It's that time of year again! The New Year reminds us to do better, be better. And this can certainly be applied to many things, including our lives as animal trainers. For the third year running, here are some New Year’s Resolutions for animal trainers………
1. Get Out of your Routine – Are you in the habit of asking for the same behaviors, in the same order, offering the same reinforcers, and reinforcing every behavior? This can be a motivation squelcher for some animals. If your animal has a full repertoire of behaviors it knows well, it is time to gradually introduce some unpredictability. If everything has been the same for some time, you will want to slowly introduce changes so as not to create frustration. In the long run you can increase motivation by getting out of predictable patterns.
2. Wrap Your Brain Around Your Bridge – What I mean is…does your bridging stimulus mean what you want it to mean to your animal? This may take some scrutiny on your part or maybe the help of a trusted fellow trainer to analyze. I have seen some perplexing whistling, clicking etc. over the years. And if it isn’t clear to me what it is meant to communicate, it probably isn’t clear to the animal. Remember the bridge can mean whatever the trainer teaches it to mean. This could be many different things from “here comes food” to “duration has been met” to “that movement was correct” to “come back to the trainer” to “you are free to move”, etc. Try to discern if the animal is responding to your identified bridge or other signals to get information. I often observe the animal has learned to ignore the sounds and to focus on human body language instead.
3. Consider Animal Training a Necessity, Not a Luxury – I get it, training is fun! It is sometimes hard to imagine that “work” gets to be fun too. I sometimes consult at facilities where the attitude is that those who are training are shirking the real responsibilities of caring for animals. I disagree. Training allows day to day care of animals to be easier and stress free. It makes veterinary care easy to accomplish, both preventative care and urgent care. Bottom line, training is important to good animal health and welfare. Help foster the culture that training is an important part of animal care.
4. Get to Know a Scientist – And I mean a real scientist. These are the ones who run labs, produce graduate students, publish studies, etc. (Remember not all PhD’s are created equal.) I know catching up with a real scientist may not be easy for an animal trainer because these folks are not usually “internet famous” or out there on social media. They are usually busy focused on their research. One of my favorite places to mingle with real scientists is the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. This conference brings together top trainers and accomplished scientists from different disciplines. If you want your mind really stretched this is a good conference for the trainer who is beyond the basics.
5. Get Creative with Training and Back a Conservation Project – Whether you work with domestic animals or exotics, there is always a way to help their wild cousins. I am often impressed by how much the companion parrot community does for parrot conservation. My favorite parrot organizations to support have been The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Bird Endowment. We unfortunately lost The Bird Endowment Founder Laney Rickman this year. But the Nido Adoptivo project she started which has made a huge difference for wild blue throated macaws will continue. I trained my blue throated macaw Blu Lu (a macaw rejected by her parents at The Bird Endowment) to paint portraits of parrots. Her paintings have raised thousands over the years to build macaw nest boxes in the wild.
6. End Your Sessions Well – Some may think this means to end on a “positive note.” While it is certainly nice to have a good last rep if the session goes that way, that isn’t exactly what I mean. Instead I am thinking more about having a plan for how you will end your session. For example, will you be using an end of session signal? If so, what happens after that signal? To avoid creating frustration I suggest having something engaging to offer after the end of session signal. I prefer things that take time for the animal to eat or play with so that there is something desired paired with the time the trainer is collecting things and exiting. Or will you be training until the animal is no longer showing interest in what you have to offer and chooses to disengage so that perhaps a signal is not necessary. Either way, having a plan for how the session will end will be good to work out before the session begins.
8. Practice Giving Training Feedback in Helpful Ways – You don’t have to be a consultant to find yourself in the position of sharing information on training. You may be helping a colleague, friend or posting in a chat group. As animal trainers you would think the goal is to also reinforce the good things people do as well, but often humans focus on what people do wrong. In the world of animal training I don’t recommend completely ignoring errors in training for a variety of reasons, including safety. However how we convey information about errors can be done in way that is helpful and not hurtful. Take the judgement and emotion out and think more about providing information to help someone be successful. Just like training an animal, take responsibility for your human student not succeeding and change your approach to be of more help. And yes! Do positively reinforce when humans are on the right track too. But insincere accolades are easy to see through. Be genuine with your praise for good work and non-judgemental and informative when offering feedback on what needs adjusting.
9. Conduct a Shaping Plan Contest – Come up with as many different ways as possible to train a specific behavior. For example I can think of 4 different ways right now to train an open mouth behavior. Some plans may work better for different species. The fun part will be picking and choosing which plans to apply with which animals and then training the behavior!
Here is one strategy for getting an open mouth behavior started with a giraffe
Here is another strategy for an open mouth behavior we tried with a pig
10. Expand your List of Reinforcers – Most trainers use food to reinforce behavior, which is totally fine. But what fun it is when we start adding other reinforcers into the mix. We can extend training sessions, we can still have motivation when animals are satiated for food, we have more variety in reinforcers for maintaining behaviors, and some non-food reinforcers are super powerful (just think about the ball obsessed dog!) Two of my favorite non-food reinforcer stories involve target training a male guinea pig for the opportunity to sniff a handful of litter soiled by a female. He LOVED it! And getting a lovely stationing behavior from my macaw just by looking at her and giving her social reinforcers with some “time with my face” at unpredictable intervals. Its really just about identifying what your animal seeks to acquire or engage with and trying to deliver that experience for desired behavior. Definitely a resolution that will broaden your training immensely.
There you go! Ten more things for animal trainers to try in the new year.
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All the best!
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