Might be thought provoking but that’s what we are all about!

Positive reinforcement training is all about focusing on the behaviours the animal does correctly. Through successive approximation plans we try to assure the animal will not make any mis-movements etc. Adding a motivation strategy to this makes the animal choose the correct answer on our small given questions. This is all the theoretic talk we talk about but is it really that its not accepted that the animal makes a mistake?

In the Netherlands we had 7 californian sea lion when I worked there from 2005-2010. We started up a whole new show over the years what was an exciting learning curve for me as a young trainer. Trying to engage as much as I could and observe as many behaviours as I could I tried to learn and learn and learn. At one point we trained our animals for a crisscross ball jump. The animals kind of knew the ball jump itself already but some of the animals we just had to work on the height a little bit more.

The criss cross worked and the animals didn’t seem to mind swimming towards each other and jumping to a ball but when we had to get the ball higher we came to across small challenge. One of the trainers said, lets put the ball higher then it can jump the first try. Touching the ball gives the animal the reinforcement it wants, this means that it knows when it doesn’t hit the ball it has to speed up. So we decided to higher the ball and exactly what happened was that the animal was incorrect. The moment after we asked again and the animal hit the ball from the side as hard as it could.

Was it oke for the animal to make a mistake at that moment in time? Even if we knew it would happen?

Cleveland at Marineland of Canada

A couple years later working the same animals but this time at another facility one of the trainers explained me the following.. we need to let the animals know what a mistake means otherwise they will never understand how to progress. This made me thinking very much because I thought we want our animals to have a positive experience in training sessions at any given time.

Of course we do but what would happen if an animal doesn’t accept failure? We had one animal who didn’t. When being asked a particular behavior and the animal responded incorrectly the animal would run to another person and bite the trainer in the leg. Animals are not robots and we can’t put the pressure on them to always be good.

Although I do believe that we can teach the animal very well that its ok to make a mistake just like us humans. Us humans have a hard time accepting failure as well. When we have too many failures we become insecure about many situations we are involved in to make a proper confident decision. We like to talk about the good we do but not wanting to acknowledge the mistakes we made because we might think that maybe has an effect on how people think and look at us.

Everybody is different and everybody sees things differently. The current job allows me to discover peoples behavior and I see over time that the hardest part of training trainers is to build such a trust account that they also tell me the challenges they have and what mistakes they had made. When we are to that point life becomes so much easier. We can accept what we did and look at the solutions ahead of us.

What if we train the animals the same way?

This is where the LRS could come in. A 3 second pause to show the animal that he is incorrect but still able to potentially get reinforced because of the motivation the animal has to continue the session. This gives the animal an idea of accepting failure as long as you want to keep going.

What about Trial and Error? There are talks about this and some praise it and some are skeptical about calling it this way. I have the privilege to work with many different species during the day. It’s a motivator for me to see people progress with animals. What is funny to observe is when we let the animal think a bit longer or when the trainer jumps to quickly into redirecting. What I find remarkable is to wait a couple extra seconds till the animal is guessing what you want to do correctly. This helps the animal problem solve but also to make the choice to wanting to find out what we want.

The glow and sparkle you see in the animals eyes is amazing when they have it right. This allows the animal to make a mistake, and this allows the animal to try it again on its own. When it doesn’t work, life is good we find something else to make the animal good again.

Adan being conditioned for bows

There are many different ways to go but we should not only talk about focus on the positive we should also talk about that animals are allowed to make mistakes for them to understand how to deal with them themselves. Otherwise we have animals who get into learned helplessness quickly when they do not know how to solve the problem themselves.

In Loro Parque I worked with a Killer Whale name Adan. The animal was bottle fed by trainers because the mother didn’t accept him. The animal was trained from the beginning when it got his bottle. Over the next years we started to train him for more challenging behaviours. The biggest challenge was that he never was thought to accept failure. What happened after a couple incorrect responses he would just swim to the other side of the exhibit. He would not come back. A typical case of learned helplessness.

Just something to think about. But remember every person and so every animal is different. Build a proper relationship to discover what is ok for each individual animal.


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