Sunday, February 21, 2016

What's In A Name (Of A Behavior, That Is)

A while back, I wrote about different lingo used at different facilities.  Sure, we employ positive reinforcement. And in marine mammal land, we mostly train the same behaviors across the board.  You know, like voluntary medical behaviors, high energy behaviors, etc.

For husbandry or for funsies? How about both?

In general, most of the names for behaviors are similar.  If there are differences, they're usually pretty minimal.  For example, dorsal layout and dorsal present (where the dolphin shows you their dorsal side) aren't really that different.

But some behaviors are called completely different things, sometimes to the point where I've had trouble understanding what people are talking about.  The "rocket", for example, can also be called a "hydro."   So it takes a little while when switching training programs to learn all of the proper terminology when it comes to individual behaviors

So "rocket" may be a little dramatic.

Here's the thing, though.  I recently was poring over a new SD and criteria list at my new job, and LOLed at a behavior name because it made me think of what it would look like if someone with zero experience in dolphin trained behaviors read it.  And then it made me think of all these stories, and then it made me think about WHY we call behaviors what we call them, and then I thought, "I should eat one of these cookies on this table in our office" and then I thought, "I should also write a blog about behavior names."*

There are a lot of things about working with animals that are tough.  It's a physically and emotionally laborious job.  But for dolphin caretakers, one of the hardest things to come up with are names for behaviors, especially with animals whose bodies have basically no similarities to ours, especially how they move.  The way dolphins move around in their environment is totally different than a human.  Labeling the behavior is tough and often requires some very creative out-of-the-box thinking.

When a dolphin jumps, like a classic dolphin jump without any twists or splashes, we in the field typically call that a "dive" or a "bow".  But is that really what they're doing?  No, not really.  I mean, you can see why we got those names.  But if I were someone completely unfamiliar with training, I'd think it'd look completely different.  A bow?

Good afternoon, good evening and good night.

A dive?

That place is a real dive.

OMG, let's also talk about a splash behavior.  Of the places I've worked, the words used in which to describe a dolphin splashing water at you include: splash, squirt, spit.  Splash is sort of general; you don't really know what kind of splash you're gonna get.  Dolphins have a plethora of ways of sharing their water with you, and as trainers we like to be specific about what behavior we're looking for.  If splashing water via the mouth is what we want, then we have to make sure we carefully label other splashing behaviors with other appendages differently (like a fluke splash, or a pec splash). 

But squirt?  I don't know why, but that word makes me feel kind of uncomfortable.  In fact, I don't want to keep writing about it. 

Spit is by far my favorite.  I mean, ask any random person on the street what a "dolphin spit" looks like and I guarantee it involves some version of our cetacean friends hocking a loogie (side note: it took me about ten tries and a Google search to figure out the proper spelling for "loogie"). 

These guys are masters of spitting

The best is when you combine certain behaviors.  Like, "spit bow".   To a dolphin trainer, that means the dolphin is spitting water out of his or her mouth while jumping in a graceful arc above the water.  To the literal laymen, this behavior probably sounds disgusting.  Certainly, spitting while bowing is going to get someone's shoes real gross.

An actual spit bow

Or how about "bows with objects".  This is what I envision one interpretation is:

He's bowing with an object on his head, AND with objects in the vicinity.

Then are behaviors that sound like a feat of physical impossibility.  Anyone here know what a "Tail Slide" is?  Is this some kind of Michael Jackson move reserved only for dolphins? If you don't know what this behavior is, I'm willing to bet there is no way you can possibly come up with what the behavior actually is....but when you know it, you'll be like, "Ohhhh I see where you're coming from."

The behavior is also known as a "flying forward tailwalk", in which the dolphin comes out of the water as if to jump, but keeps their flukes in the water and sort of drags their bodies forward.  Like sliding on their tails, right?

Slide, slide, slippety slide (Thanks for letting me yoink this photo, Jess!!!)

How about an "alien"? 

He knows. 

It might sound like I'm getting a little snarky when it comes to the bizarre names we come up for some of these behaviors.  It also may add a tiny bit of fuel to the animal extremeists' fire; maybe our silly names are evidence that we are just tra-la-la'ing all day and not taking our jobs as animal caretakers and harbingers of conservation messages seriously.  But that's not really the case.  Some of the naming of these behaviors is scientific (breaching), some of it is traditional (do you say "rocket" or "hydro"?), and others are just fun.

Describing via the name helps trainers stay on the same page within their facility and the group of animals for whom they care.  There are so many behaviors that dolphins learn, and variations of those behaviors, that it requires a lot of thought when it comes to labeling them.  In many cases, that's a testament to the creativity of the animals; many of them come up with stuff on their own, leaving us dumb humans to name it.

What are some of the funny names for behaviors that you've trained?

* That, my friends, was a train of thought. You're welcome.

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