Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ken Ramirez Seminar: Strategies for Solving Problems

In addition to his duties as the executive vice-president of animal collections and training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ken does consulting work with everything from zoo animals to regular old pets. Some of these problems can be quite complex, and as a result, Ken has found that having a system to follow is invaluable.

The particular system you follow doesn't matter so much as the fact that you have one. Ken believes that following a system will help you objectively examine the problem so you can see what's going on more clearly, challenge assumptions you have about the problem, improve communication and buy-in from clients or family members, and ensure that you treat the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms. A good system will also help you document the process for future reference.

There are many systems out there, and today I'm going to share the one that Ken developed and uses. It consists of five steps:

Step 1: Identify the Problem
This is often not as easy as it sounds. Behavior is a very complex thing, and usually only certain parts of the behavior need to be fixed. Ken said that if you choose the wrong part or if you define a problem incorrectly, it will be very, very difficult to fix.

One way to start breaking the problem down is to analyze each component of the behavior. At what point does the behavior fall apart? Are there patterns? Ken also recommends keeping a log with information such as who is present when the problem happens, the location, the time of day, or any other relevant details. If there is more than one person who works with the animal, each trainer/family member should contribute ideas and observations, as well as possible hypotheses on what's causing the problem.

That said, Ken did caution against labelling the animal or the problem in a counter-productive way. Simply dismissing the problem as “this dog hates men” or “he's always been like this” does nothing to fix the problem. Instead, shift your thinking, and instead of trying to figure out what's wrong with the animal, ask “why can't I train this?”

Step 2: Determine the Cause
There are many, many possible contributors to a problem. Ken told a story about how the dolphins he was working with would not come close to the stage, despite having been trained to do so. In the end, the problem was that he was wearing new shoes that had a markedly different look. Once he changed his shoes, the problem went away- no training needed!

Some possible causes* of behavior include the environment (weather, physical or structural changes in a training area, prop changes, etc.), social considerations (especially when you're working with multiple animals- aggression, competition for resources, or one animal being in heat), psychological concerns (boredom, neurotic behaviors), and physical health (the animal may be sick, aging, or simply bodily incapable of the behavior). Other causes include the trainer (you making mistakes, working beyond your skill level, being inconsistent, or allowing your emotions to affect your animal), and the way the training session is used (perhaps your pace is too fast or too slow or you're doing too much drilling with too little reinforcement).

Ken also said you shouldn't get hung up on this step. Sometimes determining the cause is impossible, and sometimes, even when you do know the cause, there's no obvious solution. Do your best to figure out what might be contributing to the problem, but be ready to move on to the next step.

Step 3: Determine the Motivation
There are always two ways of looking at a problem: by focusing on the desired behavior or by focusing on the undesired behavior. Often, problems arise because the balance of reinforcment and punishment has skewed. Here you will need to do some brainstorming: what might be reinforcing the undesired behavior? What might be punishing the desired one? Has the behavior come up because the animal is trying to avoid getting punished, or is it because he's trying to obtain reinforcers? Or, is it both?

Either way, you will need to shift this balance. Ken prefers to do this by adding more reinforcers to the mix while simultaneously removing punishers. Perhaps the task is too hard, or there are huge distractions present. Getting rid of these problems helps make the reinforcers more salient, and thus stronger. This usually fixes the problem. However, if you get rid of all of the punishers you can and the behavior still isn't fixed, either your reinforcers aren't really all that reinforcing, or you didn't identify the correct punishers.

Step 4: Implement a Plan
There are many, many ways to change behavior. In her book Don't Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor lists a number of methods for changing behavior, ranging from punishment (which Ken acknowledged will work, although it often creates other problems) and negative reinforcement (which he prefers to punishment, but still prefers to avoid as it depends on using aversives), to things like training an incompatible behavior (very effective, according to Ken) and changing the motivation (by shifting the balance of punishers and reinforcers as outlined above).

Although Ken has an obvious preference in the type of method, he did acknowledge that there are many paths to a solution, and most work. It's important that no matter which method you pick, you remain committed to it. He reminded us that if the problem were easy to fix, it would have already been done, so when confronted with a problem, you need to make sure that the plan you choose doesn't require more time or money than you're willing to spend.

Step 5: Constantly Monitor the Progress
Finally, Ken emphasized the importance of continued monitoring. While you may get rid of the problem behavior, that doesn't mean that the animal has forgotten how to do it. Once you learn how to do something, that memory is always there. This doesn't mean that the animal will automatically return to his undesirable ways, but the possibility does exist.

And those are Ken's five steps for solving problems in animals. I wish you could have been at the seminar- he had some great stories to illustrate each step. Again, I must encourage you to go see him if you ever get the opportunity. I've found him to be both entertaining and interesting, and while his methods are incredibly systematic, I can see how that might be useful. I know it's not for everyone, though, so I'd love to hear from others: is this too cumbersome? Are there ways to make this easier, or do you think that following each step would be helpful?

* The possible causes of behavior Ken referenced were originally developed by Tim Desmond and Gail Laule in their 1980 Active Environments Training Manual.


Ninso said...

I don't have a conscious "system" for fixing behavior problems (though I may now!) but I think I go through most of those steps at some point. I also LOVE the Karen Pryor list. When I'm not sure what to do, I refer back to that.

I get stuck at Step 2 a lot. Plenty of my problems are trainer error--sometimes I can figure it out and fix it, others I don't know what I'm doing wrong, so I can't fix it. Sometimes I wish I could loan out my dogs to someone else for a couple weeks, just to see if they can get further than I can, and then tell me what I'm doing wrong!

We also have plenty of physical/mental issues in the house of misfit dogs! For example, Elo is working on heeling on both sides. On the right side, he "refuses" to stay parallel with me. He tends to walk with his rear end out at an angle and when I stop, immediately pivots out so he is perpendicular! I finally realized that it's not comfortable for him to stand parallel to my right side with his face turned up towards me. He's missing his left rear leg and standing like that makes it hard for him to balance.

Another example . . . Lok used to bite me a LOT while playing. I'd get SO mad, thinking he was just being careless. Then I found out he was going blind. This kind of thing is often hard to catch, as we're not in our dogs' heads. But I think more important than knowing the cause is assuming there IS a cause. I find it helps me be patient and understanding with my dogs.

Joanna said...

I don't usually explicitly lay out the steps this way but I follow the same general process when I'm trying to solve a behavior problem. I feel like you HAVE to follow that same basic outline to be at all effective at changing problematic behaviors.

But I think more important than knowing the cause is assuming there IS a cause. I find it helps me be patient and understanding with my dogs.

I agree with the comment above. There's always a reason for behavior X to be popping up over and over again. Even if we're not able to identify the reason, we must remember that the dog has one, and to him it's a logical, sound reason for his behavior. (Unless it's a medical issue that the dog can't control!)