When I first came home from the Clicker Expo last month, I complained that I didn’t get out of it as much as I would have liked. Looking back on my notes, however, I think I may have spoke too soon. There were quite a few presentations and speakers that, well, spoke to me on a personal level. Not just for animal training, but for writing, for fitness, and for life.
One of my first presentations I attended was Kathy Sdao’s “A Moment of Science” and later her talk called “What a Pithy”. I think Kathy is one of the most energetic and engaging speakers I’ve seen in a long time (and I’m hoping Toastmasters is helping me become an engaging presenter as well).
Kathy spoke about “lowering the criteria” for animal trainers using fitness as an example, and I just had to giggle at the irony. She claims it is so easy when you are weight lifting and the weight is too heavy, you don’t give up. You simply choose a lower weight. Duh! The irony is I talk about lowering your criteria in fitness by explaining if the behavior is too complicated or complex for the animal in a given moment, you simply lower the criteria until it isn’t. Just like lifting weights.
Kathy referenced a perfect example of a Jackpot with her story of “The Hamburger Tree”. As Kathy tells it, when she is teaching a recall behavior with her dog, so the animal will return to her when called over, she sets up the session so there is an actual hamburger sitting in a tree. Kathy lets the dog off the leash and lets them explore. Then she calls them over, and when they finally look up at her, Kathy reaches up and retrieves the hamburger she placed up there. There might be a smidge of anthropomorphism in her story as she describes the dogs’ reaction, but you can imagine the bewildered amazement a dog will feel when they watch their human companion pull a hamburger out of a tree! The likelihood of the dogs coming over when they are recalled has definitely increased thanks to the Hamburger Tree, even if she doesn’t necessarily give them a hamburger every time.
I also love Kathy’s metaphor for the antecedent and behavior. There is an overall illusion when non-animal folks watch a show or behavior that somehow the signal, or cue, makes behavior happen. But ask yourself this- does the beep at the start of the race MAKE Michael Phelps swim fast? Does the traffic light MAKE the car go or stop? No, it simply signals for the behavior to occur.
Kathy’s talks were quite memorable. I started thinking about what I do that is memorable for my clients, or readers, when I have them. One thing I thought was cute and memorable is what I do when I teach squats for first-time workout enthusiasts. A very important aspect of squats is to stay on your heel- driving your movement from the heel rather than on your toes. I tell everyone when they squat down that a small Oregon spotted frog has just hopped under their feet. No matter how they feel about frogs, Oregon spotted are endangered, so they don’t want to squish an endangered species. To save the frog, they have to keep their toes slightly up and weight on their heels. It helps them remember to stay off their toes when they are squatting, and even if I have to remind them, all I have to say is “Watch out for the frog!”.
I didn’t spend all my time listening to Kathy Sdao speak (although, I admit, I may have attended more of her talks than anyone else’s). I managed to attend a very interesting talk by Ken Ramirez again about working with people. Most of us relate much more to animals than humans, but it doesn’t matter if we are zookeepers, dog trainers, or consultants, we HAVE to deal with other people. Ken spoke of so many principles that I have included in my book about applying animal training to fitness, I was beginning to think we may have switched brains. Only, I’m still working on the interest factor for my stories, and Ken has his down pat! But Ken mentioned Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior or Incompatible Behavior. He spoke about focusing on what behaviors you WANT rather than focusing on what is wrong, and finding an acceptable behavior to teach the animals or our clients, rather than punishing the behaviors we don’t want.
Ken suggested having a formalized process, to organize thinking and have step-by-step procedure for people to follow. I could call this the “ZooFit Model” that I teach to everyone the same way. “Here is how we work to meet your goals.” And then assist them in doing it themselves. There is importance in consistency. I talk about that in my own story . There is a saying in fitness that motivates you to keep going, and keep going strong. Ken reminds us to stick with a plan and work through it until the end.
Whether we are dealing with first time CrossFitters, animals learning a new behavior, or a dog “parent” learning how to train their new companion, we have to be able to “speak their language”. Make it easy to relate, simplify the terms, and be thoughtful of feelings. Making a client feel stupid doesn’t make you seem smart, it creates defensiveness, lessens trust, and shuts them down. Focus on positive reinforcement, even for the human animals we have to deal with. When we understand what motivates them, we can help them get something out of working with us, doing the program our way. We gain trust through encouragement and support.
Ken, Kathy, and so many others helped old ideas that I had forgotten about. Clicker Expo helped highlight some interesting, important, and pertinent information that I have known most of my career, but let slip into the background of my mind. It was a great weekend for reminding me how awesome focusing on the positive and finding ways to improve our lives one step at a time.