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? 

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