Zookeepers are an amazing group of people. They dedicate their lives to improve animal welfare, educate the public, and promote conservation.
One of the most interesting and fascinating aspects of being a zookeeper is building a relationship with an animal. Training, the art of teaching animals behaviors, is in essence the ultimate gift of communicating between species.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, animal training looked very different than the practice of today. Force, punishment, and deprivation are methods of the past. Today’s trainer uses positive methods, through operant conditioning.
And now, we have the ability to use the same tools as animal trainers to make our lives better, build healthy habits, and become the best version of ourselves.
How do zookeepers get animals to perform amazing behaviors, or hold still for unpleasant procedures like blood draws, injections, and veterinary examinations? Heck, how do zookeepers get animals to do ANYTHING?
Animal trainers aren’t secret magicians. Well, maybe some are, but that’s a side gig and not part of their job as animal professionals. It’s amazing to watch a dolphin jump clear out of the water, see an elephant lay down and let a keeper draw blood from their ear, or a gorilla stick their arm into a sleeve to receive an injection, but it’s all part of the science of operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning is the idea of learning through the pairing of behavior with a consequence. Whenever any living animal performs a behavior, there is a consequence which precedes it. Depending if that consequence is reinforcing or punishing will determine if the likelihood of that behavior will occur again in the future. A punishment will deter behavior, reinforcement will encourage it.
Sorry, I sometimes geek out when I start discussing operant conditioning. It’s the animal nerd in me. It’ll never go away.
Let’s talk in reference to our own lives. As humans, well, honestly, as animals, we live to avoid punishment. Punishment is anything we dislike, find offensive, or aversive, and wish to avoid. Nails on the chalkboard? That’s punishment to some people. I haven’t met anyone so far who views it as a reinforcement.
Reinforcement is something we enjoy, find pleasurable, and will seek out. Every single one of our behaviors we employ on a day to day basis is a result of either avoiding a punishing consequence, or gaining a reinforcing consequence.
When my alarm goes off, I hit the snooze button. This is doubly reinforcing for me, because I get to sleep a little longer AND the alarm goes away. But then the dreaded noise machine always comes back. To make it stop completely, I get out of bed. My behavior of waking up is reinforced by making the loud beeping noise to finally shut up.
While driving through a school zone, we slow down. It’s possible we learned a hard lesson from a very aversive experience of being pulled over by a cop while going too fast through a speed zone. Now, when we enter a school zone, we slow down. We will do what it takes to avoid that particular punishment in the future.
But, PJ, what does all this have to do with fitness?
Patience, Grasshopper, I’m just getting warmed up.
If past experiences, even ones from long ago can dictate our daily behavior, from getting up in the morning, to answering a phone call, slowing down in a school zone, and putting on our seat belt, surely, SURELY this method can help us achieve goals we WANT to accomplish.
I mean, if it works for animal trainers, it can work for you, right?
This is where you nod enthusiastically, because yes, this method can ABSOLUTELY work for you, whatever your goals may be.
Would you like to run a marathon? Lose weight? Increase strength? Or do you have more long term goals? Do you want to be able to play with your grandkids one day without getting winded? Whatever you want out of life, the principles of operant conditioning can help you achieve it.
For operant conditioning to work wonders, we must also learn a little about shaping, too. Shaping is the most common training method used by animal trainers to teach behavior. In simple terms, shaping is the breaking down of behavior into small, achievable steps, and teaching the behavior through successive approximations. Or, in easier terms- one step at a time.
It’s important to note that for every behavior, there are as many ways to train that behavior as there are trainers to train it. To train a dog to sit, one trainer may use a target to have the dog touch with its nose, and bring it up so the dog’s haunches go down while the head raises up. Another may apply a little pressure on the haunches to encourage the dog to move it downward. A very patient trainer may just wait for the dog to sit on its own and reinforce the sit.
My point is when you are trying to figure out how to create your steps, there is no right or wrong way. What works for you may not work for someone else, and vice versa. There are many ways to achieve your fitness goals, all through successive approximations, shaping, and operant conditioning.
Take a habit you have wanted to establish for a while. Now, what is the simplest, most basic step you could incorporate to help you move toward creating that habit? Start practicing that small baby step, every day. As you practice this small behavior change, reinforce your habit every time you achieve this step. It doesn’t matter if it’s the finished target behavior, yet. You are training yourself through approximations.
If you are struggling with your behavior or training plan, don’t worry too much. We will go a little more into figuring out your approximations when we discuss figuring out your “Why”. For now, just focus on doing ONE SMALL THING. And reinforce yourself for doing that one small thing.
If you don’t reinforce yourself for achieving the little things, what is motivating you to continue moving forward? I’m not saying to buy a new workout outfit every single time you go to the gym, but there has to be something which makes an association in your brain that the behavior you are practicing is connected to something nice.
You can use verbal praise, a proud victory stance, a gold star, or a check-off which helps you earn a larger reward. In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she demonstrates the research behind positive affirmations. In most cases, positive self-talk doesn’t just boost confidence, it also improves performance in the behavior.
By using this simple method of shaping through operant conditioning, we start to establish a positive mindset to fitness and wellness. And that is more than half the battle. All you need to train your mind and your body to achieve your goals is a positive mentality, and the readiness to break our behavior down to its core.