Sunday, July 19, 2015

Chris Pratt And The Clicker: What's The Big Deal?!

Here's a question:  What is the word, repeated four times in rapid succession has the power to bring animal trainers everywhere to their knees?  

Answer: Click.  As in "clickclickclickclick."

I know you were pissed that Vader was your father, but improper bridging is just more troubling.

For those of you unfamiliar with what I'm talking about, you either haven't seen Jurassic World or you became delightfully lost in the narrative that you just didn't let it bother you.  But chances are, Chris Pratt's bizarre clicker usage had you clawing your ears off.*

...but this redeems him, so he is pardoned.

We've all had a jolly good time poking fun at the Hollywood blockbuster's technical advisor failure: had they talked to an animal trainer for about 0.3 seconds, they would've done it right.  I mean, look at the other popular animal training movies over the past twenty years: Free Willy,  Zeus and Roxanne, Andre, Dolphin Tale (so I'm a little bias in using marine mammal movies).  All of these movies had major flaws in them when it came to accuracy with what our job entails, but those were all forgivable.  We know that good storytelling often involves exaggeration or whimsy.  But none of those movies had such a blatantly incorrect usage of a bridging stimulus.

They look so simple to use, and yet....

So what!  Did it ruin the movie for me?  Um, pop quiz:

What did Jurassic World have?
a) Dinosaurs
b) Chris Pratt
c) Nods to Michael Crichton's fervent belief in not screwing around with nature and
    advancing science conscientiously
d) All of the above

The answer is D, so therefore I LOVED THAT MOVIE.   Clickclickclickclick and poor timing isn't going to take that away from me.  But it did bring up an idea for a blog. 

One of my favs.  You should probably buy it.

I've heard non-trainers exclaim something like, "WHY are people freaking out about a stupid clicker in a stupid movie?  Seriously?? What's the big deal?"  You know, because our community made hilarious, en point memes and videos about it.

Oh.  OH.  It's a big deal to us.  The sound of sloppy bridging makes us weep instantly.  Let me explain why.

"Wait! Does anyone know how to use this thing?"

Animal trainers everywhere have developed a fine ear and eye to observe behavior and respond accordingly.  Those powers of observation are not just for the animals in their care.  Like Neo in the Matrix, once you know about Animal Training, you can never un-know it.  You see the world completely differently and that's a fact of life.  Trainers observe all animals, human and non-human: the behavioral Matrix so to speak (minus the whole robots-turning-humans-into-batteries thing).

One of the very first skills a trainer learns is how to bridge properly.  

Also, how to obsessively check that your whistle hasn't fallen off anytime you are near an open body of water including but not limited to: habitats, swimming pools, the ocean, toilets, etc.

For anyone reading this who doesn't know what a bridge is, it's a signal that pinpoints the exact moment an animal does something correctly.  Usually, the bridge means, "Great job! Stop what you're doing and you'll get a reward."  Sometimes, it means, "Great job! Keep it up!" and the animal continues to do whatever he or she is doing (these animals have learned that their reward will come later in that particular context).   And the reason we call this signal a "bridge"?  It's short for "bridging stimulus", and it refers to the fact that you're bridging the gap in time between when the animal is doing the correct behavior and when they will be rewarded for it.   Blah blah blah, terminology.  The take home message is that the bridge tells the animal that they did the behavior exactly correctly. 

The importance of the bridge is if you use it correctly, it is the fastest way to clearly communicate with the animal.  Most animal trainers use the bridge to mean "YES", and not "sort of!" or "almost there!"  That might seem a little mean, but it's actually for the animal's best interest.  

Whistle Face: it's a legit affliction.  


Well, think about it.  Since you can't verbally explain anything to your animals, you really only have one tool like a clicker to let the animal know if they're on the right path.  Let's say you're working with a dolphin who knows a front flip.  He's learned exactly what he needs to do when he's asked for the front flip to get his favorite football.  So you ask him for the flip, and he is really, really slow to actually DO the flip.  Yeah, the flip looked great, but it took him a really long time to start.  That's not part of your criteria, so what do you do?  Especially when he zooms back, pops up in front of you and looks super psyched?

You could bridge it.  I mean, he tried so hard.  Maybe something happened underwater that slowed him down.  Maybe he just is having one of those days, like all of us do.  The rest of the flip was great, so can we really penalize him for that?  

Therein lies the problem.  Looking at it like you're "penalizing" him would bring any empathetic trainer to the conclusion that they should bridge sub-criteria behavior.  Because the animal was trying so hard, you don't want to hurt their feelings or discourage them.

Oh, and if it's not Whistle Face, it's the Unintentionally Stern Point Bridge.  HEY YOU, IN THE GREY.  

But what's REALLY happening when you bridged that sub-critera flip?  You communicated to that dolphin, "Hey, change of plans, from now on, be real slow to do that flip."  

Think about how frustrating that would be to an animal trying to figure out the rules of the training game.  One day, he's supposed to do x,y,z to get his football.  The next day, the rules have changed.  Instead of him feeling encouraged, he feels frustrated.  He doesn't know your intention (and our jobs would be totally different if we could communicate that), he only knows that whistle you blow tells him "YES!! ALL OF THAT GOT YOU THIS FOOTBALL!" so he pays close attention to EVERYTHING he did to get you to blow that whistle.

Oh? Is my whistle still there? Phew.  There are more photos of me checking for my whistle than they are me using it.  And if you think this is me getting ready to use it, you are incorrect.  That dolphin was deaf, so we didn't use a whistle as a bridge.  No, it's really just me fondling my whistle lanyard.

Or maybe, his flip was really perfect, but you keep screwing up when you're blowing your whistle (a la Chris Pratt).  If your bridge is too late (like the flip is over, and now Mr. Dolphin is swimming back to you when he hears the whistle), you will likely - over time- draw so much attention to the wrong part of the behavior that Mr. Dolphin will start focusing on THAT instead of what you originally wanted.  

Poor bridging leads not only to behavioral breakdown, but WORSE, it leads to animals getting frustrated, discouraged, or in extreme cases it can cause avoidance (of certain trainers, behaviors, etc.).  Obviously, it's crucial that all trainers use their bridges properly.

There's just no good whistle face.  

For that reason, all animal trainers are really tuned-in to bridging stimuli.  Not just how it's delivered, but the TIMING of it.  Whether or not to bridge and timing are arguably the most important elements.    

Here is a highly-accurate account of the sequence of thoughts that were going through the heads of Animal Trainers Everywhere when they saw Jurassic World:

1) What the *#%( is that sound?
2) OMG.  That was a bridging stimulus.
3) WHAT A FARCE! Such awful timing! Like seriously?
4) Holy crap.  I fear for Chris' safety.  With such horrendous use of that clicker, he definitely has some confused and frustrated raptors.  Someone needs to fix this!

Portrait of a blowfish and Whistle Face ex situ.

As you can see, we are really just worried about human and animal safety and mental well-being.  The fact is, if Mr. Pratt really was training raptors in this fashion, they'd probably not give him the time of day.  They would've probably eviscerated (or worse, avoided) him in the scene where he goes all Free Contact with them.  Why? Because he completely slaughtered his only real tool to communicate.  Yeah yeah, he could just cut the bridge out and just toss slabs of meat into the raptors' mouths as they emit the behaviors he asked for, if his aim and timing are perfect.  But relying on food for if it's your only reward?  C'mon, we as a field do much better than that.  And there are many behaviors I can imagine are totally impossible to feed immediately (like when the dinos' bodies and heads are restrained in that cage-like thingy). 

Chris Pratt's character may have a gentle touch, he may have the best intentions, but ultimately he pulls the proverbial rug out from underneath the raptors.  All because of clickclickclickclick.   The good news is, with just a tiny adjustment in timing, Chris' raptors will be happier, more cooperative, and will learn a lot faster.  I mean, if they weren't almost all eaten by larger dinosaurs.  Better luck next time, sir Pratt.

Sea World, here I come!

* What, you didn't do that?


  1. I thought you trained one of the dolphins in Dolphin Tale? Or am I just being mislead by movie credit acknowledgements?

  2. An episode of "Pushing Daises" (one of my favorite shows ever) has such terrible use of a clicker that I could never watch that episode again.