Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Relationships We Cultivate

Relationship.  You know, the kind you build with animals. I've been thinking about this concept for a while now, and how trainers from different world views describe their rapports with the animals in their care.

I love this little guy!!

Similar to anthropomorphism, saying you have a good relationship with an animal can sometimes be taken as a No-No by a camp of trainers would call themselves behavioral purists.  I think this goes back to the concept that while we as trainers do use scientific principles to condition behavior, many of us go off the deep end once in a while and wind up with some really non-scientific beliefs.

I've addressed this issue of anthropomorphism animal emotion a number of times, and maybe you're sick of hearing me bring it up.  But it's a great example of what I'm talking about.   We seek to be clear and predictable in our training rules for the benefit of our animals so that they understand what the heck we're asking of them*.  This leads us to focus on the results of our training methods instead of making a wide range of potentially misleading assumptions about the goings-on in the animals' heads. We know the word "anthropomorphism" means "attributing human characteristics to an inanimate object or a non-human organism", so we urge one another to not anthropomorphize so that we can keep our training rules clear. And then...

This somehow leads us to assume that we as trainers never assume the mental state of our animals, which is of course ridiculous because we are always assuming we know what motivates the animals.  We use what feel like scientific terms to describe what's going on with our animals ("the animal appears sensitized to the sound stimulus emitted from the out-flow pipe") but what we're really saying is that we think the animal is scared of a sound based on our deep knowledge of their behavior and personality** ("individual history".)

This, combined with an outdated principle that humans are the only animals with emotions, creates a monster of misinformation despite best intentions.  It also clouds our vision as trainers.

I need this for me as a trainer like nine years ago when it came to terminology and the incorrect use of "anthropomorphism."  Also, is this badge a real thing?!

So how does this have anything to do with building relationships with our animals? 

First, ask yourself: what does it mean to have a great relationship with a non-human animal?  

Second, how do you build that relationship?

Here are my answers to those questions.

I think having a great relationship with an animal means that both he/she and I are attentive, focused, and (this is your warning, you non-anthropomorphizers! Get ready!) excited to interact with one another.  That doesn't mean that each interaction is action-packed and energetic.  It could be mellow and chill.  But more times than not, we have successful sessions that are fun and rewarding to both of us.  When that animal doesn't feel like participating in a behavior or session that is really important (like a husbandry behavior for a much-needed sample), or some crazy thing just happened like oh you know, a Ron Paul ReLOVEution blimp flies over the pool that is so scary it renders a dolphin completely unable to deal*** you are usually able to get that animal through the experience in a positive manner.  Trust is critical to a great relationship.  

I don't care what you say, you can't trust a raccoon.

And it's a two-way street, right?  It's not like the animals are little machines programmed to trust us if only we just remember to feed them and toss a ball around once in a while.  We give them input, they give us input.  If we do something that really isn't working for them, they'll let us know.  They're never like, "Oh, poor Cat.  She keeps throwing that football out for me but I HATE that dastardly toy. I just can't break her heart though, she loves it so.  So I'm going to pretend I love it and I'll play with it all day."



Blowhole sigh

A sign of a great relationship is that when one of you screws up, the other is okay with it up until a certain point.   One or even a handful of mistakes that you make as a trainer with a particular animal won't destroy a great relationship longterm; how many of you out there can think of an animal who's carried you through an interactive program where you keep screwing up because you've got a difficult guest?  You want to look at the animal and have an interaction like this:

You: Oh my god Mr. Seal, I'm SO SORRY I just totally focused on that guest for like three minutes while you just sat there so patiently.

Seal: Oh honey, it's okay.  I understand.  Usually you are so attentive, so I just figured I'd wait here.

What a nice seal.

That's not necessarily the case with an animal with whom you do not have a strong relationship, even if they are very well-conditioned.  Certainly, there are animals whose personalities and temperaments are just rock-solid: you could drop an atomic bomb next to their habitat and they'd be all like, "Oh, my, what a beautiful mushroom cloud!" no matter who you are. But there are plenty of other individuals who are not so laid-back and forgiving, so your screwy encounter may result in something like this:

You: Oh my god Mr. Seal.  I'm SO SORRY I just totally focused on that guest for like three--

Seal: PEACE! You suck!!!!


So onto the second question: how do we build a good relationship?

Other than TIME (can you tell that's important?), of course.

This is where the real juicy part of this blog lives, and in this juicy part exist Two Camps.  For the sake of argument, I'm going to grossly stereotype these camps and then we'll unpack this idea later.

Camp Numero Uno: The So-Called Behaviorists

How sciencey!

These are the trainers who pride themselves on crisp operant conditioning. They have strict criteria, they do not use anthropomorphic terms and so their sentences are exceedingly careful (and long!) when describing how an animal responds to certain stimuli.   They establish a relationship by using primary reinforcement, which they would describe as any unconditioned reinforcer and that limits it to about one thing: food.  After they consider themselves Significant to an animal by way of feeding them, they begin to systematically incorporate secondaries which they define as any conditioned reinforcer.

Relationships are a one-way transaction.  This Camp will often respond to questions by guests or other trainers about animal intelligence or emotion by stating that the animals respond to their trainers simply because they are conditioned to do so.

Camp Numero Dos: The So-Called Dolphin**** Huggers


These trainers describe their relationships with their animals using words like: trust, love, understanding.  Their criteria is only strict on paper; they want to make sure the animals end on a positive and know that each animal may have certain caveats in order to do their behaviors correctly.  They would rather the animal have a good time than to face failure (which isn't a word you'll hear flying around this camp).  Reinforcers are usually whatever the animal likes best, so a primary reinforcer would be defined as whatever the animal likes the best (perhaps reinforcers that did not have to be conditioned), and secondaries are ones that had to be conditioned.

Relationships are mutual.  This Camp will often respond to questions by guests or other trainers about animal intelligence or emotion by using flowery speech and talking about more ethereal, intangible facets of their bond.

Like srsly?

Is anyone just seething after they read those two descriptions and want to throw me a Middle Flipper?  I hope you are.  Why?  Because those are totally exaggerated representations of two very powerful ends of a spectrum.   Not to make anyone feel uncomfortable here, but lookit: we may not fully live in either of those Camps, but maybe we know which Camp we live closer to.  Does that mean it's WRONG to be in Camp One or Two?  Absolutely not.   But it means we probably related more to one of this descriptions, right?

And because we humans love love love to be in Camps (hey, we're social and cultural animals, so we're sort of hard-wired that way), it's easy for us to stand proudly in our own belief structure and criticize the Camp across the street.  I've done it, not that I'm happy or proud to admit that.   But I'm human, and have opinions.  And what I've learned is that really and truly, both Camps have great elements to establishing meaningful relationships with their animals.  And both have...well, faults.

We animal trainers don't have a devil and an angel on our shoulders.  We have Scientist and Animal Lover.

Poor Stock Photo guy!

I think the burgeoning scientist in us all occasionally comes out and whispers in our ear, "don't look too much like a dolphin hugger, it's not scientific."  And then the kind-hearted animal lover whispers in our other ear, "But does it have to be so cold and systematic? Those animals are unique individuals!"

And depending on who we surround ourselves with at work and in the industry as a whole, we listen to one of those voices more than the other.

But guess what?  Just because you're more of a Dolphin Hugger type doesn't mean that you don't adhere to strict behavioral principles.  And just because you're more of a Behaviorist type doesn't mean you don't fiercely love your animals.   How is that possible?  Because...

You can't have a great relationship with your animal without understanding him or her as an individual with emotions, needs, likes, dislikes, and a decent memory.  And you can't communicate clearly or establish solid foundations on which you'll build trust and respect without creating and maintaining solid, predictable behavioral goals.   You have to live in both Camps.


Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

Let's say there's this flighty dolphin named Flora. In my experience, having worked at places on both ends of the spectrum, animals with anxiety and extreme sensitization do better when rules are initially and clearly laid out for them.  Not because the trainer Must Have Compliance, but so the animal knows how to follow the rules and how to clearly break them.

In Flora's case, we focus on the basics: her heads-up stationing, her response time to SDs, and how she responds to things that scare the living *#&% out of her.  You know, like if we accidentally hit our elbow on one of the floating docks, she freaks out for the rest of the session.  Or one time we blew our whistle underwater and OH MY GOD THE WORLD ENDED.  Also, she is the world's finickiest eater, so just getting her to eat her fish is a behavior in and of itself.

We could reinforce Flora for just being with us, heads-up stationing be damned! We could give her lots of extra help with that, focus hands, extra hand targets, just so that she'll be successful.  

But in my experience, I've found that has the opposite effect.  Instead of showing compassion and understanding to the animal, you're not actually listening to what they're telling you.  At the very least, you've superstitiously conditioned poor attention while they wait for you to give them the signal to sit up.  All this time, communication is muddled.  Is Flora's stationing that way because it's superstitiously conditioned like that?  Is it because she is unmotivated?  Is she sexual? Sick?  Wow, those are a lot of factors to consider.  

So if we focus on the tight criteria of the heads-up stationing, what does Flora learn?  Yes, that to continue with her session, she must be clearly attentive. It looks nice.  We get crisp behavior. That's only part of it though, and maybe not even the most important part.  

It ALSO empowers her to say NO very clearly to us.  If she is unmotivated (a very, very important situation to appreciate quickly as a trainer), she knows how to tell you that.  Boom.  Her stationing goes down the toilet.  If she isn't feeling well, whoa, there goes her heads-up.  

What once was, "Ehhh...that's just Flora....I think...." is now, "Wow, this is significant.  She is usually very attentive, so I need to pay attention."  You've given Flora an easy way to communicate with you.  

Communication is key, after all.

On top of that, all the work we do with Flora's criteria and teaching her the predictable, fair, and consistent rules of the game?  It takes any guesswork away from Flora where it's not needed.  Now she can focus that big dolphin brain of hers on fun problem-solving in training, or any games you create for her.   Suddenly, when she sees you coming to her habitat, she is eager to see what you bring next.  She has no reason to be anxious or flighty around you, because she knows what to expect from you.  She knows she only has to focus on the fun part of a training session, show, or interactive program.  And she knows you'll listen to her when she says no.

Do we just stick with the black-and-white of training?  Of course not.  Why?  Because primary reinforcement, as we marine mammal trainers define it, isn't actually the most motivating thing to Flora.  We can sling fish at her face all day and find out that had we just used that favorite toy (which, by the way, was never conditioned...she just played with it on her own), her learning and retention rate would shoot through the roof.  Once she knows us and our rules, she trusts us to use tactile as reinforcement, because she is a very tactile-motivated animal (another reinforcer that was never conditioned using food).  We take the time to observe her outside of session in addition to remembering what reinforcers resulted in better attention and learning rates.  We get to know Flora, instead of pigeon-holing her.  We use our Camp Two skills, combine them with Camp One, and get a powerful, lasting relationship that benefits both parties.

Let's all meet in the middle, because you just can't have a great training program without Fundamentals and Relationship.  They must exist together.  If you haven't tried it and think your program is great now, just think about how much more amazing it will be if you'd just take a few notes from the opposite Camp than the one you associate with more.   We can all be sharp behaviorists who dolphin hug, and not worry about scrutiny from anyone else.  The animals will thank you for it.

* i.e. How they can control us like little puppets, because that's what they do

** Don't like the word "personality" when describing animals?  Even ethologists use this term.  A quick google search of "animal personality studies" will give you a good long list of peer-reviewed research publications in very well-respected journals. 

*** True story

**** Not actually limited to dolphins, obvi!

1 comment:

  1. First thing, you can talk about anthropomorphism all you want, hell if you want to talk about cheese all day you can do that as well I'll be happy to listen.

    I understand both sides of the spectrum and they certainly have their place, one without the other is like Halloween without the pumpkin. One of the biggest reasons I got into this field was to build a lasting relationship with the animals I work with. I want to change their lives for the better just as much as I want them to change mine and they have. From the smallest turtle to the biggest grey face they've all changed me.

    The smallest things they do put a smile on my face. Just the other day I had the opportunity to work with animal I don't necessarily have a relationship with (we're working on it), anyway the session went amazing she was into it, I was into it, and life was flipping awesome!

    Anyway to end I want to say the bond we build with the animals we work with is not only handy when it comes to training, but it can be life saving. Where toys, tactile, and even food fail relationship has come through, trust has come through. It's odd that a thing so equivalent to time is immeasurable to science. Spend that extra 10 minutes with you animals because you never know when it may make the difference.

    Mary G