ORCA: Part 1. Steve Martin

These are my notes from the ORCA Great Minds conference at UNT in March 2009. The Great Minds conference brought half a dozen top trainers together to talk about animal training, clicker training, operant conditioning and the future of training. This is my first page of thoughts and notes. To read more about the conference in general, please see this post.

The ORCA conference on Friday got off to a great start with the first speaker, Steve Martin. (Steve Martin the bird trainer, not the actor!) Steve’s a world-known animal trainer. Although he trains all sorts of species, he is best known for training free-flight birds. Training free-flight birds presents an interesting challenge–you must keep the animal interested, engaged and happy, or they can just fly away! In all his years of training hundreds of birds, he has yet to lose even one. (If you want more info about Steve, there’s quite a bit on his company’s website here.)

Steve’s presentation was on the art of training. Training is a mechanical skill, there’s no doubt about it. And if you have poor mechanical skills (clumsy timing with delivering rewards, clumsy handling of the horse’s lead rope or other equipment, etc.) you will struggle as a trainer. However, once a person masters the mechanics of training, fine differences between philosophy, principle and understanding make the good trainer a great trainer.

According to Steve, the artistic trainer is able to do the following things:

  • Accept Responsibility for the animal’s behavior
  • Empower the animal
  • Motivate the animal
  • Participate in 2 way communication
  • Avoid aversives when at all possible

Accept Responsibility for the animal’s behavior

The first concept Steve Martin discussed was that the trainer must accept responsibility for the behavior of the animal(s) they are training. Interestingly, I think this is often the hardest for many people, both those who work as trainers and those who are don’t necessarily think of themselves as trainers, but who own animals. We like to take credit for things that go well, but as humans, we all too often shy away from taking the blame at our animal’s bad behavior.

Several times Steve said “Your animal’s behavior is a direct reflection of your training.” When we blame the animal and come up with excuses related to the animal’s biology or past, we end up avoiding the problem, instead of finding and addressing whatever actually caused the problem.

Steve gave a whole host of labels that bird owners use as excuses for parrot behavior. However, a label just creates a name for the behavior, it does nothing towards finding a solution! People call their birds hormonal (but guess what, all birds have hormones!), people call their birds phobic (but phobia implies an irrational fear, and most animal fear is usually pretty rational!), people call their birds height dominant (even though consequences drive behavior, and they have probably created this behavior themselves), and people rely on the crutch of labeling their birds abused (yes some animal are abused. However, you don’t have to let the animal’s past define who the animal will be tomorrow. Instead, focus on building a relationship based on positive experiences).

He talked at length about “height dominance” in birds. For instance, the bird is sitting happily up on top of it’s cage minding it’s own business. A person comes over and shoves his hand up towards the bird’s face, the bird is startled and annoyed, and reaches down to bite the person. So, the person quickly withdraws his hand. “Score!” says the bird and he’s now learned how to get people to take their hands away when they reach towards him. Then the person goes off in a grumble, and get the broom to so that she can get the parrot down off of the cage or cabinet or whatever. She swats at the bird with the broom, get the bird down, catches the bird, and shoves it in the cage. The bird learns the owner is not a pleasant person to interact with. If the cycle continues, the owner starts calling the parrot “aggressive” and “height dominant” .

The funniest one he talked about was the theory many people have that the animal is “messing with your mind,” “pushing your buttons,” or being completely “stubborn.” First of all, he believes animals don’t even know we have a mind. Even if they do, an animal doesn’t care about what you think, but about what you do. An animal will react only to what you do.

In short, we need to stop blaming animals for our inability to train them.

Empower Your Animals

The second concept Steve talked about was that a great trainer should seek to empower the animal. Part of what makes consequences into reinforcers is that the animal feels that he is in control over the outcome. Traditional trainers that rely on force, punishment and pressure usually give their animals very little choice or control over the training process. Giving the animal control over the training process helps to build the animal’s confidence by allowing them to participate in what happens.

Some strategies he discussed for empowering our animals included allowing them the power to escape, giving them the power to shape our behavior, and creating a plan for getting behavior we do want.

The first point Steve discussed for empowering our animals was to give them the power to escape. He showed a video of training a young rhino to walk on a scale to get the animal’s weight. The rhino was in a large exhibit, the scale was beside the fence and the trainer stood just on the other side of the fence. The animal could leave and walk away if he felt insecure, afraid on unconfident. He was hesitant at first, but after a few times, began following the target stick on to the scale. (Read more here about target training or here about introducing animals to scary objects.)

I think horse trainers are extremely guilty of not following this principle. Many horse trainers put halters, bridles and ropes on their horses to keep them where they want them. Or, they work the animal in a small round corral where the animal cannot get away, even when they put too much pressure on him and the animal desperately wants to escape. Working at liberty, especially in a large open space is an excellent way to test how well you’ve trained. There is so much truth to liberty work, especially outside of the roundpen. If the horse has the chance to leave, and does, what does that say about his confidence, eagerness, focus and willingness to play?

Want to keep reading? Click here to go to ORCA: Part 2.

Be sure to check back tomorrow and later in the week, as I’ll be blogging about the rest of the conference speakers. If you don’t regularly read my blog, but find this interesting, I encourage you to subscribe via the RSS feed or by e-mail subscriptions (both located at the top right. Thanks for reading!

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