Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Trainer's Great Insecurity

I want to admit something to all of you.

I'm a little nervous, though.  I don't want to offend anyone, because you all seem really nice and totally non-judgmental.  But I'm a little worried you're going to judge me.  Especially those of you who are trainers, and experienced ones at that.

But I feel like I need to come clean.  So here it goes, my admission to you before 2016 rolls in, where we turn over a new leaf and try to become a better person and improve the things we feel we fall short in in our lives.  Whew, deep breath...

Okay, I admit it.

I, Cat, feel disbelief that a behavior will ever be completed when I'm training it.  Like, for some period of time, I really don't know if what I'm doing is going to work.


What is so frustrating about this tendency of mine is that I know how critical it is to be confident when you're training something new.  So let me clarify that it's not the process of shaping behavior that makes me question myself: I feel confident in sticking to the rules of operant conditioning.  I feel confident in my relationship with the animal.  What stirs insecurity in me is all the grey-area parts of training.  Like, if moving forward on a step is the right move.  There are so many different paths to training a new behavior, and I almost always have some level of terror that maybe I chose a dead-end one.

When I was a new trainer, I had this feeling all the time.  I remember trying to teach a dolphin a pec applause.  She did not understand pec targets, which was a huge part of my plan to teach her how to move her flippers a lot.  So when she didn't understand WTF I was doing, I felt really worried.  The advice I got from an experienced trainer was to just experiment with methods of trying to get her to understand what I wanted....and I could choose all kinds of methods: teaching pec targets, molding, capturing, model-rival, etc. etc.  And each of those methods could have their own collection of different pathways to the final result.


But there I sat, dutifully getting in my approximations each time I could, each session the same as the last, thinking THIS IS NEVER GOING TO BE TRAINED.  I AM NOT CAPABLE.

And then, one day, she moved her flippers a little.  After getting reinforced for this a couple of times, BOOM. She figured it out, and in no time at all, she learned a beautiful pec applause in spite of my conviction that I was a terrible trainer and would never finish this behavior.

Now let's go do this ten thousand more times.

That kind of feeling is (I think) normal for newer trainers, because you haven't had a lot of experience with the process.  Eventually, you see how step 1s turn into step 2s, and step 28s, etc.  You realize that yes, a strong relationship and a strong understanding of the training game eventually teaches someone something.  So why do I still have this sense of insecurity?

Let me give you a recent example.  We have this adorable 7-month old bottlenose dolphin calf named Kaya at work.  When she was really little, she had zero interest in fish or ice cubes but seemed to like tactile.  We decided to teach her a bridging stimulus using tactile, so we could at least teach her one of the most important elements of training she needs to know.

There she is!

I have worked with many dolphin calves.  I have more experience training calves before they eat fish than I do with ones who do.....meaning my experience has come from babies who learned many behaviors (including a bridge) using ice, toys, and rubs.  I'm sure many of you reading this know what I mean.  But despite my own personal experience with this, seeing how well it works, and knowing that it starts off very slowly, I still second-guessed myself with Kaya.  When she wasn't really sitting up with us, or didn't seem to understand the bridge meant she'd get rubs, my mind started racing.

"What if you're wrong about this one, Cat?"

"What if you're not totally remembering your previous experiences, Cat?"

"You're a dumb-dumb."

A wise man once said...

Those are some of the thoughts the little Gremlin who lives in my head who tells me mean things all the time said to me.

Still, I stayed the course.  And unsurprisingly, Kaya (like all who came before her) figured out what was going on and learned exponentially.

Did I learn my lesson?  Did I regain my confidence?  Nope, not really.  Because then there was this other behavior I wanted to teach her, so that I could use her favorite toys as reinforcement.  

I wanted to teach her a retrieval behavior, which made it a zillion times easier to control where the toys in her habitat were.  Otherwise, when we wanted to reinforce her with a ball or whatever, we'd throw it out and she'd take it off into the sunset having the time of her life.  This caused even more problems because my dear friend Chopper (you know, the one who stuffs toys under the docks) started leaving his trainer to steal toys from Kaya.  It was a mess.  One that could be cleaned up if only Kaya knew to bring her toy back to her trainer.

Chopper, the reigning Finders Keepers champion

I don't know why, but with all of the calves I've been a primary trainer on, I wind up with the retrieval behavior.  I've trained it more or less the same way with all calves, including teaching them to bat it towards me over a very, very small distance (like, two inches), then eventually increasing the distance between me and the ball.  However, at some point, you have to take a leap of faith and toss the ball out.  Normally, at least in my experience, what happens is the baby takes off, plays with the ball, then leaves it out in the middle of the habitat and returns.  But you keep at it, you reinforce the easier approximations of them pushing it towards you, and try to bridge them on the long distance approximations when they hit/push it in your general direction.  Eventually, they figure it out.

It can take a while, though.  The method I've used involves scanning for some semblance of the desired behavior, and usually I wind up taking every toy I can find with me to each session so I can do several approximations.  It's worked every time.

BUT.  Each time, I basically am in disbelief that this technique worked.  Each time the calf zooms off with a toy and shows they have zero clue what I'm trying to teach them, I feel embarrassed.  I feel like maybe, my method is stupid.  My method is confusing.  My method will never really work.


I thought that about Kaya, recently.  She did exactly what other calves have done.  Especially as a supervisor, I wondered if the staff thought I was a moron.  And then, just last week, Kaya started hitting the ball back purposely towards us.  She had her a-ha moment, and now each session is getting much better at directing the toy back to us.  In fact, she understands the behavior so well, she knows sometimes the toy is taken out of the habitat and she's given a piece of fish or an ice cube or rub.  So, in the times she'd rather have the toy, she tries to stuff it under the docks when we give the retrieval SD.

And I sit there on the docks, watching her bring her toy back to me and think, "OMG! It worked!"

Why do I have this insecurity, this disbelief in my own ability?  Yeah, I second-guess myself just like anyone else.  But beyond that, I think it's for two main reasons:  1) I want to do the best job I can for the animals, and 2) I'd rather give myself a hard time than giving myself a break.

Well played, Dwight.  Well played.

On point number 1, it's obvious to any trainer why we want to do the best we can in our practices, especially when it comes to training.  If we are not very good trainers, we run the risk of frustrating the animals.  We run the risk of damaging our relationships.  If we are not very good trainers, then what have we worked for SO hard for most of our lives?  We live, breathe, and sleep animal care.  We want to be perfect at it, because we know animals thrive when we give 110%.

So point number 1 can explain point number 2; we don't want to settle for our own mediocrity.  We worry, we criticize ourselves and others, and I'm not talking about constructive feedback.  We self deprecate because we don't want to mess up for all the reasons I listed above.  And I realize how hypocritical this is of me to say, considering this entire blog is about my own insecurity, but the more punishingly critical we are of ourselves, doesn't that impede our journey to be the best for the animals?

The fact is, it's okay if we choose a "wrong" or "inefficient" path in training.  It's okay if we don't know if our tried-and-true methods will work with each animal, because each animal is different.  It's okay to look at our decisions and decide that we made a great call.  Or, that we could do better.  What matters is the animals understand what to expect from us, and that we are all having fun.  If you learn that you can do better next time, then focus on the next time.

*warm and fuzzies*

We should extend this courtesy to other trainers, too.  It's so important to get constructive feedback so you can grow and learn from mistakes.  But it's unnecessary to relentlessly criticize people for making normal mistakes.  Do they learn from them?  Are they simply choosing different methods that will result in the same goal?  Can you guys learn from each other?  It's all an adventure, with no real end in sight.  As long as the animals are happy and healthy, that's all that matters.

So if you are nodding your head in agreement with this blog, and you're a trainer who just can't believe you are able to train a behavior each time you do, let's all take a really deep, collective breath.  We are doing our best.  We will always do our best.  And let's start believing in our abilities.  Let's give ourselves a break, and really enjoy what we get to do every day.

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