ORCA: Part 2. 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 the second post of my thoughts and notes. To read more about the conference in general, please see this post. To read the previous page of notes (Part 1) please see this post.

In the previous post, I discussed the first 2 of Steve Martin’s ideas for what makes training an art, and what makes the difference between a good trainer and a great trainer. I’ll discuss some of my thoughts about motivation in this post. Just to refresh here’s the basics of his talk:

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

Motivate the Animal

Steve talked about how important motivation is for training. Ultimately, we have to look at motivation from the animal’s perspective, not from our own. Animals will go towards something they like and away from something they dislike. The animal is constantly asking “What’s in it for me?” Often, especially in traditional training methods, there’s really not that much in it for the animal.

I often think of horse trainers when I think of the “What’s in it for me?” question. Many horse trainers are very fond of the phrase “it’s the release that teaches.” Meaning, since much horse training is dependent on negative reinforcement and pressure/release, it’s the pressure (either physical or psychological) that motivates the animal, and the release of that pressure that teaches.

For example, shaking the lead rope to cause a horse to back up. Shaking the rope causes the horse to become uncomfortable, so he begins to back up. Once the horse has backed far enough, the trainer then stops the pressure and the horse soon learns that if he backs quickly, he can get rid of the pressure more quickly. But really, in this situation, what’s in it for the horse? Not a whole lot. The only motivation here is that the horse will want to escape the pressure and discomfort. Even if trainers pair negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement, they must remember that in order for negative reinforcement (pressure/release) to work, they first have to make the horse uncomfortable. If the horse just stayed in the pasture, he wouldn’t ever have to deal with the trainer’s negative reinforcement. And frankly, I think there are plenty of horses who would rather just stay in the pasture. (Read more about positive and negative reinforcement.)

Steve discussed all the various forces that can influence motivation: the relationship with the trainer, the animal’s confidence or ability to perform the behavior, past experiences, natural influences and the hunger state. When we develop deep, trustful relationships, we’re putting deposits in the trust account we have with the animal. The relationship is developed slowly, through lots of experience.

When we use aversives, we’re making withdrawals from the trust account we have with the animal. If we make too many withdrawals, the account goes into the negative. So, even though we occasionally may need to use an aversive, we can still maintain a good relationship with the animal if we have a  long history of positive interactions with the animal. However, if we haven’t built up the trust account, and are training only with negative methods and aversives, we’ll see the fallout and negative side effects that come with using aversives much more quickly.

One of the most interesting things Steve touched on in this part of the lecture was psychological appetite. Steve believes there to be something, which he terms psychological appetite, which is even greater than actual physical appetite. The hunger state is important to animal training. However, hunger is perhaps more mental than physical. Traditionally, when training free flight birds, trainers have given the birds less food, and kept them at approximately 80% of their ideal weight. The premise being if the birds are hungry, they’ll keep coming back for food. Birds trained this way gulp down their food when fed. Creating a food shortage makes food super valuable and the animal always eats all the food.

Instead, Steve talked about how he started free feeding his parrots for bird shows by giving them extra food. Instead of becoming overweight, the birds increased to their normal weight, and then actually lost a bit of weight, as the food became slightly less valuable. This could have pschological benefits for the animals, as they’re no longer always worried about when they’ll get their next meal.

He also talked about some techniques to keep the animal in the game while training, such as increasing the rate of reinforcement and improving the value of the reinforcer.

I definitely see the value of the psychological appetite concept. We’ve always free fed our dogs, and they’ve always been right at their ideal weight.

Want to keep reading? Click here to go to ORCA: Part 3.

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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