A little over a month ago, I attended the Clicker Expo in Portland to network and review hot topics that are discussed among fellow animal trainers and see what would be relevant for my book. My original hope was to be finished with “The Zookeeper’s Guide to Fitness” and pass along beta manuscripts for some of the professionals to possibly look over. That hasn’t happened, and while I’m way behind schedule for writing the book, attending the Expo had it’s advantages for helping me with the Operant Conditioning section.
If you are unfamiliar with animal training, a clicker is what trainers refer to as a bridge, or a marker. It’s a little button that makes a loud clicking noise for the animal to associate with positive reinforcement. I’ve debated whether to include this aspect in my book, because it’s a stretch even for me to relate the action with fitness, but it is most relevant to training. Clicker training was started by the Mother-Goddess of Positive Reinforcement Animal Trainers, Karen Pryor. I would really like to sit down and discuss how she came up with some of her methods, because all I can think when I consider how the “bridge” was established is Karen jumping up and down for the dolphin doing a beautiful bow in the air, and feeding it upon its return to the side of the pool, and realizing she just reinforced the dolphin returning to the side of the pool, not the incredible jump (that’s a run-on sentence, and I don’t care). She needed something to tell the dolphin “THAT’S IT!! RIGHT THERE!” so they would understand exactly what Karen was reinforcing once they returned to the poolside to get their reward. It turned out for dolphins, using a dog whistle worked really well, as they could hear that frequency perfectly. It was called a “bridge” because it literally bridged together the behavior and reinforcement, connecting the two even if they were moments apart. Other animal trainers started using the button clicker for land animals, and clicker training took off.
The Clicker Expo was attended by nearly 600 people in Portland alone. In the training world, there are a slew of “celebrities”, and Clicker Expo showcased quite a few of them. In my book, I mention lessons I’ve learned from some of the hotshot mentors in the animal training field, such as Ken Ramirez, Kathy Sdao, Susan Friedman, and Karen Pryor herself. I didn’t get the chance to really sit down and have a one on one with any of the keynote speakers, but I did at least get a chance to slip all of them my business card, mention my book, and ask if I could use their name in the book. So, not what I anticipated, but at least I got my name out there. Sorta.
The weekend was jam packed with classes, workshops, and presentations. I attended quite a few, and took notes on some aspects I felt were quite poignant. Ken Ramirez started the weekend off with his talk called “X-Perience Factor”. He reiterated what I feel is very true, in ANY profession, that you never stop learning. He has been in the animal training field for decades, has been on television for consulting, worked with homeland security, and even is starting a program to use animal training methods to help conservation efforts in the wild (more on this later). But he still doesn’t consider himself an “advanced” trainer, because he still learns new skills each time he attends conferences. Those who claim they don’t need to expand their skills because they are “advanced trainers” often experience an event or incident that ultimately humbles them, and they realize they can always hone skills, and learn something new.
I enjoyed Ken’s stance on utilizing punishment. Positive reinforcement trainers claim they never use punishment. That’s not really realistic, though. Animals experience aversives all the time, whether you provide them or not. Do animal trainers focus on positive reinforcement over punishment? Uh, yeah. Avoiding punishment opens the mind to other options and teaches better habits. Eventually you discover how much you can do without punishment. But teaching positive reinforcement doesn’t make punishment disappear. A great example is a positive reinforcement trainer accidentally knocks over her pain medication and several pills spill onto the floor. Her dog runs over to gobble the fallen morsels. The trainer, in an instant, concerned about her dog, screams “NO!”, scaring the dog away just in time for her to scoop up the fallen pills. The yell was a definite punishment. Is the trainer a bad person for utilizing a punishment in that situation? Of course not. I admit, punishment has its place. I don’t like using it. I would rather try to think of positive approaches before resorting to punishment, but in certain rare instances, an aversive may be the only immediate choice.
Well, not intending to have already typed 800 words for only a small portion of the Expo, I’ll skip the entire weekend and reminisce about the last talk of the night- Ken Ramirez’s Conservation Training. I must admit, I feel I may have finally found my true calling. Training wild animals to help with conservation efforts to protect themselves is astounding. Imagine training wild chimpanzees to call an alarm for the rangers when they spot poachers in their domain? Or training a whole herd of elephants to take a detour from their usual migration route to their water sources in order to avoid poachers waiting to ambush them? This is really happening. Fences don’t deter elephants. And unfortunately there is poor protection against poachers in certain areas along the normal route. Using natural barriers such as fallen trees and brambles, scientists can re-route the elephants onto another, safer path. They even reinforce the herd for taking the detour by creating small water holes along the new route.
These projects that are saving animals’ lives would only be possible through understanding behavior and animal training methods, particularly positive reinforcement. Zoo management is helping develop management of wild animals, animals in sanctuaries, and rescue organizations to provide better care for our favorite species. It does indeed take a village- luckily we have resources through science, knowledge, and experience to be a village that changes lives and keeps things positive.
Clicker Expo Highlights, to be continued…