WTF?

The world of animal trainers is divided.

You might not be aware of that rift, but it’s there. It took me some time to catch on to it, myself. Basically, there are two animal trainer camps, and they’re hardly on speaking terms.

two training camps

Actually, there are at least two camps. Camps within camps, perhaps, even. It’s not the purpose of this blog post to define or analyze all the potential animal training fractions, however.

My guess is, as you look at that image, you agree more with one of those stances than the other.

Am I right?

So what? What’s the issue with camps? You may ask.

Well, I see two problems with this infected split in the ranks of animal trainers:

  • Some people waste a lot of time being annoyed, feeling resentment towards, or even verbally attacking the other camp, although perhaps the death toll is low.

Think of all the great things we could be doing instead!

  • Animals’ welfare is reduced because some animal trainers are using suboptimal techniques. In my opinion, some animals are suffering or having to be euthanized either as a result of unfortunate training choices, or because better solutions were not investigated.

I think we can all agree on that, even if we may not agree on which training camp is the better one.

Yes, I’m leaning heavily towards one of  those camps, but I’m not an extremist. However, the main objective of this blog isn’t to convince people to join my side.

Rather, I’d like us to bridge the gap and start communicating.

I think that we can learn something from everyone, including people from the other camp – so my purpose with this post is for us to open the doors and start a dialogue.

I think that by reducing the animosity and saying hi, people in both camps may feel better and pay attention to how their training choices influence their animals’ welfare.

That’s an important first step, win-win, regardless of whether anyone converts.

Anyway.

So.

Here’s the thing.

The reason I’m writing this.

I just attended the 2nd Animal behaviour and training conference (Woof! 2017) where many of the presenters discussed this unfortunate situation, adding several perspectives. This got me thinking, and I had some ideas that I felt were worthwhile to share.

As you can guess from the number of exceptional speakers and the thought-provoking content that they shared, some of which you’ll find below, Woof! was a great conference. Not to mention it’s the only conference I’ve attended where there was a spontaneous conga line dancing through the room in between presentations.

Saving a video spot for the conga-dance here in case someone filmed it and is willing to share!

Below I’ll paraphrase important concepts shared by some of the presenters, and bring their ideas together. They did not speak in the order presented below, and often their main topic was about something altogether different. I may have misunderstood some of what they said; if so I do hope someone will let me know..!

What we’re doing and why it’s not working

Conference organizer Chirag Patel (Domesticated Manners) said:

“Don’t punish the offering of information.”

Both camps are guilty of this. We explain our stance in a somewhat annoyed and condescending tone of voice, and the reply is some variation of “yeah, but..!”, and then the other proceeds to explain how wrong our technique or attitude is.

Moron

The problem with this approach is that it shuts down further communication. Barriers go up, and the true exchange of information is over before it even began. Both sides walk away convinced that the other is wrong, having learned nothing.

So berating the other is out. What to do, then?

How to change someone’s mind

Susan Friedman (Behavior Works) said:

“Don’t change minds, bring information to the table.”

That’s a very important reminder. We can’t change people’s minds. They change their minds on their own. Actually, they activate other frames, which will be discussed below.

What we can do is provide them with information, and explain our values – and then they might at least be willing to consider our perspective.

But it’s so tempting to provide information in the wrong way.

whatever

We try to explain. We talk about facts. And often, our efforts are in vain.

Why?

I can think of three reasons. Let’s start with one that wasn’t discussed at the conference.

Cognitive dissonance

I mentioned that animal welfare is potentially affected by training decisions.

And that one training camp is more likely to have an adverse effect on animal welfare.

Which camp would you rather be in?

That’s a no brainer for most people – there’s no doubt in my mind that both camps care about the welfare of their animals.

And so the mere suggestion that what you’re doing may cause suffering will cause cognitive dissonance, a type of mental stress that will lead to avoiding certain situations.

It’s natural to avoid having conversations where someone suggests that you’re causing suffering to animals.

Whistle

I realize it may be very uncomfortable reading this, and that I might have lost some of my readers already.

For those of you still here; clearly, if we want to maintain dialogue, we can’t make people feel bad about previous choices. If we do, they’ll tune out and walk away.

Don’t make people feel guilty about what they’re doing.

Instead, find the common ground.

At the conference, two additional reasons why providing information may be problematic were discussed.

The problem with overwhelm

Jean Donaldson (The Academy for Dog Trainers) said:

“They need needles; we give them haystacks.”

We overwhelm people with too much information, and most of it is unnecessary.

Overload1

Guilt and overwhelm is not all. The biggest problem may be that the information we provide isn’t understood by the other person, since we’re from different camps.

Or rather, from different frames.

How frames influence behaviour

Alexandra Kurland (The Clicker Center) said:

“When people view the world from a completely different perspective, or frame, facts don’t make sense if they’re outside the person’s frame of reference.”

In other words, the different animal trainer camps aren’t communicating well because it’s as if we’re speaking different languages and facts presented by one camp don’t make sense to the other camp.

What's for lunch

Ok.

Let’s summarize.

We overwhelm people with too much information, or flood them with guilt, both of which causes them to shut down or walk away.

But in addition, the facts we present may be inaccessible. Like taking the wrong turn when looking for the lecture hall, and stumbling on an advanced lecture on quantum mechanics.

No doubt, for some people, advanced quantum mechanics make perfect sense. But for most of us, we can’t immediately go from literacy (sort of understanding basic concepts) to fluency (actually using those concepts) without some sort of transition, or shift.

You may think: animal training isn’t exactly quantum mechanics.

How hard can it be? Start with the easy bits! Duh!

But here’s the interesting thing.

The problem may be not that the facts are hard to understand, but that the underlying values of the different frames make the facts from the other frame inaccessible. Frames are mental structures that help us understand the world, and as Alexandra Kurland suggests in this blog post, different animal trainer camps inhabit different frames.

Sound confusing?

Let’s try an illustration.

Control

The term “control” means completely different things to the two trainer frames. The dominance-based trainer is likely to use the term control to discuss how the trainer controls the animal’s behaviour or its access to the environment.

The positive reinforcement-based trainer is more likely to discuss how the animal can control its environment. Empowerment and choice are likely to be mentioned in the same sentence.

Same word, vastly different meaning.

Because of values.

This frame-related confusion, in addition to overwhelm and guilt, makes it difficult to use pure facts to get people to change their behaviour.

Well, if that’s not annoying, I don’t know what is. If we’re in different frames, we can’t communicate very well.

But wait, if people are in the same frame, they can communicate well.

Can we help people to shift frames, then?

…Yes we can!

That shift is easier accomplished by evoking values rather than stating facts or numbers.

Achieve the shift, and the other person will be ready to hear your facts. As long as you don’t overwhelm them, and don’t play the guilt card.

One thing that wasn’t discussed at the Woof! conference is the mere exposure effect, but I think it could be a useful concept when thinking about how to help people shift frames.

The mere exposure effect

You’re buying food for your animal, and there’s two varieties available. One of them, you’ve never seen before, the other is a common brand. The quality and price is the same. Will you choose the new product, or the one you’re familiar with?

Brands

Generally speaking, people tend to resist change and novelty, and prefer the familiar to the unknown. When you’re exposed to something over and over, it gradually becomes familiar.

Through mere exposure, or the familiarity principle, the unknown becomes well-known, and preference develops. Marketers know this well; that’s one of the purposes of advertisements: to create the preference induced by the mere exposure-effect.

Preference involves value, and that’s needed to make the shift of frames, remember..?

Here’s a twist on that – one that should make us think twice about the topics we choose when talking to the other camp.

“Negating a frame activates that frame, as I pointed out in the book Don’t Think of an Elephant! It doesn’t matter if you are promoting Trump or attacking Trump, you are helping Trump.” George Lakoff from “Understanding Trump

Replace “Trump” with the name of an controversial animal trainer of your choice, and you’ll see the problem.

You’re helping that trainer by talking about him.

What to do? To quote John Cleese as the peerless Basil Faulty: “don’t mention the war”.

Don’t mention the bad trainers. Demonstrate good training, instead.

Positive reinforcement-based training is still new. For many, it’s still an unknown, and many people are naturally suspicious when they first hear about it.

But it’s likely that through the mere exposure effect, the innate resistance will erode with time as the novelty of positive reinforcement-based training wears off.

More people will associate value with positive reinforcement-based training, and so even though they may spend most of their time in the dominance-based training frame, the other one is accessible.

Can we speed up this process?

I think so. Which brings us to our next nugget from this extraordinary conference.

Short Phrase coaching

Theresa McKeon (Tag Teach International) said:

“Chanting is more successful than I ever would have predicted.”

In her work as a Tag teacher, she’s used the concept of short phrase coaching to get her learners to succeed by timely chanting simple word combinations in order to trigger the right behaviour.

Here’s one example from The family dog that you might find useful! The chanting starts at about 2.05.

And it was at this point that I started thinking about memes, which weren’t mentioned at the conference.

Memes

Memes are words, sounds or images that grab your attention and are memorable. Memes might be funny. Thought-provoking. Alliterations or rhymes often work well.

Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes.

Confusing? An example!

Elvis the pelvis

Still confusing? Here’s some more info.

Just like successful genes, successful memes spread in a group and become progressively more common. Only, rather than rely on natural selection and genetic mutation over long time, they can spread fast by word of mouth, as well as mutate, through cultural selection.

Legendary Bob Bailey said:

“Training is simple, but not easy.”

If you ever had the privilege of learning from Bob, you’ll agree: the man is a master at inventing great training memes.

Why am I talking about memes?

Because memes can become viral, spreading like wild fire.

Enter social media. The substrate in which memes grow like crazy.

The importance of social media

Sean Pogson (Eirinn’s dad), said:

“Facebook posts taught me how to help my autistic daughter.”

At Woof!, Sean shared a spectacular and heart-warming story about how his Facebook contacts had introduced him to applied behaviour analysis, which had radically improved his daughter’s condition. Find some of his story here, and help fund his continued work here.

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to reaching people.

And combining the power of social media with inherently viral memes could have a huge impact on the animal training community in general, and animal welfare in particular.

Yay!

Using memes to change the world of animal training

I think we, the positive reinforcement trainer community, should

  • Come up with a few great memes that capture what we do and why.
  • Start using these memes intentionally, sharing them over social media.

Here are a few examples of what I think might be useful animal training memes:

3 memes

Hm. Wondering if I should explain these. Should I?

These are just suggestions, mind you. I wanted to write this blog post, rather than identify the memes the most likely to succeed. Time will tell if these suggestions survive to have any impact, and that largely depends on you.

This is what I predict will happen if they – or other memes we come up with – are successful:

  • Non-trainers and the other camp will notice the memes, since they stand out from non-memes and are being flooded onto social media and make their way into training conversations.
  • Initially our audience may be suspicious of them, but due to the mere exposure effect people will start internalizing them.
  • The memes have value; they’re needles rather than hay stacks.
  • The new memes will help facilitate the switch to the other reference frame, thanks to their value as well as the mere exposure effect
  • The two training camps can start having meaningful discussions when both people in a conversation are in the same reference frame.
  • There will be less friction and true communication between camps.
  • We can start talking about all the facts that support our choice of training technique, demonstrate how it’s actually done and help overcome initial obstacles.
  • Animal welfare will improve, and animal trainers will be happier.

Take action

I’m going to end this blog post with a few action points for you, my fellow animal trainers. Get off your butt and do these four things, and see the ripple effects spread.

Action 1: Type some potential memes from the training-related expressions you’re already using below in the comments’ section.

Action 2: Comment on the memes that others have shared – which do you like?

Action 3: Share this blog post.

Action 4: Start using the memes that you like the most – mention them on social media so they may reach non-trainers and people from the other training camp.

Hopefully, together we can actually have an impact. If not, at least you’ll get some great ideas that might improve your own training.

After all, as Theresa McKeon said: chanting was more successful than she ever would have predicted.

Update: later I actually ran an experiment, releasing 28 wannabe memes onto Facebook and documenting what happened. Find out more here!

***

Sign up below to get notified the next time I publish a new blog post, give free webinars or launch an online course!

Share this post:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedin

43 Replies to “WTF?”

  1. Create emotional capital

    Creating feelings capital gives the possibility of withdrawal. I mean that if you made deposits with the animal and then create “trouble” for the animal it can be outweighed.

    At least i think it is possible with rabbits, sheep, cats, dogs and horses.

  2. All you have to do is look at the competitive dog sport world of IPO, this is a pure reflection of the change in training approaches. Any 30 plus year veteran would tell you that if you line up the champion of yesteryear against the champion of today those of yesteryear would be left for dead. No doubt we have improved and no doubt the shift from the old school days of heavily compulsive methods to the heavily indusive and classically conditioned of today is more than warranted. However, when PP/FF extremists offer solutions like ‘just pen the puppy until they grow out of it’? I am forever dismayed and left to pick up the pieces. The motivational matrix is a representation of life on earth. Life which functions as a direct result of these 4 quadrants. To abandon one quadrant completely and place this idealogy above and beyond the welfare on an animal is terribly selfish and this is what I and many are encountering. It’s like in some cases people have shifted from one extreme to another?!?! Although striving towards a PP/FF methodology certainly can help create more techniques and potential to become a better trainer, (not to mention improving welfare for animals) but to actually put it into religious practice 100% is plain and simple irrational extremism at it’s worst…and yes, as some may have eluded, TIME is a variable which often needs to be considered in the companion animal world. That is TIME taken to create a manageable outcome. Equally offensive I find are restrictions on dog breeds or equipment like E-collars. The only restrictions should be the human at the end of the lead….unfortunately it’s always the human that is the problem. So, although I agree with much of what you say Karolina I do feel that it should be acknowledged that P+ in the right hands can actually make up part of a successful behavioural modification program. Tools like E-collars or ANY TOOL are only ever a problem in the wrong hands and are no more capable of misuse and abuse than a lead and flat collar.

    1. Hi Gordon! It wasn’t my objective to discuss the intricacies of P+ in this blog post – but I actually do that here, including mentioning when I think P+ would be appropriate: http://illis.se/en/punishment-problems/

      Hmm I need to re-read this and see if I really come across as extremist – not my intention – thanks for pointing it out!

  3. Thank you for this blog post!
    “EMPOWERMENT in training ROCKS!”
    “HAPPY animals engage”
    “Catch it WHEN you get it”
    “Have FUN – train friendly”
    I love Winston Churchill’s way too long but…. :
    “Nothing is impossible – The impossible only takes longer”
    Have a nice day!

  4. Spreading propaganda in small doses isn’t going to change the opinions of the learned. I’m happy to discuss methodology with anyone but I find the contrary happens to what you state; it is the purely positive trainer that leaves the conversation when it is pointed out the scope of the studies to which they rely are being touted out of context to make blanket statements against the use of any aversives. Many have no working knowledge of the topic and when presented with facts the cognitive dissonance kicks in. A study is just data being collected and analysed to create a hypothesis; the hypothesis is only as good as the data collected and the analysis. Until that hypothesis is tested it remains unsubstantiated. I don’t label myself as any one type of trainer; I use all within my skill set to achieve the best results for my client; like most trainers, the majority of my methods are positive reinforcement based, but I will not hesitate to use positive punishment or negative reinforcement if the situation dictates for the safety or greater good of the dog and my client. The end result is the test for training methodology, not the trumped up propaganda; the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

    1. Thanks for this – interesting on many levels!

      – Mere exposure impacts preference. “Propaganda” works, values shift with familiarity for the majority of people. Perhaps learning will affect the probability of such a preference shift, I don’t know. Perhaps not.

      – I consider myself reasonably learned, and I have a lot of pompous letters to my name nowadays. But I’m a lot more humble today as an Associate Professor, than I used to be as a budding phD student. Today, I’m aware of (some of) the limitations of my knowledge. I know the difficulties of overcoming cognitive bias, and I consider the ability of changing opinions a strength, not a weakness.

      – As a scientist, I agree that we should question circular or unfounded reasoning. However, the issue of animal welfare is value-laden and different scientists emphasize different perspectives, typically health, happiness or telos. Thus sometimes agreeing to disagree is the only option at any given time – until a frame shift has occurred.

      – I this blog post, I portrayed the most extreme positions among animal trainers. However, a lot of people will find themselves somewhere else along the continuum, just like you – and I. Many trainers follow the LIEBI approach, saving positive punishment as a last resort to address problem behaviour, when no other approach has worked. That said, most LIEBI proponents consider punishment very problematic given the huge number of potential, serious, side effects.

      1. I would like to step up to your comment on Leibi and by extension, LIMA and Humane Hierarchy, and this whole issue of “humane” training. I have walked both extremes of your training paradigms and I want to suggest that we have stopped looking at the real issue here. We have forgotten to ask the learner about what is important to them. I have seen food used to manipulate animals to do things that are neither in their best interest nor of relevance to them. They have in effect, been forced into behaviour they should not do in order to get food. I have also seen animals forced through pain and fear into the same. Conversely, I have seen animals learn in a single iteration to accept situations that ARE in their best interest and that will improve their welfare through one unpleasant application of an aversive. I have also seen animals learn easily through positive reinforcement. So why then do I say that I think you are looking at the wrong issue?

        Simply because when learners can learn efficiently and effectively, and with a minimum of distress, then the learner can get on with the business of living his life and using skills to better cope with what he faces. Consider for a moment the dog who jumps up on counters to eat things left there. This is a situation faced by millions of families and results in dogs who eat things such as chocolate or medications that result in the dogs being hospitalized or even dying. I can solve this for a client in ONE repetition with the use of a strong aversive, well timed and seeming to have nothing to do with the trainer. I can and I have. The result is a happy owner and a dog who is safer in his own home. I can also take a long, long time and work really hard and eventually teach a dog to stay off counters through a process of R+ training. The fact is that counter surfing is faster and easier to resolve with P+. Some things are like that. OTOH, it is MUCH easier to teach something like come when called with R+. Yes, I can and I have taught this using R- and P+, but why would I when the very large majority of dogs learn this much faster and easier with R+? Some things are like that too.

        We have gotten all tangled up in politics. I am an educated and very experienced trainer. I have trained at both ends of the spectrum. I am no longer interested in discussing which end of the spectrum is better; I am interested only in helping teach folks to recognize when their learners are relaxed and happy, and to recognize when an intervention is working and when it is not. I challenge you to change your frame again. Ask the learner. What are they telling you? Do they understand what you want in a few repetitions? Because if they don’t, then you doom yourself to frustrating yourself as a trainer, and your learner. That just isn’t much fun at all.

        1. Sue, you’re making a great point bringing in the practical perspective – and asking the learner. I think we’re living in a paradigm shift, where attention to the animal’s happiness, choice and control are becoming more and more important. I see this shift occurring in the R+ camp, not in the dominance-based camp.

          I’m a welfare scientist and a lateral thinker, I hardly train animals – certainly not at the level comparable with many of my readers. My perspective is animal welfare, and when looking at behaviour from that angle, I’d rather find other solutions than P+ to keep the dog off the counter. However, when the practical perspective and the risks are taken in, I can certainly understand your decision to go down that path. I would have one concern apart from the risk of side effects, and that is that the clients might copy that technique and use it less skillfully and in other contexts. YOur role as an authority for your clients can’t be underestimated, I think.

          This blog post was meant mostly as a discussion point on how the reinforcement-based community can communicate more effectively about training, rather than the advanced details of when punishment may be appropriate, or when treat feeding may be inappropriate – I was very inspired by that conference! 🙂

  5. While I agree that the constant bickering needs to stop and is, in the long run, harming dogs, your bias towards one discipline becomes obvious very quickly into the article. If you were to restrain from inputting your personal training style bias in the article it would be much more powerful. As is it seems as much a training poster on how to convert others as it does an olive branch extended in a gesture of peace.

    1. Thank you for this comment!

      It really made me think: what was the objective behind this post? An olive branch? Or a one-sided call to action?

      Remaining neutral is hard when you have made up your mind, and I have. I’m not indifferent to the outcome, I’m passionate. As I think most trainers are, regardless of which side we subscribe to.

      I’m not merely interested in having both sides lay down their arms so that we can communicate effectively, since I believe animals are suffering because of this deadlock, and I don’t think that suffering will end if we don’t manage to convert the *other* camp. Rather, I’m interested in how *my* side can stop offending, overwhelming and evoking guilt when speaking to the dominance-based camp.

      I think we already have the “mere exposure effect” of the dominance-based camp, thanks to some television programs and our cultural upbringing. The equivalent is missing in the positive reinforcement- camp since we’re not speaking with one voice, and we’re often using an accusing tone of voice when we try to convey our position.

      So, rather, perhaps I should have been more clear from the beginning of the post: it was a call to action for the positive reinforcement camp – sorry if I started out by appearing neutral on this topic.

  6. I love this blog! It’s a Mashup of my two current passions, behavior science as it is applied to dogs and politics. (I might have left the expected comma on purpose.)

    How about:
    Changing the environment changes behavior.

  7. “Break it down!”

    As in, break down the behavior into small pieces for shaping. Or, alternatively,

    “Split it!”

    Or clever plays (to be determined by someone wittier than myself) on existing phrases such as
    “Make like a banana and split”
    “Split the difference”
    “We’re splitting up”
    “Lickety-split”
    “Split hairs”
    Etc.

    Excellent, excellent post by the way. I really enjoy the reads that give you a lot to think about. Will be saving this post (and your blog in general) for future reference! Thanks for writing!

    1. My first thought was “Rather split than lump?” as an alternative but perhaps it’s better not to mention the don’ts.

      Great suggestion, to throw out a handful of similar suggestions, and see which sticks.

      Glad you like the blog! 🙂

    1. nice one – heard that before as “what you click is what you get” – but this has wider application!

  8. Wonderful and compassionate approach to everyone well done! I just gave a lecture on this very idea in my Animal Training 101 class on line yesterday so we must all be circling around very important truths!
    Here are some of my favorite memes “Always, come bearing gifts!” “Set the animal up for success” ” Train as fast as you can but as slow as you need to”
    and finally, most appropriate for this post “Positive reinforcement, it’s not just for animals!” 😉

    1. Nice additions, Jenifer! I’m sure you noticed I really like your “communication and motivation” approach to animal training…!

  9. “What’s the emotion/feeling?”

    A reminder to step into your animals shoes and think about how a situation or a behaviour feels to them and what we can do about that feeling, especiallt if the feeling is unpleasent for them. A notion on respect and empathy 🙂

  10. ‘Name it when you love it’ has stuck in my head since I heard it. I know it is 6 words but 2 are the same! Also ‘the animal is always right’. Great blog. Thank you

    1. Nice! 🙂 Love “the animal is always right” – it packs a lot of information – and it’s a good reminder when things go “wrong”

  11. Thank you for sharing Karro !
    I´ve heard about the conference and I wish I had been there with you.
    I can only agree and I will think about what memes I like best and share !
    As I have lived most off my life in the outskirt of one frame and lately totally moved to the other it felt like “I stepped out of the closet” as I never really belonged in the -R frame. So I meet now the width off the gap in between the two frames. I´m just odd, why am a so weird, have i lost my mind …..or people just turn away. I´ts a bit lonely in my new frame and I do wish memes or whatever may get people together but it´s so easy to turn your back to what you don´t know . <3

    1. Thanks for sharing – I realize transitioning can be a scary and lonely place, and we should learn to be supportive of people who are in other frames than ourselves… let us know if you come up with any good memes! 🙂

  12. If you can’t explain it the dog can’t do it.

    (Just because I’m forever seeing people – regardless of camp, or frame – trying to build behaviors in their dogs without even having a goal in mind… )

    1. Great one! In Tag Teach they say “five words or fewer”, referring to the actual specific criteria for the next repetition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.