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.

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