Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Animal Learning Types

I've been thinking a lot about training behaviors and all that it entails.  I mean d'uh, I'm an animal trainer by trade so obviously I think about this topic more than just occasionally.  But for some reason, for many years, I've been really obsessed with one particular training topic.  Yes, conditioning behavior is rooted in scientific principles.  But the application of those principles is really diverse, and not just from person to person, or facility to facility.  It really depends on the individual animal.  

Wait a second....

I know that's not really big news to most of you.  We learn best when the lesson is optimized towards our learning strengths.  We learn best when our own personal motivators are used as reinforcement, even if the task at hand is awful.  For example, if you want me to go to a Zumba class (hugely aversive), you are not going to get me there with eggplant parmesan.  Yuck.  But if we're talking a giant pan of macaroni and cheese where the cheese is all burnt on top and also maybe there is a $100 bill thrown in there somewhere, I'll go Zumba*.

Yep, there it is.

Right right right, you already know all of that.  What I've really been interested in though, beyond just who individual animals are, are the TYPES of learners we see in animals.  We have these types for people.  You hear all the time, "Oh, I didn't understand that lecture because I'm a visual learner" or whatever.  You know what your own personal learning type is.  So why wouldn't animals?

I'm no scientist or sociologist.  But I do think I've nailed Animal Learning Types, and now I'm ready to unveil my findings to all of you.  Within this, I've not just described the type, but have added helpful tips on the pros and cons to each type and how best to deal with them.  And this is a living document; feel free to add your own insights, types, or stories in the comment section.   Okay, here we go.

The Sentence Finisher (TSF)

I (adverb) agree

Definition: Human Sentence Finishers are a dime a dozen.  You know the type; when you're trying to tell a story and TSF jumps in and tries to complete your sentence.  In training terms, the  animal who guesses everything you're doing during training approximations is a Sentence Finisher.  Despite careful shaping and meticulous bridging, the Sentence Finisher is always offering what they believe is the finished behavior.  Usually,  like human Sentence Finishers, they are completely wrong.

Me: Hi! We are going to learn a front flip.  Can you start by just touching your rostrum to the target pole like -


Me: Um, no.  If you could just -


Here is an adorable Sentence Finisher

Pro: If they guess right, you just saved a bunch of time on your behavior.  It also makes you a more patient trainer when they are not correct.
Con: They are almost never right, and it takes you about 670 times longer to train
Helpful tip: Take it easy with the approximations.  Maybe just do one per session.  Maybe one per day.  TSF thrives on guessing step 100 when you're on step 2, so don't let them rehearse guessing.  Also, consider teaching this animal your native language so you can just explain to them what you want (WARNING: they may continue to finish sentences).
The Genius (TG)

Carl, it's okay.

Definition: The insanely, scarily intelligent animal who knows how to solve every problem and/or cause just the right problems.  TG picks up behaviors at lightning quick speed with rare occasions of over-thinking things.  They have memories like steel traps and are thirsty for more knowledge than you can possibly provide.  They can escape, destroy, and outsmart any human or conspecific.  


Me: Here is a lexicon board.  Each symbol on the board represents an action or reinforcement.

TG: Right.  That's pretty clear.  What'd you use for inspiration for the symbols? Proto-norse runes?

Me: Er...yes.  I think.  I don't know, I found them on a google search.

TG: Okay, talk to me when you're feeling a little more cerebral.

hehehehehehe they have no clue how genius I really am hehehehehhe

Pro: Super easy to teach, makes you gape in awe and wonder at how smart non-human animals are, are usually very reliable, and have limitless potential for really cool cognitive stuff
Con: Gets extremely frustrated if their mind is not constantly engaged.  May have a short fuse for BS.
Helpful tip: Get out of their way.  Let them decide their learning pace.  Consider managing their political campaign when the time is right (so you can get some credit).

The Golden Child (TGC)

I'll pick you! I'll pick you right up and snuggle.

Definition: The  animal who does everything you want, no matter what.  They are the people-pleaser, they are the animal you first learn, they are the big puppy dogs who want all of your love and attention.  You can detonate a shrapnel bomb next to their head and they will not react, because they are too busy trying to figure out why you've stopped playing with them. 

Me: Hey! Today we are going to learn eye drops!  Just keep your eyes open and still, and I'm going to put these drops in them.

TGC: Okay! SURE! No problem! Is this wide enough????????

Me: Oh, yes, perfect! Great job!


What a guy, this one!

Pro: Fast learners, tend to have fantastic attitudes in many situations, reliable (because of this, it's easy to tell if something isn't quite right if they suddenly are not acting their chipper selves)
Con: Can make trainers complacent
Helpful tip: Keep these animals challenged; don't go through the norm! It may take a while for these animals to show a lack of motivation because of their tendency to do everything at their best, but that doesn't mean that they don't need lots of variability and challenges.  Make sure you give these guys the same respect they deserve for whatever animal species they are, no matter how sweet they are.  A friendly velociraptor is still a velociraptor.

The Literal Lad (or Lass) (TLL)

Not sure that protractor will survive 

Definition: There is no gray.  There is only black and white.  Whatever you just bridged a TLL for, that's exactly what they will do next time.  ABCD.  1234.  There is no thinking outside of the box, because there is only the box.  A black and white box for serious business only.  Don't get me wrong; these animals can still be very smart, very friendly and a blast to work with. But when it comes to training, we're talking about an insane attention-to-details-you-never-noticed.


Me: Why did you just swing your rear flippers to the right during that jump?

TLL: Because I did that last time.  And I got bridged for it.  I also blinked my eyes really fast three times, just like last time.  And I'm still exhaling for the duration of the behavior, like you bridged me for three weeks ago that one time.

Me: OMG what?! I was bridging you for your height!

TLL: Well, you should've made that clear.

Awesome lady <3

Pro: It's easy to get crisp criteria if you are careful with your bridge points and reinforcement
Con: It's easy to get insane behavioral drift if you are not careful with your bridge points and reinforcement
Helpful tip: Know that these guys are Always Watching; they remember whatever it was they were doing when you reinforced them.  That means you have to be on your A game 134% of the time; no sloppy bridges allowed.  These guys have a sense of humor, it just might be weird, like John Malkovich.

The Matriarch (or Patriarch)

The ultimate matriarch

Definition: This animal does not need an acronym, they need a royal title.  There can be only one Matriarch (or in some cases, a Patriarch), and you know exactly who she is.  She is old, she is sassy, she is smarter than you and she is ready to prove to you that you work for her. Matriarchs can be super sweet or downright crabby, but no matter how nice or grumpy they are, they are the boss.


Me: Nice to meet you, your royal highness.  May I trouble you for a training session?

Matriarch: Have you brought us snacks?

Me: Yes.  

Matriarch: Well, that's a fine start.  But I've never met you before and so I am going to pretend like everything you are doing is wrong and that I have no clue what you are asking me for so you look like a complete fool.  When you have suffered long enough and have earned my respect, I'll cooperate so long as we have an understanding that you are under contract.

"Just making sure you're still working for me."

Pro: Reliable, once you've proven yourself worthy of her (or his) respect.  Great training teacher.
Con: Will mess with your head so badly you'll think you're actually Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Inception.  Has had decades of experience screwing with human minds.
Helpful tip: You should respect all animals, but this one above all others.  You really DO work for the Matriarch.  She really DOES know everything about humans and how they train.  Bow down to her and she will take care of you.

So there you have it, the highly scientifical animal learning types.  Use this information wisely, and as always, feel free to add to this.  The more we know, the better animal care givers we become (and the more the animals control all of our emotions, but whatever. That's the best part!)

* I'd probably eat the mac and cheese after said class, for reasons known only to me and my tummy


  1. Hi, this is awesome ! reading this I recalled all the animals I've worked in my career and most of them fit into those types... except one. She is a female grey seal. She is always either a bit absent minded and drifts away though looking straight into Your eyes or she's like: okey, do whatever you like as long as you put those fish into my mouth. Usually we had to physically model her every behaviour which was a bit difficult when we were trying to teach her rolling over...
    Have You encounter such a type?

    Again, great post !

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  2. Great post! I've been following your blog since many days as wannabe trainer and I find this one really inspiring


  3. I think you may have just given me an important clue for training my psycho bitch from hell. She is a total matriarch type. Before coming to live with me at a year old she had almost no socialization and what she had was pretty inconsistent. I've been able to teach her good skills for navigating her world except in one area. Looking at her as a matriarch I just realized she hasn't learned to tolerate strangers because she has absolutely no desire to learn that. Reactive barking at them gets her exactly what she wants which is for them to stay away. My other dog is a sentence finishing genius. I just skip all the intermediate steps and show him what I want once, reinforce it a few times and he's got it forever after. He makes me look like such a genius trainer.

  4. Don't forget...

    The Bully! They are the dominant animal but as soon as you show them something like a leaf they shreak in fear and look around hoping no one saw.

    The Cat (typically a sea otter) that allows you around them on their terms. "Don't touch me but touch me right now! Not on my left paw! Only my right paw! I hate that toy but I'll hold onto Forever if you even so much as look in this direction. Is there cat nip in this ice pile!?" You have to love them!!!!!

    The Stoner...Ah what was it we were doing???

    The performer...oh that's my musical cue. You can exit stage left. I don't need an understudy. Make sure my dressing room is clean and full of bottled water. Thanks....

    And my personal favorite...all of them!

    Thanks for all the fun! I love your blog!!!