Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Middle Flipper Career Guide To Getting Re-Motivated

I never talk in absolutes.  Ha ha! No really, I do talk in absolutes sometimes, like when I say EVERYONE loves donuts.  Or NOBODY likes fire ants.  I'm sure that there are people out there who do not like donuts.  I'm sure there are people out there who like fire ants.  But sometimes, expressing a concept in absolutes is the best way to get a point across.  So you'll forgive me if you are one of the rare exceptions to the topic I'm about to introduce (but please at least tell me you're a donut lover).

All trainers, at one point or another, go through a period of time where they feel like they're stuck in their job.

Oh man, don't tell me there's a dead end in marine mammal training!

This manifests at different times and in different ways.  For the most part, you see it more commonly in one of the the following three (grossly generalized) stages of your career:

1) Between years one and two

2) After you've been at the mid-level for a while and you are basically cleared/checked-off on working with the animals in your department, and do most of the other animal-related tasks in shows and interactions

3) At the senior level (senior trainer, assistant manager or some kind, manager, curator, supervisor, etc.)

Now, the third category does not include the trainers who choose to move on to a different path.  Some trainers do not feel stuck, but rather move on to different life experiences.  Lots of amazing trainers are ready to leave after many years of the job, start families and/or move to support spouses  and decide to take a break.  This is not the topic of this blog; there are times when it makes more sense in life to take a different path!

But what I'm talking about today is that no matter how stuck you think you are, you aren't.  Trust me, I've been there.  I've also seen a lot of people go through this feeling of Stuckage, and the methods they use to help (or hurt) their career.   But have no fear!  I'll share with you some tips that may help you now or later.

Hey! Don't forget about me! I'm the reason you do this job!

"Wait wait wait wait wait!" you say.  "How can you possibly feel uninspired in this job?! YOU HAVE THE BEST JOB!"

The first thing to remember, and this is especially good for the aspiring or braaaaaand new trainers out there, is that just because something is amazing and wonderful doesn't mean it always feels that way.  Actually, I'd say it's the contrary.  Anything that experientially and emotionally valuable often comes with a lot of soul-searching challenge.  Getting your dream job does not mean it's a downhill coast until you're too old to do the job anymore.  Getting your dream job means you signed up for some incredible experiences, but that you earn them.  Sometimes earning them means you have second thoughts, or periods of time when you are frustrated or disillusioned.  

If I dream of having a dozen donuts, I have to go get them.  They don't just appear.  :(

The second thing to realize is that well, it's still a job.  It is an awesome job, but there are things about it that remind you it's still a job.  We'll go into more detail on this later, but there are still time-off requests, there are coworker conflicts, there are issues with bosses, there are days you have to interact with some RUDE guests and still be sickeningly nice, the animals can have bad days too when they don't feel like doing anything, etc. etc. etc.  

How do you know you're feeling disillusioned and stuck?  That might seem like a strange question, but not everyone realizes that's what's going on.  I'd say about half of the people who go through this know exactly what's going on.  They'd tell you they feel bored at work, or frustrated they can't get a promotion.  They may tell you that every day is the same, and they're just worn out.  

The other half don't admit what's going on, but they become very lazy and know-it-allish.  If that's you, and you realize you're sort of just squeaking by trying to get through the day, or that all of your coworkers and bosses are morons because they don't see things the way you see them, guess what?  You're in Stuckville.  Look, it's okay if you read this and go, "oh my god, that's me."  Because it's a normal thing to go through; what matters is that you figure out a way to snap out of it.  

Do what the cat says.  

In fact, whether you know you're "stuck" or not, the only important focus you now have is to snap out of it.  Why?  Here's a short list of reasons:

1) One unfocused, uninspired and/or snobby trainer on a team can single-handedly damage morale

2) You owe it to the animals (YOU DO!!) to give them everything you got; not just a let's-get-through-the-day attitude

3) You owe it to yourself to figure out what you need to do to feel happy and inspired again

4) Getting recharged and unstuck sets an awesome example for the rest of your coworkers at any level

So how do you get out of Stuck City?** Start by admitting it to yourselves, tell yourself that it's OKAY and 100% NORMAL, and that you're now focused on a plan of action to improve your situation.   Then read the rest of this blog....knowing I've gone through all three of these stages!

I'll break it down into the three aforementioned categories.  If you're past some of these points in your career, it can't hurt to read the section addressed to them.  Why?  Well, first of all maybe it'll inspire something in you to help out the people you work with going through the same thing.  Second, maybe it'll spark an idea or remind you of something you tried at that time, and then you'll share your thoughts with me and whoever else reads this!  Okay, let's get started.

The Not-So-Rookie Anymore (1-2 years of experience)

Me, two years in the field, right in the middle of my Funk.

Oh MAN did I get this bad.  It's like the first year you're a trainer you learn SO MUCH.  All the knowledge in the training universe seems like a bottomless well.  You see more experienced trainers doing things you have dreamed of doing since you were a zygote, and for the first time you have an actual shot at getting to that level.  The only thing in your way is this massive check-list (literally or figuratively, depending on where you work).  You work and toil and learn and finally, after lots of constructive feedback and mistakes, you finally start working with animals without supervision.  You're allowed to make training and trouble-shooting decisions on your own.  You start building real relationships with the animals.  All of the training philosophy makes sense without having to think really hard about it.  

And then....

The learning significantly slows down.  At least, you think it does.  There are no more loaded check-lists.  Whereas in the first year, you were learning multiple new things at a time, now you're learning three or four new things in a year.  The types of things you're learning how to do take months and months to get checked off on, and there are no real obvious criteria.  

Ain't no curve in a learning curve! Just lots of plateaus with a couple'a jumps.  You can either play on the plateaus, or wallow in a pit of despair and roll around in your own defensiveness. 

For example, when I started working at an interaction facility, I had just over a year of experience.  Starting at a new facility meant I had to learn a lot of new things about how the facility ran, but it didn't take long to get cleared on that kind of stuff.  What I did have to do was learn the interactions.  At first, it was really exciting because it was very different than the type of thing I did at my first job. I had someone actively watching and coaching me, plus I had all these new dolphins to get to know!

But at some point, after I was cleared on the programs, I started to get bored.  I was allowed to do interactions with basically all of the other dolphins, and I just felt all I did was the same thing every day.  Not to mention, I didn't have that great of a relationship with some of the animals.  There was a point that this one dolphin, who asked that she be left anonymous, would just leave me.  My boss eventually did not let me take this dolphin in programs because it got so bad.  

And you know what my attitude was at this time about this whole thing?  It was, "This isn't fun anymore."  And "I don't get why this animal doesn't like me, it's probably because my training style is different than everyone else's." 

I should've worn this on the back of my shirt.  And on the front.

The vicious cycle happened.  You know this cycle, right?  The one where your attitude takes a giant poop and then your bosses pick up on this (but you think you're SO clever that they'd NEVER notice you're feeling down?) and they start really watching you to pull you out of your funk.  But they're not necessarily like, giving you a back massage, braiding your hair and telling you how great you are.  They're watching your sessions and basically going, "uhhhhh?"

My bosses noticed my womp-womp attitude.  They each had a different method in trying to help me get through it ranging from sit-downs to calling me out in session.  But no matter how much they tried to help me, I kept going back to this prevailing attitude that I'd hit a wall.   Sometimes on my worst days, I'd think, "Why are they picking on me??" or "Why are they focusing on the stupid stuff? I KNOW what I'm doing!!"

I looked for jobs elsewhere.  I even considered switching fields.  A lot of me felt guilty for even thinking of leaving the field, because I loved the animals so much.  But I just felt like there was nothing left to learn, and I didn't understand why my relationships with some of the animals were not great.  I couldn't see myself progressing.  

And then, I got this advice from someone not even in the animal training field:

"You have to make your own way.  You're the only one not helping yourself.  You're not listening to people who have years and years and years more experience than you.  You're focused on defending yourself, and not so much as to what you can do to control your own progress."

It made sense when I heard it.  And so, that's what I did.  The animals who didn't want to give me the time of day, I made it a personal mission to find out what made them tick.  I watched sessions of trainers who had great relationships with those animals, asked questions, and combined their tips with my own style of training.  The challenge was deep and interesting.  Suddenly, I felt like a sponge again, learning and learning and learning.  And while it wasn't necessarily something "new" per se, it was teaching me how to make my own path.  More importantly, it was teaching me how to be a better animal caregiver and trainer.

They deserve the best!!!

Does any of this sound familiar to you?  

Here's my advice to you (it might sound familiar!):

1) You don't have the best relationship with every animal.  No, no you don't.  Stop arguing with me! Go make a good relationship great.  Go make a strained relationship great.  Research, observe, ask, and experiment.  It's not about giving SDs and chucking fish.  It's about discovering how you can be significant in an animal's life.  

2) When you feel like your senior staff members are full of it, that's your first warning sign that maybe you're not as open-minded as you need to be.  Don't be hard on yourself for feeling defensive right away; lots of us feel like that.  But don't react.  Instead of acting on the defensiveness, use it as a cue (an SD!) to tell yourself, "Okay, this feeling REALLY means I need to listen and take this to heart."  

3) Reach out to your bosses, mentors, and/or people you trust who have some experience.  Tell them what you're going through.  I wish I'd done that, because I feel like I would've come to a better conclusion sooner.  

The Mid-Level Chuggin' Along Trainer (3+ years)

Me as a mid-level trainer.  Boy did I learn a lot around the time this photo was taken.

So now you're past the newbie/quasi-newbie phase, and you're a mid-level trainer.  You can do all the shows, interactions, research trials, and you can work basically every animal.  You mentor interns and new trainers, and are relied upon as a very valuable member of the staff when it comes to your animal skills.

And then, you hit a wall.  Similar to the 1-2 year trainer stuckage milestone, you start to think you know it all, you've seen it all.  Only this time, the dangerous thing is that you probably HAVE seen a lot of stuff.  Why's that dangerous?  Because it makes you even more convinced you know it all.


A classic symptom of someone in this funk is a person who stops doing work.  I know that each facility has a different method on how they organize staff and what tasks they're expected to accomplish during the day.  You know your facility best.  But you may be in Mid-Level Stuck when:

a) You think cleaning is beneath you
b) You consistently are disappointed when you see you're scheduled for sessions...
c) ...and you're happy when your day is free and clear
d) You only want to do the "really hard" or "really exciting" stuff (usually stuff you're not ready/qualified for)

On top of those signs, you may be talked to by senior staff.  No matter what stage you're at in this game, there's a lot you can do to pull yourself out of it.

In some cases, trainers from other facilities get like this quickly if they become disillusioned by the change from what they're used to.  Or, they get an understanding that they are hired on as "consultants" versus actual staff members.  I'll do another blog on this type of thing later, but I do think some of those people qualify for Stuckage.  It's another symptom of feeling like you've done it all and there's just nothing left.

You're not stuck in your career.  This puppy on the other hand, he's effing stuck.

The good news is, WRONG! There's ALWAYS stuff to learn! Always new things to see and experience!  And even more good news! YOU are the person who can change this situation!  Here are some tips:

1) BUILD RELATIONSHIPS.  You. Never.  Have. The. Best. Relationship. With. Every. Animal.  With. Whom. You. Are. Cleared. To. Interact.  This concept is a built-in career booster, beyond the fact that it's the BEST part of the job AND it provides the animals with substantially higher quality of life.

2) Get off your butt and scrub a bucket.  Camaraderie is forged over the fish house sink.  Scrubbing buckets, habitats, whatever is another easy way to provide for the animals.  If you've got time to sit down and be bummed you're on five dolphin shows, you've got time to wash one (1) bucket.  It's not just a pointless exercise.  You're doing a kind, important task; that clean bucket means a healthy animal.  Talk and laugh and get to know your coworkers.  Find joy in the things that before made you roll your eyes.

3)  Look at each session you're scheduled for as an opportunity to improve your relationship with the animal.  Challenge yourself, whether in broad terms like "be more variable", or in very specific terms like changing reinforcement schedules (or goofy ones like, every time someone says the word "dolphin", you have to move from your location).  Is that going to mean you never get tired of doing the same thing in the busy season? No.  But it does mean you won't have that feeling very often.

I can haz relationship?

4) Embrace the fact that you are still learning, even though you may be very good at the job you know how to do from a technical standpoint.  Realize that maybe why you haven't started learning those really exciting/hard things is because your bosses can tell you're Stuck and are waiting for you to snap out of it.

5) Remember that especially from this point on in your career, there are lots of people looking at how you handle yourself.  New trainers, interns, and coworkers will look to you and say one of two things: "WOW, he is really inspiring!" or "WOW! She is really lazy and crabby!"  Which one would you like to be?

6) Ask for help.  Go to your senior staff, someone you trust a lot, and tell them what's going on.  Show some humility, show that you're willing to work hard to get out of the quagmire.  It'll pay off (if you listen).

7) And once you've done at least SOME of the aforementioned things and you're still unhappy at work, it might be time to start looking at other jobs to get a fresh start (but remember, Stucksville is encompassed in you...not the facility***)

The Senior Level Trainer Who Wants More

A senior trainer with a senior dolphin!
This stage is totally inevitable if you're a career-climber and are in the field a while.  Why?  Well, that's easy!  There are not nearly as many senior staff jobs as there are interested candidates.  In fact, this topic alone could be the subject of a novella-length Middle Flipper blog (hmmm...), but we're just going to talk about how to get through this.

The first thing to remember: no matter what your situation is, YOU have control over your development.  You may not have control over a promotion...but you can always learn.  And sometimes, it might mean looking for a place with more room to grow.

So are you frustrated that you're not moving up the ladder?  Don't know how you're ever going to make it Big In The Field?  Pat yourself on the back (seriously)!  Those fears and concerns are only there because you are passionate.  And passionate people NEED to be in this field.  

Now, it's time to figure out how to use that passion to get yourself re-motivated.  Here are some things that have helped me very much in the past:

1) Read management/leadership books.  Read lots of them.  They are dirt cheap and really, really interesting.  The best part is you don't have to wait for your boss or mentor to sit you down and go over this stuff with you.  You just have to turn the page.  Think about how these books apply to your job and how YOU treat your staff.  Don't read them with the thought of, "OMG, my boss NEVER does this", because how the heck does that help you if you're judging them?  It only helps you if you apply it to yourself as a leader, no matter what level you're at.

Take a look!!!!!

2) Have I mentioned the thing about building relationships with the animals?  Usually by this point, you totally get that concept.  So use it as an excuse to get a little more animal time (since that seems to start disappearing the further we get away from the senior trainer title).  Reconnect to the reason you're in the field: to make the animals' lives better.

3) Talk to your boss.  I don't mean go in and complain, "Hey, I'm sad because I'm not being promoted.  Fix it."  I mean, "I'd love to keep developing my skill set as an animal trainer and as a leader.  I realize there is not an opportunity right now for a promotion, but based on your knowledge of me, what kinds of things do you feel I should work on so I am prepared when the time comes to move up?"   Maybe you have some ideas.  One of my bosses at another job was very open to me creating a staff development program.  I happened to read about it in a book and wanted to try it out.  Had I never asked my boss, I would've never been able to get some really valuable experience AND have a blast doing it.  Even if she'd said no, I could've tried in more subtle ways to work on my leadership skills.

True stuckness

4) Remember, you're a mentor to a lot of subordinate trainers.  Don't forget about them, because they want you to be involved in teaching them.  So many times we focus on our own anxieties and frustrations about being Stuck that we slack on putting in the time to develop the staff.  Especially at the senior trainer level, you're really the mid-way point between the trainers and the management.  You've got a great balance of responsibility.  When you're feeling pinned down, go back to encouraging your subordinates, find out what motivates them, identify who plays what role on your team.

5) And at some point, when you've tried all the things I've written above, it may be time to move on to another facility.  But not in a mean, guns-blazing, bridge-burning way.  No, not even if you think you're 100% justified in feeling that way.   There's that saying "Don't run away from a job; run TO a job."  Sometimes, the stars don't align and there isn't room for growth.  Or another opportunity pops up, and you have to take it.  Just don't get Stuck, not try to fix your situation (and I mean, REALLY try to fix it without blaming everyone else for your frustration), and then head over to another place.  Why? Because guess what, the same problems will be there.

omg naps <3

There are lots of reasons people can be unhappy at a job.  But the reasons we get Stuck are almost ALWAYS something we can control.  Isn't that awesome?  We have the power to change and improve our situation.  The only thing is, it's hard.  It requires a lot of self-discipline, introspection, and above all HUMILITY.   But let's recap on the benefits of getting through Stuckage:

1) It benefits the animals
2) It benefits your coworkers at all levels
3) It benefits YOU
4) It sets a great example for people
5) It sets you up to get through the next time you feel Stuck

So what are you waiting for?  Get movin'!

* I hope that there is no one who hates donuts AND likes fire ants, because I don't think we could be friends.  Or within a 10 mile radius of one another.

** God that sounds awful

*** With some rare, rare, rare exceptions and I hesitate to even say that.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Middle Flipper is....(Part 11)

....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?).  

Tina Majorino with Torey, Tina's mom!

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