Thursday, August 6, 2015

Who Puts The FUN in Fundamentals? YOU DO!

I had a very nice exchange the other day with a former Middle Flipper guest author.  I've always enjoyed our chats about training and animal care.  In the latest bout of messages, he mentioned something about training fundamentals being a "lost art."  That phrasing inspired today's blog.  Thanks, Peter!

For those aspiring trainers who read this blog, you're gonna get a glimpse into the sorts of things you'll learn once you land your job.  If you like what you're reading, or wind up working for someone who has a similar opinion as mine, earmark this and remember it.

For the rest of us, think back to your early days.  Or maybe you're in your early days. So basically, tap into your long or short-term memory and let's get crackin'!

Unless you're Leonard from Memento, then you won't remember anything.

What are the first things you learn as a new trainer?  I mean aside from cleaning protocol and food prep.  What are the operant conditioning concepts you learn first?  

FUNdamentals.  Ha ha ha! Because they are so fun! 

Maybe you learned this as a different phrase: basics, foundations, primordial*.  It's all semantics for a concept that is critical for any new trainer to fully understand before they are set loose in the realm of animal training.  At least, that's how we (the more experienced trainers) tend to look at it.

Primordial setting, or primordial representation of dinosaurs? I don't know, you decide.

What do I mean when I say fundamentals?  I mean the basics, like:

* Control/stationing
* Gating
* Target work
* Cultivating relationships
* Consistent reinforcement and criteria

We spend so much time learning these things at our respective facilities when we are brand new.  We really become good pals with Fundamentals.  Once we've stopped barfing due to nervousness and start to realize, "oh my god, I can actually do this!", we embrace Fundamentals.  We hang out, get to know everything about each other,  think about each other when we're away.  Our skill set as a trainer grows by leaps and bounds.

An artistic representation of you (brown dog) and Fundamentals' (white dog)  friendship

And then, like any invisible friend, we start to lose interest.**  We move on to bigger and better things.  Establishing solid target concepts? C'mon, that's tedious.  We'd rather train voluntary bloods on river otters, or double hydros with dolphins.   As we gain more experience, we'd probably rather work closer with a challenging animal than an ol' reliable one.


Plus, as we gain experience, we stop thinking about every little move we make and just kind of "know" what to do.  Let's call it Trainer Zen.  This gets better and better the more you practice it, the more you know the animal(s), and the more information or experience you glean from other trainers.  There are trainers out there with thirty years of experience who probably operate in Higher Planes at a supernatural level and/or The Force.  We're talking the Chuck Norrises of Trainer Zen.  I'm definitely not there yet, but after ten years I definitely notice a sense of ease in more challenging scenarios as time passes.


I think that's the state that all trainers really want to get to, and fast.  But something happens when we achieve that Trainer Zen status.  We spend so much time with the "loftier" trainer concepts that we start forgetting (or worse, ignoring) the poor, lowly fundamentals.  Many of us trainers treat those foundational concepts like training wheels; once we are ready to rock, they fall off by the wayside.

Because we've gotten a solid grip on the basics, we can get through our careers without really thinking about them, other than briefly nodding at them as they huddle dejectedly in the corner.  This is especially true if: you work with the same animals for a really long period of time, without anyone new coming in, or if you work at one facility for a long time (or only at one place).  And, let's be honest, it's even more prevalent with us dolphin trainers.  Even when we train new animals because we have calves being born at regular intervals, we sometimes rest heavily on the fact that many dolphin babies learn their basics from their moms and other conspecifics.  There are certainly perks to working with observant social animals!

Don't short-change a dolphin calf! It's waaaaay more beneficial (and FUN) for both parties to thoroughly learn the basics!

But our Primordial Training Concepts are not training wheels.  They are the base to our entire program.  Taking several months (or even years) to teach a baby dolphin the "boring" or "simple" concepts like gating, stationing, targeting and just having good manners is time well spent, and time best spent with an experienced trainer.  You are not just laying the groundwork for no reason.  You are investing time in establishing solid communication between you and that animal.  And let's be honest, it's not just between YOU and the animal; it's a language you've given the animal to use with all other humans he or she will work with.  Most of us forget that we won't spend forty or fifty years with the animals we care for at work.  What we teach them, especially from the beginning, is what follows them for the rest of their lives regardless of our presence. 

Sometimes I think about training like it's learning a new language.  In the case of foundational training versus more advanced concepts, this comparison is especially true.  When you first start a new language, you learn basics like grammar and simple but helpful words that allow you to have a very rudimentary conversation.  Like in my French class, I was really excited when I realized I could walk into any store in a francophone country and ask, "How much is that calculator?"

As you progress, you learn more and more advanced concepts and more difficult words, so you're eventually able to express abstract thoughts, such as, "How much is that calculator and also what is your opinion on the current state of affairs in Israel?"

But there is never a point where you leave behind the basics you learned in the first place.  You do not merely reference those words.  No one says, "Yes, I'm so advanced in Russian that I no longer need to use pronouns.  They are too rudimentary for my level."


Of course that's not how we learn languages.  We build upon what we learn, but use almost all of what we learn at the same time.  Maybe we use less childish phrases as we learn more complicated ones, but for the most part, we utilize all the words we learn.  And that is exactly how we ought to apply training principles.

Don't misunderstand me: I know there are many different ways to apply training concepts.  It's not about just following the book to the letter.  That's too far to the other side of the continuum.  What I'm saying is that all of us trainers should consider, especially with new animals, new jobs, and challenging situations, checking ourselves to make sure we haven't gotten too lost in Trainer Zen.  Are we Zen-ing while we use the language of the fundamentals?  If yes, then awesome!

Also awesome.

When we remember to stick to the basic rules of training, and take our time (relatively speaking) making sure the animals fully understand their foundations before moving onto or incorporating the fun, exciting stuff, we ensure better communication with them.  We ensure ease, both for the animals and for us.  It also provides you a clear way of trouble-shooting.  Just like when we teach a new trainer why successive approximations are a better insurance policy for behavioral drift or flat out forgetfulness, focusing on fundamentals by letting our basics guide our more advanced methods allows us to remind the animals of what's expected of them when the behavior breaks down.  Short-cuts in training may be helpful, but rarely so when it glazes over critical learning opportunities for the animals.

Every facility is different in their goals, time frames, and priorities (other than animal care, d'uh).  We have to apply these ideas in a way that makes sense for us.  But we owe it to ourselves as trainers, and to the animals in our care, to check ourselves. One of the best ways to get back to basics is asking for outside input; experienced trainers from other facilities than yours,  no matter how Zen-like they are, often look at your situation through a Fundamental lens and usually can see things you didn't even realize were going on.  I think that's one of the best parts of this job!

So remember, fundamentals are FUN.  They are worth your time, especially as you gain more experience.  Rekindle your old friendship with them and see the amazing results!

Fundamentals on the right, Advanced Training on the left, and you in the back seat.    A triumvirate of perfection.

* This word will, when I'm in charge of my own facility or department, be used as the official verbiage of our trainer development program (e.g. Primordial Training Concepts or whatever).

** Look, I've got a great rapport with my invisible friend.  Just because he's invisible doesn't mean he's not real.

1 comment:

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