Animal Training Recipes, Rules, and Principles
As a lecturer and coach, my ultimate goal is to teach principles, rather than “recipes” and rules. A solid understanding of principles allows students to solve a wide variety of problems independently. However, I have found that offering recipes, suggesting rules, and imparting principles all have their place in developing skilled trainers.
The starting block
I am amazed how often students come in with levels of understanding that fall on opposite ends of the learning spectrum. Some students understand learning theory, but are at a loss when it is time to apply the principles to an animal in front of them. These students need some rules or recipes to get them started successfully. Other students have learned to follow a recipe, but seem unable to recognize when to break the rules to respond to an animal’s needs. Those students need a better grasp of the big picture and of the guiding principles of learning. The best students are those that come in with an understanding of both; but, I find that those students are rare!
Acknowledge the audience
Sometimes the right approach depends on how much time I am able to spend with my learners. I approach students in a weekend seminar differently than I approach a long-term client or employee, for example.
When I oversaw staff at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, I helped each trainer progress through an early set of rules, and adjusted those rules as each individual gained experience. Over a period of several years, I approximated my trainers into advanced trainers who understood the overriding principles of training.
When I teach a class or seminar, on the other hand, I may never see the students again. They walk away with whatever information I give them. I do my best to give them enough information to be truly useful right away when they get home, while also providing a broader framework so that they can be successful in the future as their training skills progress.
Rules: a boost, but never a crutch
I have come to appreciate the value of training recipes or sets of rules; sometimes they are the approximations necessary to lead a novice trainer toward a better understanding of complex concepts. Guidelines like “don’t keep your hand in your pouch,” “every click must be followed by a treat,” or “use a cue only once—don’t repeat it” help inexperienced trainers make better choices. As students gain experience and learn to interpret the behavior of their animals, they begin to understand the reasons for the rules, but they also recognize that these “rules” are only guidelines.
As teachers, it is important to ensure that students are not allowed to get stuck on a set of rules for too long, because it can prevent them from progressing. Recently, I was working with a student who realized that she needed to re-cue a behavior to set her dog up for success, but she hesitated. She asked, “Isn’t it a sin to repeat a cue?” Her question allowed me to explain why that rule was probably given to her; it also provided an opening to discuss both the merits and the limitations of that rule. My student was relieved, but the incident made me keenly aware of the need to give students and clients more information.
“As teachers, it is important to ensure that students are not allowed to get stuck on a set of rules for too long…”
Beyond rules and recipes
The word “recipe” brings to mind an analogy. I am far from being a chef. When I try to cook a particular dish for the first time, I need to follow a recipe so that I can create a reasonably palatable meal. As I gain confidence with the utensils and ingredients, I can begin to experiment with flavors and vary ingredients with good results. But, I also find that if I fail to understand certain principles of cooking, I can vary too much and the resulting mess is inedible. As a beginner, the recipe is an excellent guide, but the experienced chef is guided by broader principles that allow him or her to create great meals.
“Rules and recipes can get learners on the right path more quickly, but we need to give them the ability to move beyond those rules…”
Rules and recipes can get learners on the right path more quickly, but we need to give them the information and ability to move beyond those rules as they gain experience. I still don’t have the perfect solution for imparting principles to my students and clients successfully. The realization that recipes and rules are part of the process has been a significant step in getting me closer to that goal.
Ken Ramirez is the Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). A trainer and consultant for nearly 40 years, Ken most recently served as the Executive Vice President, Animal Care and Training, at Chicago’s world-famous Shedd Aquarium. He is the author of several books and DVDs, including ANIMAL TRAINING: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement, which has become required reading for many trainers in the zoological field. Learn more about Ken Ramirez.