we're having this conversation. I take it you're good on your word and that no further corrective action is required.
|Yes hi, who do I speak to about changing my reinforcement plan?|
Reason for Refusal #3 The animal doesn't really know the behavior
Me: I just started working at this new place and have been bombarded with all kinds of new information. Now I'm doing a session with this cute little otter. I just asked him to spin, but he's just sitting on the ground. Is my hand signal wrong? I mean, I'm new at this. No, that hand signal is right. Maybe, like all otters, he's distracted. I'll wait until he really looks at me and then I'll ask. No. He's just not going to spin. What is going on?
Another Trainer: That Otter doesn't know that behavior.
If we could talk
Otter: You're effing crazy. I don't do that crap.
Me: Oh, whoops. I'm new. I forgot you don't know that.
Otter: Yeah well, don't forget it.
Me: I'm sorry.
Otter: It's okay, new kid. You'll get it all straight in the end. Keep up the good work.
Me: You too, Otter. You too.
|I don't understand the signal and I refuse to acknowledge it ever occurred.|
There are a variety of other reasons why animals give their trainers the Middle Flipper on certain behaviors that basically fall into the one of the aforementioned categories. But the point is, there is a lot of observation and educating guessing happening that all amount to one concept: Figuring out how to set the animal up for success.
Now, you have to be careful about what happens when a refusal occurs. You don't want to accidentally reward the animal for the refusal. That may sound ludicrous, but it happens. Especially if the mistake is on your end, or the reason the animal refused it may likely be outside of their control.
For example: you feel bad for the dolphin that didn't breach because you weren't exciting enough in your reward system. You feel so badly that you just toss the dolphin a soccer ball after she refuses to breach because well, it was your fault she didn't find the breach reinforcing enough.
While your intentions are coming from a good place, you're actually communicating the opposite of what you want. If you toss the dolphin a soccer ball when she refuses the breach, you've reinforced her for refusing it.
If you could explain to the dolphin what was going on in that moment, it'd be different.
Me: Hey, I'm really sorry for the misunderstanding. Please enjoy this complimentary soccer ball. It's a token of friendship and next time when you do your breach, I'll make sure you get everything you desire.
Dolphin: I'm glad we had this chat.
But since we can't talk to the dolphin, this is what happens:
Me: Oh man, I know that it's probably my fault Dolphin doesn't want to breach anymore. Ugh. I don't want her to be mad at me. I'd better give her a soccer ball as a peace offering.
Dolphin: Wait, what is going on right now? Am I to understand that if I DON'T breach, I get what I want?! Humans are so stupid.
So when an animal refuses a behavior, we employ the LRS. The LRS stands for "Least Reinforcing Scenario", which basically means we don't react at all. We remain in this neutral position for 3 to 5 seconds, which is all we have to come up with:
1) The likeliest reason(s) why the animal refused the behavior
2) How we troubleshoot the problem
3) How we reinforce a possible correct response
4) At what point do we move on from the behavior
Let me just tell you something. This is literally the only time in my life where I am capable of thinking quickly. For any other life decision, I could not possibly come to a conclusion in 3 to 5 seconds. Nothing about my way of communicating is short and sweet (I submit to you as evidence: this blog post). I can barely decide between which type of ice cream to have at dinner** with hours allotted to the task.
|After hours of debate, I choose you Graham Central Station ice cream flavor!|
But when you have a good relationship with an animal and you've been a trainer for a while, you train your brain to zoom through all possibilities and solutions. And as long as your main goal isn't to abandon basic training theory, or just Get The Animal To Do What You Wanted Because You're The Animal Training Master, you're going to come up with a solution that works. Well, most of the time. And when you mess up, you learn from it.
So once the LRS is over, 99.9% of the time we set up the animal for success. They aren't reinforced for refusing the behavior, but we try to refocus the session on something that can achieve. If they were distracted and therefore didn't see or hear your signal, then you make sure you have that animal's full attention before you ask again, thereby setting them up for success.
Sometimes, you have to move on. Is it really important in one session that a dolphin does a breach? Maybe not. Maybe you've got other priorities going on in the session and there's no need to get into an ego battle over something silly (plus, you'll never win an ego battle with a dolphin). So you figure out your plan of action for a later time with that behavior, but you move on and have a positive session.
The point is, the animal is always allowed to refuse something. They are allowed to stare at ugly hats, or try to communicate that the reward for the behavior isn't cutting it. They're allowed to say, "Hey, I'm not doing this interaction program, because it's spring and I've just met the Love of My Life/Breeding Season." Our job as a trainers is to make sure that we make all behaviors worth the animals' while, but ultimately we make sure our animals are healthy and safe. They feel secure and safe enough to say no; they don't have to worry about being hurt, starved, punished. Positive reinforcement training is set up that way. In fact, in some way, refusals are the way that animals train the trainers. We just have to know how to learn from them.
*If you can, I absolve myself of any responsibility for your mental health, unless you figure out a way to make money on my thoughts, in which case I'd like to further discuss this with you and a team of lawyers.
** Mint chocolate chip? Peanut butter chocolate? Graham central station?!