Sunday, May 11, 2014

Get Your Hand Outta the Cookie Jar: Food Ain't Everything

Food.  It's what gets me going in the morning.  No, really, it is.  Because sometimes one of my coworkers brings in these donuts from this awesome place nearby.  And sometimes Publix has BOGOs to die for, the kind of deal you just can't say no to, and that really makes me happy.  I love, love, love food.  I'd do just about anything such as murder for macaroni and cheese.*
JUST LOOK AT IT! I want it.

But when it comes to training animals, food remains a point of controversy for two separate reasons.

1) The value of food is a point of friendly debate between animal trainers.  Some feel that it is the strongest reinforcer for any animal, while others say it is not.  

2) Naysayers of our profession declare that we as trainers "force the animals to perform for food"

So let's take a look at one of my most favorite topics.

Marine mammal trainers tend to define primary reinforcement as "anything an animal needs to survive".  This includes food, water, and some people throw in "air."  I'm not really aware of anyone who uses air as a motivator.  Also, there are some animals who may strongly object to using air as a motivator, such as my goldfish.

How'm I supposed to breathe with aiiiir aiiiiir aiiiiiir

Secondary reinforcers, again according to some trainers, are therefore "anything that's not a primary reinforcer" OR it's defined as something that is conditioned.  Most trainers know that secondaries can fit into one or both of these definitions; not all secondaries need to be conditioned to be reinforcing.  

But what I found really interesting was a discussion among non-marine mammal trainers who defined primary reinforcement as the MAIN reinforcer of a particular animal; the reinforcer that appears to have the biggest effect on behavior.  And secondaries are well, lesser.   So for example, one of the dolphins with whom I work appears to find footballs very reinforcing.  She learns new behaviors and broken behaviors are fixed quickly when the football is used as a main reinforcer.  These behaviors are not as quickly trained or fixed by using food; and she is a picky eater.  So her primary reinforcer could be considered the football in this definition.

Of course, we are just getting hung up on semantics now.  But I submit to you these definitions to get your wheels turning in your head.  Which definitons are you more likely to use in your own training? And why?

I am not one to judge other training programs; I can't possibly understand the nuances of why certain reinforcers are used versus others.  There are zoos establishing a training program with animals who have previously not been exposed to formal operant conditioning, and perhaps there aren't many opportunities (yet!!) for non-food reinforcement.  For example, training a grizzly bear for a voluntary blood behavior in a protected contact setting may mean that the bear is only receiving a food reward for said behavior.  That doesn't mean that down the road there won't be opportunities for other reinforcement, but there are times when food IS your fastest way to teach an animal to be calm and trusting.  You have to start where you have to start, know what I mean?

There's more to me than just being a hungry dude!

But I do know that most marine mammal trainers do not rely on food to shape or condition behavior.   There is always a heavy undertow of "anthropomorphism" when we train (no matter how hard we try to avoid it), because we would be silly to assume that all animals are motivated by food and food alone.  I think this is where some trainers get trapped; they try so hard to be clinical and "scientific" about training that they assume that the only motivator any animal could "want" is food.  To assume the animal likes anything else (e.g. toys, tactile, new training) without previously pairing it with food is anthropomorphic and therefore forbidden.

But are we really being honest with ourselves about that mentality?   I don't think we are.  While I admit I'm more on the "animals are conscious" end of the spectrum and I fully admit that, I don't believe you have to have my view of animals to have a great animal training program that actually looks at what shapes behavior.  And most facilities with people with varying opinions on the "whys" of this subject employ a varied, non-food based training program. 

For those of you who want to stick with scientific concepts, we can talk about the Drive State Theory, which is an actual psychological theory that essentially says different individuals are motivated to different degrees by different reinforcers and punishers.   So I love mac and cheese, but at some point eating too much of that is going to put me into a Trouble in Tummy Town scenario, and then it becomes punishing.  You can give me money to do certain tasks, but not ALL tasks.  What will I work for with NO questions asked 100% of the time? Nothing is reinforcing enough for me to always do what I'm asked.  And the same applies for animals.

I take that back.  I'd never stop eating donuts.  I'd eat them until I couldn't anymore because I went into a diabetic coma and never came back.  

Let's get to the meat (or seitan for all of us vegetarians) of the topic at hand.  Why shouldn't we rely on food as a main reinforcer across the board? Here are some good reasons:

1) Food is a limiting reagent.  At some point, most of us get full.  Our stomachs can only handle so much food.  And certain times of year (e.g. breeding seasons, fluctuating temperatures, NFL playoffs) have different caloric requirements.  
Many marine mammals commonly found in human care do not eat nearly as much in the warmer months as they do in the winter times.  Yet, for many places, summer is the busiest time.  How then do we mitigate LESS food interest with MORE shows/presentations/interactions?  If we relied on food from the start, we will inevitably get into trouble.

If Homer can get full, ANYONE can

2) Food is just, food.  Unless you have an animal who is super duper food motivated (like me), you're eventually going to run into an animal who looks at you and thinks, "You look oddly like a vending machine, human.  You can do better than that."  Variable reinforcement with food is always an option, but it's not enough for a really great training program.

Don't settle at being one of these

Now I will say for other animals in zoo settings, this particular point may not apply.  Many animals have a rich sense of taste, or at least spend a lot of time ingesting their food (e.g. parrots tearing apart a banana, the way I eat oreos and try to make them into quadruple and octuple-stuffed towers before I dislocate my jaw with delight trying to eat them).

You can use a variety of foods outside of the staple diet.  If an elephant's favorite snack food is a cantaloupe, that's something you can use variably in a training session as a special snack.  It's in addition to the base diet and in and of itself is exciting and new because the elephant may not see cantaloupes every day.  This concept is challenging with marine mammals who swallow their fish whole in a matter of 0.8 seconds and don't appear to savor much of anything.

3) When an animal isn't feeling well, or (we talked about this in point number 1) is in breeding season, they aren't going to feel hungry.  If they only see you as a source of food, then why would they come over to you if they're not hungry?


I'm simplifying these three reasons; I am blonde after all.  But the points within are worth thinking about.  Many trainers have stories of getting voluntary blood samples from dolphins who were not hungry because they used a favorite toy or lots of tactile.  Young calves, who have no interest in fish because they're drinking copious amounts of milkshake-thick milk every hour, come over to their trainers to learn critical medical behaviors (and lots of fun ones, too) for nothing other than attention and toys.  I friend of mine allowed an elephant she works with to play with certain apps on her phone during a voluntary medical procedure as reinforcement.  That's how it is, naysayers (and that's how it ought to be, trainers)!

When I was in San Diego a few weeks ago at the Very Popular Aquarium, I witnessed this first hand.  This particular Very Popular Aquarium has been under more scrutiny than normal thanks to a silly film that rhymes with Smlacksmish.   They say that the animals are starved or deprived of food when they do not emit a behavior correctly.  That the main drive for the animals is hunger, no matter how we trainers spin it.

Except that this Very Popular Aquarium is known and admired for doing entire shows on no food; using only secondaries as we defined earlier by marine mammal standards  (non-food items).   I spent a day and a half with these trainers and watched them do husbandry, interactive, and public presentation sessions using toys, tons of tactile, and a few snacks here and there.  Their dolphins were all attentive, many of whom solicited attention vis-a-vis rubs (not begging for food) outside of session.

Footballs are great dolphin currency

From personal experience having worked at four different aquariums, I can tell you that even the animals I've worked with who are very business-oriented (FISH PLEASE) show much better attention and energy when we start incorporating non-food reinforcers into the rotation.   But many, many more animals (ranging from penguins to dolphins), once other non-edible reinforcers are added to their training sessions, often have a faster learning curve.

Yes, of course we all know an animal who just wants to eat snacks.  I call these animals the Lunchboxes. I really relate to the Lunchboxes for reasons that should be clear to you at this point.  As trainers, our job is to make sure we're really paying attention to our animals.  This translates in a training scenario as paying attention to what the animal is learning and retaining when we use different types of reinforcers; not what we HOPE or WANT the animal to find motivating.  So if we have an animal who just loses their mind to get a handful of fish, then okay, that's your primary motivator.  That's knowing your animal.   It also means that, when sometimes a sea lion really focuses when they get a shoulder rub, that reinforcer may at some point change its value for a period of time, and you have to be ready to adjust (and not force) to that change.

We will! We promise!

The ultimate lesson in choosing your reinforcers is not about what you want.  It's about what the animal wants.  Whether or not you agree with the rhetoric I'm using (maybe you don't think animals can want, maybe you do), you can appreciate the basis of what I'm saying.  Are you throwing fish in your seal's face because that's what they "should" want?  Or are you doing it because they are motivated, focused, and actually learning?  Do you assume that your Lunchbox animal only likes food, and therefore that's where you as a trainer will stay without adding new reinforcers to their lives?

Furthermore, for the dissenters who are starting to read this blog, we can talk about the notion of marine mammals being "deprived" of food.  It isn't a matter of CAN a human being take away something?  Sure.  But why on earth would you do that if you really cared about your animals?  If you really were creating and cultivating a training program that was a two-way street? The answer is, you wouldn't.

If dolphins don't want to participate in a show, okay.  If a sea lion blows off an interaction, fine.  That is a level of comfort the animals have to give us the Middle Flipper.  It is.  They are choosing to say, "Nope, nothing you have interests me."  That could mean they're distracted by social or ethological reasons.  It could mean you have become a boring trainer and need to take another look at how motivating the session is and with what you're USING to motivate the animal.   It could mean there is something the animal is startled by or nervous about.

Animals who are forced to work for food, who are truly starved or deprived, do not act like this.  They are afraid to fail or to tell us off.  There are actual scientific articles about punishment and deprivation as it pertains to animal training in a lab setting.  These animals feel there is no choice; they must do what is asked of them OR ELSE.  They display neurotic behavior, frustration, very high rates of aggression, or worse, they become listless.

Your animals oughta feel comfortable saying no

There is no "or else" in marine mammal training.  At the end of the day, the animals get all the food they want to eat.  Read that last sentence carefully:  the animals eat all the food they want to eat.  NOT "all the food they earned in a training session".  There are times when they animals get full, and if you're relying too much on food as a reinforcer, they will blow you off because they are full.  

I find it frustratingly irritating the irony of how so many so-called animal rights activists acknowledge that animals are highly intelligent, but say that they are deprived of food so they will "perform".  Do they genuinely not realize that the animals are smart enough to know how to communicate to their trainers when they aren't feeling a particular behavior or an entire session?  That they know that they will get all of the food they want to eat?  If dissenters to our profession continue using this point as a main reason why what we do is wrong, then they are saying that our animals are incapable of understanding concepts beyond a few minutes at a time into the future.  They're wrong about that (how else would training work, anyway, if the animals had three-minute memories?).


Police dogs are trained with 0% food reinforcers, and have an incredibly high percentage of correct behavior emitted.  If food were key, don't you think a program like a K-9 unit in a police force or military unit would rely on it to ensure that the animals did the task at hand?  Of course.  But why don't they use food as a reinforcer, even if they have an animal who is food-motivated?  Refer to the "animals get full" point.  You can't have a rescue and recovery dog suddenly give up because he is full when lives depend on his motivation level.  A favorite toy and attention from their handler is enough to motivate a dog to do incredible things for very long periods of time.  

I worked with a sea lion who enjoyed her snack time, but was by no means an animal that could be asked to do something just because you had a bucket in your hand.  She was a very picky old lady, who would choose trainers seemingly at random to just not eat from or interact with at all in the most dramatic of ways (including but not limited to: blowing sea lion snot all over you).   Even if she wasn't hungry, she'd run towards her preferred trainers for a good long shoulder rub.  She'd run through her repertoire of behaviors for some lovin'.  

So no matter what percentage of your training program uses food versus non-food reinforcers, it's always a good idea to reflect on how motivating our motivators are to each individual animal.  It is not effective to apply the same reinforcer across the board.  You might be able to get away with it in many cases, but do we really want to settle with mediocrity?  Don't we want to push ourselves every day to improve the quality of life for our animals, to never settle for the status quo when it comes to training?  The answer you give me oughta' be YES!

Drama drips from sea lions (or is that drool?)

So what if your training program only uses food?  It's okay; we are all in different situations with different animals.  If your animals have spent years seeing their human caretakers as only vending machines, you can't just take that away from them.  It isn't about every animal doing entire sessions on no food right NOW.  It's about moving each animal, to their own degree, to a place where the training isn't all about food.  Even tiny variations can make a difference in situations where you are working with a dangerous animal who is wired to think with their stomach, and is not at a point where tactile or toy play is possible.  Train little, fun behaviors that challenge the animal's mind.  Give them an enrichment after a great session.  As long as you are constantly striving towards something better and richer, that's what matters.

Keep those wheels turning, trainer friends!  Let's continue to make a difference in the lives of the animals we are honored to know.

* This statement is intended for sarcastic purposes only.  I'd obviously never commit murder for any reason.  Unless someone took my macaroni and cheese away from me, then it's justifiable.

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