Bob Bailey: Teaching Trainers

ORCA conference at UNT 2014

These are my notes from the 6th Art and Science of Animal Training Conference, held in March 2014 at the University of North Texas. Visit this page for more conference notes.

Bob Bailey’s lecture this year was titled: “Teaching trainers applied behavior analysis: A personal journey from the rat lab to the chicken workshop.” I always love hearing Bob speak at the conference, because his lectures are always packed full of lots of great stories, helpful insights, great videos, and useful sayings. I find myself jotting notes the whole time and still sometimes missing bits. Bob talked about his background as a trainer and things he thinks trainers should be doing and thinking about in order to improve their training skills. Here are some of my favorite bits from Bob’s talk.

What’s the motivation?

I often hear trainers grumble and complain because their neighbor, cousin, or friend at the office is stuck in the dark ages, using force-based or punishment-based training techniques. Bob Bailey touched briefly on this subject and made some really valuable points.

One thing that Bob Bailey said several times during his talk was:

Remember, you can’t really change behavior!
You can just make it worthwhile for others to change their behavior.

This quote applies to the behavior of the animals we train, the behavior of other people, and even your own behavior. Animals and people behave in ways that “make sense” because of the consequences that have followed their behavior in the past. In order to change behavior, it’s essential to understand the person or animal’s motivation, that is, what are the consequences of their behavior? Can you change the consequences or provide different consequences so that it is worthwhile for the person or animal to engage in different behaviors?

I often see positive trainers do so nicely when training an animal – the trainer evaluates what the animal wants, takes into consideration the context and environment, and then carefully crafts a training program so that it is easy for the animal to change its behavior and do the correct behavior. Then, I’ll see the same trainer gets into a heated argument (that later turns into a name-calling match) with a person who uses outdated training methods.

Clicker trainers and positive animal trainers could make a lot more progress in helping people change their own behavior if they approached this just as they did any difficult situation that comes up when training an animal. What’s the other person’s motivation? What would make it worthwhile for them to change their behavior? Some of these same questions also came up during Steve White’s lecture and he made the really important point that trainers have to stop and consider that someone else’s motivation might be drastically different from their own.

Are you asking the right questions?

During his talk, Bob Bailey discussed four questions that he said we should each always be asking ourselves for whatever we are doing. I really liked these questions and thought they were ones that could be helpful to consider.

Ask yourself these questions for whatever you are doing:

1) Are you having fun? Are you enjoying what you are doing?

2) Do you want to have more fun? Do you want to keep doing this?

3) Are you willing to pay the price for more fun?
That is, what are the consequences for what you are doing?

4) Are you better off today than you were yesterday?
Meaning, are you moving in the direction you want to be moving in?

I think the most important thing here is the “having fun” part. Animal training should be fun for both the animal and the trainer.

But, there will come times when the trainer or animal (or both!) gets stuck, confused, or frustrated, and the training isn’t as fun as it used to be or as fun as it could be. That’s okay, as long as the trainer can realize when they reach one of these points and can take a moment to re-evaluate her training plans and goals so that she can get things back on track. I think it’s really important to ask these questions frequently so that you can realize when you do need to make changes to what you are doing.

Clicker training through the years

Bob Bailey also talked at length about his personal introduction to animal training and his involvement with Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), a company created by Keller and Marian Breland in the 1940s. ABE was the first company to approach animal training from a scientific perspective. Keller and Marian had both been graduate students of B.F. Skinner and were interested in developing and refining training methods so that they could create fast and efficient procedures for teaching animals. Keller trained a budgie with a clicker in 1943 and six competition field dogs in 1945. Sadly, the dog sports world was not ready for positive training methods at this time.

During the several decades it was in operation, ABE trainers trained thousands of animals of hundreds of different species. The animals they trained were known for their reliability, speed, and accuracy. There was nothing “magical” about these trainers. Instead, they were devoted to studying the science of animal training and always continued to refine their skills and procedures.

According to Bob Bailey, ABE trainers had to work for ABE for a year before they could train animals. Then, they could only train under the supervision of another trainer. They were taught to train using very specific procedures, and were taught to maintain precise behaviors, keep detailed records, and value time as a resource. Their training techniques were based on science and were continually revised, based on the data they collected.

Bob Bailey also made the point that the trainers at ABE were willing to invest in their skills and willing to invest in improving their skills. Every year, 10-20% of ABE’s gross income went into developing new practices and procedures.

So, they spent a great deal of time evaluating what they were doing and figuring out ways to make it better. I think modern trainers could learn something from this example set by ABE. It’s so easy to get busy and caught up in what you are doing that you keep doing things the same way. And the way you do it works good enough. But, is there an even better way? Are you taking the time to analyze and evaluate your training practices and the techniques you use?

Training is a mechanical skill. What are you doing to improve your skills as a trainer?

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