Friday, September 21, 2012

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: The Human Element

Today's post about my experiences at the Shedd Aquarium is brought to you by A huge thanks to them for making this post possible.

If animal training is a relationship, then we must consider what both parties bring to the table. Understandably, our focus is often on the animal, but we also need to take into account what the human element brings to the training equation. Today, we will do just that by discussing Ken’s thoughts on intelligence, compassion, and anthropomorphism.

Oftentimes, we think of ourselves as being smarter than our training companions, but just as we can’t compare apples to oranges, it is impossible to compare humans and animals. Intelligence is often defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge, as well as having a faculty of thought and reason. I doubt that any of my readers would dispute that animals can learn- after all, that is what animal training is about- so certainly they are acquiring and applying knowledge.

But Ken reminded us that behavior is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence. After all, both dolphins (regarded as highly intelligent) and goldfish (considered rather stupid) can be trained. This is because behavior is a result of reinforcement history. Dogs sit when asked because of the past consequences when they’ve done so. In short, intelligence does not equal trainability.

Still, cognition scientists agree that at least some animals do seem capable of reasoning, making inferences, and discrimination. Of course, as Ken pointed out, all of these studies are naturally anthropocentric. If the use of IQ tests- written by humans for humans- is controversial, then how can we possibly expect to be able to adequately test intelligence in other species? After all, what constitutes intelligence for a goldfish?

Another area in which people claim superiority over animals is our emotional capacity, although Ken argues that it is possibly our most volatile element. Beyond the fact that we aren’t unique in experiencing emotions, the way we feel often affects our ability to train our animals.

This is why so many experts exhort us to keep our emotions under control when we are training. Although emotions are a good thing (they show that we care), they can cloud our decision-making ability. Obviously, “bad” emotions like frustration or anger can have a negative effect on our training goals, but “good” emotions can, too. Ken told us a story of a Shedd trainer who received a marriage proposal during an animal show she was conducting. The trainer was so overcome by happiness that she was unable to complete the show or even transfer the dolphin she was working with to her coworker.

And of course, no discussion of what humans bring to the training table would be complete without touching on anthropomorphism, that tendency we have to assign human qualities, characteristics, and motivation to anything that is not human. We do this in a variety of ways, but there are two things we do that most impact our training: we try to speculate on what the animal is thinking, and we make excuses for it.

In both cases, it’s perfectly fine to try to make sense of an animal’s behavior based on our own experience. In fact, this can be a compassionate thing; recognizing that we made an error or that the animal was stressed/in pain/distracted and then changing either the situation or our criteria so the animal can be successful is admirable. But we should not use these speculations or excuses to justify reinforcing subpar behavior. Ken argues that if you reward an animal for trying, you just confuse it… and you set yourself up for needing to retrain the behavior down the road. You can’t reinforce thoughts, only behaviors.

So, what does the human half bring to the training relationship? From our ability to think about how we are affecting our animals’ behavior to our large, shared knowledge base on what works (and what doesn’t) when training animals, it seems clear that we have a lot to offer. Next time, we’ll start to discuss the basic science behind animal training. In the meantime, though, what do you think that you bring to training, and is that uniquely human or is it a shared capability?


Tegan said...

On a similar but somewhat unrelated note... Betty-Jean Craige posts on the Pet Peeves blog on her parrot, Cosmo, and all the way the parrot pushes the boundaries on what we think is 'human' and 'animal'. Cosmo uses language to articulate what she is feeling and there's some pretty interesting writing on the blog... Linky:

Crystal Thompson said...

So cool. Thank you for sharing, Tegan!!