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Trainer Talk – Inventive Methods of Reinforcement

We will never know exactly what an animal is thinking, but there is beauty in all that we can discover. If we open our minds, we can really see what is possible.

We are all inventors in our own ways. When we think about the boundaries in learning toward ourselves and our animals, it’s all about imagination. The way I like to describe it is motivation and learning works with animals so similarly as it does with us. It gets to a point where we the inventers find methods of reinforcement in our imagination.

One of the facilities I worked at used the strategy, “you do not need a bucket to train.”  This presents a new challenge trying finding ways to reinforce, but suddenly, you begin to invent your own methods of reinforcement.  Dancing, energy level, changes of position and for example, working with positive tensions.

You start to learn how animals respond differently to what preferences they have in which moment.  Going from visual reinforcements to drums and music; we even started to use vegetation.  Bring a leaf with you, do the behavior we ask you to, and give the leaf back.  Small creative changes can make an animal wonder, what else does he have in his toolbox for me?

We can go far with the invention of behaviors and methods of reinforcement. Challenging one another is a beautiful way to make us more creative and the animals more open-minded for a variety of objects and scenarios.

If we take this further, the desensitisation goes even more smoothly because we’re being inventive. They trust and we play.  We can create an environment for the animal where they won’t have a clue what the trainers are going to do next, but they know is its going to be fun.

If we get to a point where we don’t have to use anything but ourselves, then we begin to have chemistry. We just have to be open to what the animals want on a daily basis.

One day an animal likes to see me dance, but another day, the same animal wants something else. If we pick up on this fast enough and we can time our actions as close as the animal gives us responses and let the animals invent with us, we should be able to pull them through a lot of scenarios.

An important thing to keep in mind is timing.  The timing of this invention and response has to be extremely tight in order to to pull this off.  We worked with a group of amazing dolphins all together; one more engaged than the other with our inventions.  “Now,” I thought, “Let me make from a hose a didjeridu.”  First, making bubbles under water, than running while making bubbles, then as last, the sound above the water.  I was just being inventive but I pushed the button too much in my own excitement and the dolphin left.  She never came back until I had a session with her later that day.

What I learned was just to dare myself to try new things while building on my relationship with the animal. Yes, it can go wrong, but isn’t that how we learn?  This is what makes being inventive so much fun.  Until today, challenging myself without using any buckets but just myself and the toys in different ways than what the animal predicts me to do, I provide them with an interest of being with me.

Lets face it; everybody who uses a ball as reinforcement, you throw the ball to the animal and the animal throws or brings the ball back.  We throw the ball in the water this time or we bounce it first and then the dolphin throws it back. Most of the time trainers have this response when using a ball but what can we do more with this ball than just bouncing it around?  One of our trainers used the ball between his feet and let the dolphin push him underwater so he and the ball where bouncing on the bottom of the pool because the dolphin was pushing him down.  Small changes can mean the world to our animals.

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How I try to practice this is not just trial and error. It’s more than that.  Observation of animals playing asks, what are individuals doing with in their free time?  How are other trainers using various secondary reinforcements or their own energy?  You can learn a whole lot by just observing and discovering your own patterns to play with.

It’s a learning school, sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed and that’s how we become better as long as we keep looking further.




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