Going Back to Kindergarten

I’ve been reading Karen Pryor’s first book on training, Lads Before the Wind. Written in the 70s, it’s her personal account of how she learned the principles of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement training by training dolphins in Hawaii. Her park was one of the first to do this, and the book is filled with anecdotes and stories as she discovers what works well when training dolphins (and what doesn’t!)

She gives a nice description towards the beginning of the book of what she calls “going back to kindergarten.” This is a great training concept to help the animal and the trainer not get frustrated when new criteria or requirements are added for a behavior.

Going back to kindergarten means this:
When a new criteria is added to a behavior, temporarily relax your standards for criterion that have been previously established. Once the animal starts to understand the new criteria, it’s easy to build back in the previously established requirements.

Karen Pryor gives a lovely description of this while writing how she went from having two dolphins jump a bar at the water’s surface to having the dolphins jump the bar when it was raised above the water. This was a big change, since the dolphins see the bar totally differently once it is no longer touching the water.

Now I had to drop every criterion previously established–jump neatly, side by side, in the right place–and just work on the new criterion: jump the bar even if it is in the air. Once the new aspect of the task was accepted, I went back to being strict about all the other stuff, and in much less time than it took to train originally I soon had a nice double jump again, but with the bar fully in the air.

I called this “going back to kindergarten,” and it became an accepted practice in all out training. When a new and difficult criterion was introduced–working in a strange tank, for example–all the rules about perfection that had been established would have to be set aside temporarily (perhaps for a day or two, perhaps for no more than half a training session) while the animal learned to accommodate to the new circumstances.

The strict trainer who cannot tolerate “going back to kindergarten” simply wastes time and causes stress, trying to force perfection from the beginning in a new circumstance when it will come back anyway once the new circumstance has been accepted. I have seen this happen dozens of times in a human situation. Here’s an example: singers and musicians who perform splendidly in a rehearsal room then get yelled at for making gross errors with the music in the first on-stage rehearsals; yet they may be, for the first time, scattered in new groupings, standing on ladders; wearing huge costumes, and staring into spotlights. People or porpoises, it’s the same problem. It’s the “new tank syndrome,” and you can lick it by relaxing criteria temporarily, by “going back to kindergarten,” In the long run it is not time wasted, but time saved.

I find quite a few trainers use the principle of “going back to kindergarten” in at least some way, even if they don’t call it that. However, by specifically remembering that lowering old criterion can help build new criteria, we become better trainers, are able to improve our animal’s confidence about new behavior, and are able to train faster and more efficiently.

If you train animals (or people!), I’d love to hear some ways that you are already using this principle in your training. Or, do you see ways that this could help your training in the future?

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  • The biggest mistake many people make in training is changing the parameters of a behavior too quickly.

    For instance, I had a client training a sea lion to seat but when I observed him, I thought (and so did the animal) that he was seeking a different behavior from the animal.

    Before the new behavior (get on the seat and stay there) was established, he moved the location.

    This further confused the animal which leads to frustration–which leads to aggression…and yes, the animal did bite someone which was why I was there.

    Small, slow, deliberate steps are critical to success but so is mapping out those steps.

  • While reading, the thought I had was this the same situation with riding. Too many riders start introducing complex requirements and demand that the horse comply immediately, instead of understanding that the horse must return to basics before progressing.

    Horse training is rarely linear; and like us they can learn something in a huge bound one day and have a setback the next.

  • great article. will visit your site again. thanks