Sunday, February 22, 2015

Getting Off Of The Emotional Roller Coaster of Training

We've talked a lot about what happens when animals say "no".  I mean, that concept was the inspiration for the title of this blog!  I'd argue that some of the funniest stories I've experienced and heard about were due to an animal throwing a wrench into a plan, outsmarting me, or otherwise basically showing me that they are the ones in control and not me.

One of several capable masters of middle flippering.

But something I've been thinking a lot about lately is how we the trainers react when the animals we care for are cooperative, and when they're not.

When I worked at a facility that only housed dolphins, we used to label the types of sad-trombone days* in the following ways:

"I'm Having Issues"

It's always good to put things into perspective.

This involved womp womp days that basically meant you couldn't get out of your own way.  Maybe you tripped up the stairs, then dropped a huge bucket of fish on the ground, realized you were late for a program, or had a cockroach in your wetsuit.

"I'm Having Gissues"

My favorite was a Trip Advisor report of a person who was mad we didn't have dolphins jump through hoops.

This pertained to having issues with guests.  This category encompassed the small sliver of very entitled and very rude patrons of our facility.

"I'm Having Dissues"

I may have been having Dissues in this photo with the boss lady behind me deciding that I was in her way

And of course, the inspiration for this blog, the Dolphin Issues.  These were of course the issues we would have with the dolphins being uncooperative.  That word "uncooperative" doesn't mean they didn't "perform" well or something like that....I'm talking about those times when you are on a completely different wavelength than the animals with whom you're interacting.  Some common dissues involved dolphins refusing to do a session with you for no understandable reason, forgetting everything they've learned (or so they wanted you to think), or just causing general mayhem.

Everyone is talking about this weird astrological thing happening right now about mercury being in retrograde and how that causes massive communication failure.  Well, let me be the first to publicly admit that animal trainers have Trainer/Animal Retrograde on a regular basis because um, I don't know how many times I have to say this, the animals think for themselves and make their own decisions thank you very much.

Or if I'm just an animal trainer

Here's the thing though.  How many of you can admit to having your entire day made or ruined by having Dissues?  Okay, okay, I realize that a lot of people reading this do not work solely (or at all) with dolphins, but "dissues" is what we're defining this as mostly because merging "animal issues" into "Aissues" sounds like this sneeze I make whenever I do a lot of dusting around the house and it really freaks me out.  

It is 100% normal and understandable that we as animal caretakers would get totally psyched about the animals in our care making huge progress on a new training goal, because we are proud of their accomplishments.  It's also awesome to just have a day run smoothly, because it's convenient but most importantly, it means the animals are having a great time and everyone wants that.  But sometimes, we get too attached to Things That Go Well.  This is true for zookeepers in all walks of life, but I think this is especially true for the animal training type.

We put a lot of emotional attachment on how "well" our animals are doing in terms of training or cooperating with what we're asking them to do.  Instead of just being really excited, happy, and proud of a good training session, I think many of us can admit that we go a little further than that.  We start to really base how the rest of our day is going to go on the accomplishments of the animals.  While that may seem like a great thing, like so many really High Highs in life it is often paired with a Low Low.

Here are some real-life examples of this High-High/Low-Low ratio:

*  Eating Lots Of Yummy Ice Cream/Lots of Quality Time In The Bathroom

Please, enjoy me while I last.  I'll only be visiting for a short time.

*  I Watched Season 3 House of Cards in One Afternoon/It Is Now 4am And I Still Haven't Showered


In training, this ratio is applied in this fashion:

My Day Is AMAZING When The Animals Do Everything I Ask/My Day is HORRIBLE When They Don't

Put this way, I'm sure many of you are going, "Ohhh no!! Cat!! That's not at all how I see it!!"

I believe you feel that way, but I also think most of us don't REALLY act that way sometimes.  Again, it's not to make anyone feel ashamed (and I'm right there with all of you), but a call for all of us to soberly look at what value we give the "success" of our animals.  

We tend to mix up the terms "success" for "compliance" in training, even if we don't mean to.  And it's understandable.  We spend a lot of our lives and careers trying to better ourselves as trainers.  We want to learn how to train increasingly more complicated behaviors, or interact with more challenging animals and actually get through to them.  It's only normal for us to revel when we notice we have connected with those animals, and see them succeed.

We love to watch these guys learn and get excited about it!

But it's what happens when they are not "successful" (read: compliant) is when we fall on our face.  I have experienced this personally, but I've also seen many a trainer fall into a deep pit of mental despair when they are having a Dissue Day.  Why? Because they take it really, really personally.  A few people who really missed the boat on what training is about may actually blame the animal, which of course we all know is really not helpful or even accurate most of the time (plus, even if it is the animal's "fault", who cares? That doesn't really matter and shouldn't ruin your day).

Let's also clarify that I think it's normal to feel a little disappointment when things don't go well or according to plan.  For god's sake, yesterday my team and I had a stressful day that was just One Of Those Days that you get when you take care of animals.  There was definitely a lot going on and we felt bummed about some of it.  Being concerned for an animal's health, feeling sheepish because you screwed up a training approximation, or simply being stressed trying to figure out of an animal is yanking your chain or not feeling well are all normal parts of Sad Trombone days.  

The best gif on the internet

Beyond that though, is the problem I'm addressing.  I've seen trainers get completely depressed by an animal with whom they have a strong relationship totally blow them off, regress in a behavior, or just be generally uncooperative.  They take it personally, like the fact that the animal is giving them the Middle Flipper is somehow a direct reflection on their worth and value as a trainer.  When those animals are really, really great, the trainer is really, really great.  When those animals are really, really challenging, the trainer gets awfully down in the dumps.  Not that they get angry at the animal, but they get upset at themselves.

Many of us are like that, or at least used to be.  It's because we're passionate people who care deeply about the animals we know and love, and about our performance as trainers since our skill set is always growing.  Many of us also work in very competitive jobs; we want to try to be the best not only because that's what's best for the animals, but maybe a little bit because we want that next promotion, or we want to prove ourselves to our staff in a competitive environment.

My own personal opinion on competitive work environments in the animal training industry aside, no matter how cutthroat you are, you can benefit from what I'm about to tell you.  


Listen to Mr. Kimble, people.

Stop measuring your value as a trainer based on isolated events with an animal who is blowing you off.   Stop measuring your value as a trainer based on ANY isolated events; no matter how elated or frustrated you feel.   In fact, take a look at what The Middle Flipper thinks makes a great animal trainer:

Great Middle Flipper Trainers Are:

1) Introspective - you can look objectively at your mistakes or short-comings and find ways of improving them without passing super harsh judgment on yourself, because NO one is perfect

2) Confident - you feel good about your knowledge and skill set, but not cocky.  Still, you know that one or two womp womp training sessions does not a bad trainer make

3) Compassionate - equally towards yourself and the animal who is telling you NO WAY DUDE

4) Great Consumers of Processed Sugars - biological fact 

5) Respectful of the animals - you know that it's the right of the animals in our care to voluntarily opt out of whatever we're asking them to do.  You also know that they are not computers acquiring software when they are learning; they can have off days, they can forget, they're allowed to get confused without it being a reflection on your training prowess

6) Respectful of themselves - show some mercy towards yourself and realize you're not always the reason for the animals messing up or refusing something.  And if you ARE the reason, give yourself a break: just learn from the experience instead of beating yourself up over it

7) Able To See Humor In Everything - Barring medical or safety situations, it is usually effing hilarious when the animals go their own way

There are going to be times where you DO make a mistake (or series of mistakes) that really confuse an animal, or break down a behavior, or...worse...cause them to go, "Uh, I am NOT sitting with Cat anymore."  Yeah, it's gonna happen.  It's happened to me, even as a supervisor.  Okay don't believe me?  Here's an example from THREE days ago.

Me? Mess up? C'monnnnnn

I've been training a side breach behavior with one of our little dolphins, Chopper.  I've been working with one of our experienced trainers on this behavior and it was going pretty well.  I've trained a number of aerial behaviors and have a great relationship with Chopper, so I was really confident that we'd get this behavior trained smoothly.  My human cohort was also doing a great job moving the behavior forward.  In fact, we were putting the finishing touches on his height when all of a sudden, he just decided he didn't want to breach very high.

We tried a variety of different methods, each with limited success.  While we both felt really excited earlier on in the behavior's history that HEY, WE ARE REALLY MAKING PROGRESS!! CHOPPER IS DOING GREAT!, we were starting to scratch our heads at this sudden regression.  While we both felt a little bummed, we tried to focus each other on the facts instead of just getting really upset about it: what could we do to make our expectation of Chopper clearer?  More importantly, how could we re-motivate him with this behavior since it hit a standstill?

What's up, Chop?

During this process, we came up with another plan that involved moving the location of the breach and relying more on toys and rubs as reinforcement versus fish.  Both worked well, and we were on a roll until....

....I really messed up and caused behavioral drift.  Blast!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Some very poorly-timed bridges on my part turned the side-breach into a back-breach.  He had the height, he had the panache, but the behavior looked nothing like it was supposed to.  BAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

I think I saw this very scene in a great dream I had once.

Was I bummed at myself?  Yes.  Was I humbled?  Um, of course.  Here I am, the supervisor of animal training and I just made several rookie mistakes because I blew my stupid whistle at the wrong time.  But instead of letting that sudden impulse to just hate myself and have my day ruined take over, I had to remember a few things (the things I'm trying to convey in this blog).  First, hey, Chopper is fine; they thinks he's doing everything right.  Second, I learned something, even if it's just to slow down and that even though I'm in a management position, I still will make silly mistakes.  And third, all that matters is that I move forward and come up with a plan to fix it all.  

That's it.  That's all I have to do.  I don't need to let it destroy my day, or make me think that Chopper hates me, or that I'm the worst trainer ever, or that my training partner thinks I'm a giant doofus (she may already think that about me anyway, which is really quite understandable).  There's no need to go further on this topic; just figure out what I can control to help Chopper out, then do that.  And if that doesn't work, keep trying to figure it out and ask for help when needed.

Remember what's important!

The animals are allowed to screw up, or be defiant, or forget, or get confused, or refuse things, or have an off day.  As long as they are healthy, it's okay for them to just not be perfect little angels for us.  We know that rationally of course, but we have to remember that the relationships we cultivate with these animals are NOT based on petty things like "compliance."  How well they respond to your training is important in the long run, because that tells you how fair, predictable, and motivating you are.  But little hiccups are expected and necessary.  They do not negate overall success, nor do they predict a failure in future success (unless you let yourself lose your mind over it).  Look at it as another beautiful example of how complex the animals you have the privilege of knowing, loving, and teaching are.  

Would you consider a relationship with a human a "good" one if your friend, spouse, or relative only wanted to be around you when you were doing everything perfectly?  What if you called your best friend when you were in a terrible mood and having an off day and they freaked out because they couldn't handle you not in a perfectly happy state?  That would be the worst friendship ever.  

Mario really is awful to Yoshi.

And in terms of our relationships with animals (as much as I know this paragraph grates at my strict no-anthropomorphism friends, bear with me), we have to apply this same idea: we have a stronger relationship with our animals when we see them at their best and at their worst.  We steel those bonds and reinforce good, predictable and fair training when we learn to work WITH them when they are being ornery, silly, or just plain confusing.  If we let our emotions get the best of us and let the highs and lows define an emotional roller coaster of a day, we lose sight of what is most important.

So celebrate the times when you are really in sync with the animals you care for; and hey, maybe hear a tiny little sad trombone in the back of your head when you're having a Dissue Day.  But don't let those things steer your passion.  Let the love, respect, and knowledge base you have keep you happy and afloat in times of good and bad.  Laugh and learn from the days that throw you curve balls.  And for god's sake, write down those Middle Flipper stories!

* You know, the sad trombone "womp womp womp".  Trombones are the saddest of the all of the instruments, although I have to admit that depressed bugles really bum me out too.**

        ** I couldn't even find photos of sad bugles, that's how depressing they 
             are.  The internet can't even handle their image.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

New School Versus Old School; We're Not That Different (Special Guest Writer Russ Chiodo)


Today's Middle Flipper is written by Russ Chiodo, a former marine mammal trainer-turned writer.  Russ has worked with a variety of marine mammals at Sea World Orlando, Sea World San Diego, Dolphin Research Center, and Marineland of Florida.  Recently, he co-authored a book on the history of one of the U.S.'s oldest facilities, the Gulfarium (check out the book here!).  After countless hours of interviewing former trainers and benefactors of Gulfarium, Russ developed a new appreciation for something all of us current trainers and keepers could always stand to acknowledge: the hard work, passion, and dedication of the so-called "old-school" keepers.   Enjoy!

The author

Animal care and training gets better every day. We build on experience, gain new insights through research, and grow as a community by sharing our successes and concerns through professional organizations such as IMATA. 

It goes without saying that abuse and profiteering to the detriment of an animal’s health and well-being will never be tolerated by the organized professionals of today’s zoological field--although it sure feels nice when we hear that core value declared publicly by a voice of our profession. High five, IMATA!

Although techniques, nutrition, veterinary care, animal enrichment, and public outreach have all improved and grown rapidly as a result of education and professionalization, one thing in the field has not changed, and that’s the absolute passion felt at the individual level by keepers and trainers. 
As an eager young trainer learning the many critical practices of top-notch animal care, it's easy to get caught up in a collective scoffing at the "old ways." One inch of ice over every bucket of fish and not a scale to be found in a freshly cleaned fish house--even an intern knows that's the best way to maintain dolphin health. Old photos reveal trainers carrying buckets in the hot sun with fish tails sticking right out the top. To the new trainer who just had the 40 years of distilled marine mammal science deposited into his brain, it would be easy to assume a trainer letting fish warm in the Florida sun couldn't possibly prioritize the level of animal care that today's keepers and trainers exhibit on a daily basis.

In researching a book covering the 60-year history of one of the original marine mammal facilities, Florida’s Gulfarium, I had the amazing opportunity to speak with former trainers who were working with dolphins and every other species of marine life brought into the park before Flipper debuted and the Marine Mammal Protection Act became law. High five, Nixon!

Admittedly, there are people who become stuck in their ways and refuse to learn and grow, but those people represent a very small fraction of the animal care population.  In fact, what I learned in my book research is that I was naive to think that trainers of yore didn't provide the best care possible for the animals under their watchful eye.

One of the most sincere things ever told to me was when Martha Bradford, a former Gulfarium trainer, said, “We didn’t know everything that’s known today, but we cared so much for those animals.” She and her husband Ron Bradford, also a former Gulfarium trainer, had just recalled the time Gulfarium trainers were recruited by a federal agent to rescue a group of abandoned and neglected dolphins from a storage warehouse in Mississippi in the early 1970s. 

The rescue was part of an investigation just after the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. Before that legislation, just about anybody could own dolphins and keep them in completely unregulated conditions. So while respected marine mammal facilities like Marineland and Theater of the Sea, to name only two, were building the foundation for today's respectable marine mammal field, some unscrupulous profiteers took advantage of dolphin popularity pre-1972 and put them in traveling road shows and circus-style events while failing to provide adequate water quality, nutrition and veterinary care. In fact, to this day some animals who were rescued from this life still live at facilities around the U.S.

By the time the Gulfarium staff arrived at the warehouse with the agent to try and save that unfortunate group of animals, most of the dolphins were already dead. The remaining animals only made it a few days. The Bradfords didn’t have to say it, it was written across their distressed faces as they recalled the experience--they wish to this day that they could have done more for those unfortunate dolphins. But by giving the animals the best shot they could, and then gathering data from those animals and the many others who stranded or passed from causes unknown at the time, life for dolphins at marine mammal facilities could improve.

Ron Bradford

This had great implications for the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick and injured dolphins as well.  For example, without the knowledge of how sensitive dolphins are to certain bacterial growth on fish (and equally importantly: how to keep fish in a way that prevents this bacteria), we would not have the resources to feed stranded, releasable animals.  

Today the benefits of simply hydrating a dolphin are widely known, and many facilities train a voluntary hydration behavior. Blood samples can be taken at regular intervals voluntarily to establish baselines, and even catch ailments early and monitor treatment progress.  Bottlenose dolphins consistently reach and surpass their average life expectancy in accredited zoos and aquariums, and so we are now facing a number of geriatric animals with typical geriatric problems.  A very old dolphin may develop, like so many humans, age-related digestive problems that slow down digestion of bony fish.  One solution to this is to filet their fish so that their stomachs don't have to work as hard to digest bones.  This simple treatment that provides comfort to an aging body may also assist stranded animals whose GI tracts are severely compromised due to injury or illness; an example of how what we learn with our animals in human care directly benefits their wild counterparts.

All of these things were learned because people on the front lines of the profession constantly sought a better standard of care for the animals they love. 

Could today’s knowledge of marine mammal medicine have successfully given those neglected and abused dolphins mourned by the Bradfords a second chance at life? Perhaps, but my research of that event leads me to believe those animals were already beyond even the most modern treatment practices.

But without their persistence to work through even the toughest days, the marine mammal field wouldn’t be where it is today. The records, papers, photos, and a constant willingness to apply newly gained knowledge to the next animal in peril made it possible for trainers and keepers to do their jobs today as well as they do. The new, modern trainers are merely standing on the shoulders of their "old school" counterparts. 

One can only imagine where that steady drive of passion will take the field from here. Breathtaking new exhibits, breakthroughs in veterinary science--perhaps an intern reading this blog will create a revolutionary and supremely enriching dolphin toy, the likes of which the world has never seen before!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

We Are The 99.9%


There's been a lot going on the past few days in our world, hasn't there?

Well, the biggest news in these girls' worlds involves deciding whether or not to play with the frisbee or the buoy first.

For any of you who don't know to what I'm referring, let's just say there's a video zooming around cyberspace that shows dolphin trainers at a particular facility (not in the U.S.) yelling at, hitting, and kicking dolphins.  I'm not going to post a link to this video, because I don't want to poison this blog with images like that.  Just like I don't want to post a photo of someone beating their dog, or hurting a horse, or any other animal; you can do your own research if you want to see it that badly, but it has no place here.

This video has brought out a lot of emotions, a lot of speculation, and a lot of confusion.  It is one of those rare times when marine mammal trainers and extremist animal rights activists are yelling from the same side.   Understandably, the rest of us in the field who were not depicted in this video want to make sure that the world knows, "Uh, THAT is not how we treat the animals under our care!!!!!!!!!!" We want to shout it from the rooftops: this video shows deplorable behavior that has no justification, and it certainly has no place in our industry (not to mention the fact it has no place AT ALL in ANY context with any animal, humans included)!!

So here's the thing, though.  The current maelstrom sweeping through certain media outlets and many of our own heads has a lot of details that most of us are clueless about.   Speculation is a normal human tendency, but that isn't the point of this blog.

All you need is love!

What's the point?  It's simple: the one fact we can all hang our whistles on is that none of us would ever even consider terrorizing (verbally or physically) the animals we know and love.  How about the fact that every single REAL animal trainer watched that video in utter shock and disgust?  

What is a REAL trainer?  Well, that's all of us who would never, ever hit an animal or terrorize them.  Us? We're the 99.9% of the animal training field. That 99.9% of animal trainers saw that video going, "....what? How can this be real? Is that real? Am I really seeing this?"  

In this situation, it's immensely important that we focus our emotions and efforts on the most productive, helpful things.  And you know what?  There have been a few things that happened right when this situation went viral that gave us that focus, and something to be really proud of.  

First, IMATA did us 99.9% all a solid.  They swiftly published a statement that didn't incite witch-huntery (as satisfying as that is in an emotionally-charged moment...we all are better human beings than that), but condemned the actions of the people in the video.  If you haven't read the statement yet, here it is:

On February 4, 2015, IMATA’s Board was made aware of a video that appears to show an individual or individuals yelling at, striking, and kicking dolphins. That video was brought to our attention by some of our members who expressed concern over what the video seems to depict. IMATA takes these concerns very seriously. We have yet to verify who the individuals are in the video nor been able to ascertain precisely what is taking place. However, we agree that the video is alarming and seems to indicate a trainer (or trainers) using unacceptable techniques. Once we confirm the identity of the individuals in this video and have looked into the situation thoroughly, if the evidence supports what clearly appears to be inappropriate and unacceptable interactions with dolphins – that individual would not be able to remain or ever become an IMATA member. IMATA is committed to exceptional animal care that has its basis in positive reinforcement training and we do not ever condone the use of punishment and reprimands that seem to be in use in that video.
This statement made me so proud to be an IMATA member.  Not only are they standing up for us (including the people who make up the IMATA board) and what we stand for as a community and profession, they make it clear the repercussions for anyone who is proven to violate a most basic, crucial concept: we don't abuse our animals!  On top of that, there is no speculation, which is what gives me focus in a time when I feel really angry, upset, and ready to just rip my hair out (and/or eat my feelings).  IMATA stepped up as a leading voice in our incredible field and gave us something to rally around.

Thank you, IMATA!

On a quick tangent, let's remember the first part of IMATA's mission statement: "Train animals emphasizing positive reinforcement to ensure humane care."  Emphasizing positive reinforcement translates to relying heavily on it.  

Let's also remember that IMATA accredits facilities specifically focusing on HOW the facility trains not only the animals, but the TRAINERS as well.  They have an entire, stringent process for accrediting facilities on these notes, with the strong undercurrent of, d'uh, positive reinforcement training and ZERO methods of terrorizing an animal via physical punishment (verbal or physical).  

Second, a few members of the training community stepped forward on Facebook and urged trainers to share how they care for and interact with their animal families.  Someone posted an awesome video of their training team playing with pinnipeds, another person had an adorable video of a trainer giving the best belly rub ever to a very appreciative California sea lion (seriously, I was so jealous!!!), and still another very prominent leader in our field publicly urged all of us to, again, focus our efforts on what the 99.9% of us do EVERY day: LOVE our animals and SHARE that connection with the world.

Working on the little dude's breach height!  Yeah, yeah, I'm dressed as a pirate.  So what?  

These two positive actions realigned my priorities.  Like all of you 99.9 percenters, I watched the dolphins in that video and thought, "Oh my god, what is going through those poor animals heads?! They are supposed to look at their trainers with trust and confidence.  These people have not only physically hurt them, but have let them down in a way that has incalculable damage."  I felt enraged; what if people actually think this is what's going on behind the scenes at the rest of our facilities?!?! This is just awful no matter how you slice it!!

But thanks to IMATA and some really wise people in our field, those thoughts were quieted by some other ones.  Here are some of them that just came into my mind today:

1. When I walked by the dolphin habitat with no fish in hand, all five animals came up to me and just stared at me.  And I stared back at their soulful brown eyes, and then proceeded to do what I always do, which is to talk to them and tell them how great they are and then see if they wanted to play.  During our shows and other training sessions today, I watched my entire staff interact with the dolphins; all parties playing, vocalizing, and having a great time.  This is how it is, not just at my facility, but at the vast majority of places.  This is how it SHOULD be; and this is how it IS.

Not pictured: this guy's favorite soccer ball just before it was tossed out.

2. I had a couple of sessions with our young sea lion pups, who are still learning all the basics.  And guess what, like any little kid, these sea lion pups do not do what they are asked to do most of the time.  No matter how n-a-u-g-h-t-y the little guys were (oh you know, like today the smallest one just had to follow us out of the habitat into a lockout hallway to inspect a hose, or the quietest one took a field trip to explore some bubbles), never once did I feel frustrated with the animals themselves.  In fact, all I could think about was me: what could I do better to make this session more fun?  That made me realize that us 99.9% trainers may feel frustrated with OURSELVES, but not the animals for whom we care.  Not to mention, we know these animals are not little computer programs; we are not here to demand compliance.  We are here to teach, to guide, and to learn.  And the animals can choose to participate; it's our job to make sure they are always free to say no without a scary or uncomfortable consequence.

I can't get enough of these guys (and their adorable molting).  #sorrynotsorry

3.  I am a part of an incredible community filled with large-hearted people and strong leadership like IMATA, individual trainers who took the stand to show how most of us (yup, you guessed it, the 99.9%!) do our "job" (or life's work, really) every single day.  We don't have to worry about people video-taping a behind-the-scenes session and "revealing" something bad...because none of us would ever do anything like that.  We are rallying together to say, "Hang on a second, this stuff is CRAZY! We could never do that, what is going on here?!", but also to say, "We love and respect these animals, no matter what random 0.1% tiny minority does."

Sometimes I like to snuggle with this amazing penguin...because she is awesome.

Not that I'm in a position to give advice, but here's a thought to you fellow 99.9 percenters: just keep doing what you're doing.  Keep smiling, laughing, talking to and encouraging your animals.  Do they understand what you're saying?  Who knows.  But they feed off of that positive energy.  

Continue holding your training program to the highest, most fair and predictable standard, obviously keeping it firmly rooted in positive reinforcement and CHOICE.  We all have different methods, different animals as individuals and as groups and therefore different training techniques that still encourage confidence, celebrate success, and create a safe place to mess up and learn from mess-ups.  But we all should just keep focus on continuing that good work and putting the animals first.  

Yes, we are outraged at what we saw on that video.  But that is NOT how WE do things.  And so we will go to work today and strive to be the best trainer and caretaker we can, learn as much as we can from the animals in our care, and connect with our guests.  We know "our" animals (of course, they are not really "ours") will never look to us 99.9% trainers in fear, but with trust.  And that is evident without me having to write this blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Training Your First Behavior

What's one milestone every animal trainer looks forward to with tremendous anticipation?

Training your first behavior.

Not my first behavior, but I was still a rookie in this pic!

It makes sense, right? I mean, there are a lot of great milestones along our career paths.  But having that very first experience of teaching an animal something they never knew before really seems to give you another stripe on your shoulder.  

Obviously, there's a lot more to our jobs from a training element than just teaching an animal a brand new behavior.  Every time we interact with the animals in our care, we are training them (and they us, don't deny it!) to some extent.  Maintaining and trouble-shooting established behaviors or scenarios are not tasks to be taken lightly.  But there is just something a little more special about training a NEW behavior, right?

This rite of passage comes at different points in trainers' careers depending on three things:

1) The facility's policy
2) The trainer's ability
3) The facility's priorities

For example, if you work at a gigantic facility with lots of trainers, they don't necessarily need their brand new trainers to learn how to train new behaviors yet.  There are other important things they can do while they gain required experience.  

Or maybe you are a brand new trainer at a small facility where it is more valuable for you to learn how to train new behaviors, but the priority is to teach a blood behavior to a calf.  Well, unsurprisingly you will not be the trainer assigned to that one, so you'll have to wait until there is a behavior needed that is more in your wheelhouse.

Training young'uns are usually reserved for more experienced trainers. But you'll get your turn one day!

There are a lot of differing philosophies on the point at which it's a good idea to have a new trainer learn to train new behaviors.  There aren't too many that are totally off base; most of them make perfect sense for that particular facility, staff, and animal groups.  But what most people can agree on is that first experience is one of the most memorable, and definitely humbling.

At my first job, I had a lot of great opportunities.  I worked at a medium-sized facility with a decent number of trainers, lots of animals, and a quickly expanding training program: a new dolphin-interaction area was opening up.  We already did dolphin interactive programs in the same area our dolphin show happened, so it wasn't a totally new concept.  But there were a number of animals with zero interactive experience, and there was a need to teach them lots of behaviors ranging from simple to complicated.

The experienced trainers obviously got the complicated ones, while the rest of us got the easy ones.  It was a perfect situation for everyone involved.  Most of us got pec waves, perimeter behaviors like slow-swims and speed swims, pec applause, etc. etc.  And I got a few of those behaviors.  But...

Somehow though, perhaps due to my incessant nerdiness, I was allowed to teach one of the experienced dolphins an eyecup retrieval (like, they'd retrieve stuff while wearing soft, silicone eyecups to highlight how they use echolocation to our guests).   Like I'm not second-guessing my bosses, because they had a very particular method.  But I don't know what I did to deserve such a great behavior for my first one.  It's not like they'd seen me in action and were like,


The only thing I can think of was that I just genuinely showed a lot of passion for research type behaviors, and looked up where to get the eye cups and did all that, and they were like, "Well, okay."

Now, it's not like they just threw me out to a training session, eye-cups in one hand and hopes/dreams in the other, and let me do my own thing.  They paired me with a very, very talented senior trainer who supervised my session.  In fact, she was within five feet of me for most of this process, especially at the beginning.  I had to describe in detail to the senior trainer what my plans were for the behavior, so she knew I at least was thinking about what to do.  But for the most part, she allowed me - under her ever-watchful eye- to teach a dolphin to wear eyecups.

And then I ran into problems.  Because you know what?  You run into problems when training animals.  This is mainly due to the fact that the animals are not little computers to be programmed in a systematic series of data input.  Yes, the conditioning methods we use are systematic, but that does not actually describe the process in most cases.  Add that ubiquitous truth to a new trainer's utter lack of experience and you can guarantee there will be a good number of snags in the learning process (for both human and non-human).

Truth: you're not always on the same page as the animal

The senior trainer let me try to work out the problem initially.  The dolphin, an awesome younger male, was totally fine with one eyecup over his eye, and the other anywhere on his body.  But the second both eyes were covered, he'd sit with me for a couple of seconds, then slowly slip beneath the water and barrel roll until the eye cups came off.  This process took roughly 3 seconds, after which he'd very kindly bring back the tethered eye cups to me and sit patiently for whatever came next.

I tried everything I knew was in All The Training Books.  But that was the problem; I knew the academic theory of conditioning, but I had no experience whatsoever to back it up.  There were no, "Oh, what about this??" moments flashing in my head.  There was just sheer panic.  Why?  Well first of all, I didn't want this poor dolphin to hate this behavior, and the more I tried my ideas for having him keep those things on his eyes the more he was removing them and returning them to me.  That was not a permanent solution; at some point, he'd probably just swim off the second he saw me coming down the dock, yelling in irritation to all his dolphin pals, "Oh for the love of King Triton, WILL SOMEONE TELL THAT NAKED APE TO LEAVE IT ALONE ALREADY?!"


The other concern I had was, of course, that I was the Worst Trainer Ever.  This seems like a logical idea to almost every new trainer (Hint: If you're new trainer and think you're the BEST, not a good thing).  Not that you should've have confidence in yourself, but let's face it.  Any new skill, especially one that ties into a deeply-rooted passion, is honed not just with time, experience, and open-mindedness.  It's developed after a lot of failure.  It blossoms after you've fell on your face, felt like you suck, and pulled yourself out of that rut and went at it again.

It's so common to hear new trainers get frustrated about training new things.  There is an art to maintaining behavior, or trouble-shooting problems.  But teaching an animal something brand new is a very different ball game, even though it's done using the same basic tools.  And that's where I found myself with poor Mr. Eyecup Dolphin.

Obviously not me (this is a totally different facility), but just in case you didn't know what eyecups looked like

Luckily, the senior trainer swept in at just the right point to help me.  She had let me fail a small amount, let me feel a little panicked and overwhelmed, all before the dolphin showed any signs of aversion to the behavior (, haha).  She made a simple suggestion, one that I remember and have used countless times in the past decade to work through and train anew many different species of animals.  

She told me to give the dolphin a task to do, once the eyecups were on.  Just sitting there doing nothing, head out of the water with eyecups on was clearly not what this dolphin wanted to do.  So give him a task.  "If he thinks, 'Oh, the eyecups go on, then I'll be asked to retrieve something and then they'll take these things off' he'll be more likely to succeed at this behavior and get over any aversion to it."

She also told me to look for small improvements, not gigantic steps.  Yes, it'd be great if he suddenly emitted the behavior to criteria.  But more likely was he'd show me tiny, sometimes difficult to see improvements that I needed to capitalize on.  And once I saw some improvement, I needed to be consistent in working the behavior.  I couldn't just do an approximation once a week.  And I couldn't just change my game after one session of something not working, or not working "fast enough." 

Worth its weight in donuts.

All of that advice was the solution.  I taught the dolphin a tactile retrieval SD, then started up with the eyecup training again, asking him to retrieve a neutrally-buoyant ring while wearing one eyecup, then eventually two.  And it WORKED.  Perfectly!  It took almost no time at all for this awesome dude to sit for varying durations with the eyecups on, with or without a task.  But it was the "task" itself that seemed to get him over the hump.  My first-ever behavior was trained!

What I really appreciated about that experience was not only seeing the dolphin learn something brand new, get over his "Ehhhhhhh nooooooo" feelings about it, and be able to check off a killer milestone on my career list.  But it was the way in which I was coached through the process.  There are so many ways to train behavior, and lots of great ideas.  

Similarly, there are a lot of great ways to train new trainers.  But for me, it was nice to have someone guiding me, not micromanaging me.  I had to work that edge of knowledge and practical application.  I was allowed to feel that brain-crunch feeling when things aren't going as planned.  But an experienced teacher knows when to step in, and how much guidance to give a struggling pupil.  After delivering her suggestions, she sat back and watched me work through the process, helping me here and there for any little nuances I may not have seen, or explaining how the technique was working to boost my confidence.  It taught me more than just How To Train Retrievals Whilst Wearing Eyecups. It taught me how to critically think through the situation, AND how to take sage advice from someone who knows their stuff.

Hey! Take some advice, why dontcha?

This showed up a few months later, when I was allowed to train smaller, easier behaviors on my own.  I ask assigned to teach a young female a pec applause.  You know, where the dolphin splashes water with their pectoral flippers like they're clapping.  I remember for days on end, sitting with this dolphin trying to figure out how on earth I could get her to move her flippers.  It seemed like it took a week to get her to just target to my hand and ignore what I was doing with my other hand near her flippers.  And then suddenly, she understood.  Then, the flipper movement was so slight and I could barely get bridges in for slightly better movement.  I felt stupid, I felt like if I couldn't train this "simple" behavior, I'd never be a good trainer.  But I remembered what I'd been taught; to keep going, to be consistent, and to look for nuances.

Suddenly, the dolphin had an epiphany.  She sampled moving her flippers more, and it was Easy Street from there.  A "simple" behavior yes, but a massive accomplishment for the novice trainer.

It is a big deal to learn to condition something new.  And what is "easy" to one person may not be for the other.  Animals are different, people are different, and experience levels are different.  The point is, if you're new at this job or at training new behaviors, it's 100% normal to feel like a tiny little kid who knows nothing for a good while.  Embrace that feeling; how often do you learn a skill set from scratch as an adult?  But don't be afraid to ask for advice, it doesn't make you look stupid.  It makes you look smart (especially if you actually USE that advice)!

If you're a seasoned trainer who is accustomed to working with new trainers, you know how much you are looked up to.  I take that responsibility very seriously; I hope I'm decent at it, but I'm always looking for ways on how to better help new trainers navigate training new behaviors.  The best teachers I've had, including the senior trainer I talked about earlier, are my mental coaches.  They struck the perfect balance between involvement and letting me try for myself.  We should all strive to find that balance (and hey, maybe you'll get a blog post written about you someday)!

Now dear readers, I want to hear your stories! What were your experiences with your first trained behavior?