Saturday, April 11, 2009

Perfect Timing

If you have ever had a dog, you know that your praise must be immediate. You cannot praise a dog today for behaving well last week. Dogs have two time frames: NOW and NOT NOW.

With marine mammals, trainers use fish as their primary motivator. However, the trainer cannot feed Shamu the fish as soon as the desired behavior is done. Trainers have to be very careful that Shamu understands exactly what behavior he is getting the fish for doing. Shamu could think that he is getting the fish because he swam to the side of the tank, rather than for jumping out of the water and doing a flip in the center of the pool.

To communicate to the killer whale exactly what behavior is desired, trainers invented "click training." The trainer presses a device which makes a clicking sound at such a frequency that only the whale can hear it. After they hear the click, the whale knows they have performed the correct behavior. Then the whale can swim over to the side of the tank and get some fish. Jumping through the hoop in the middle of the pool is the desired, and clicked, behavior. Not swimming over to the edge of the pool. Trainers have to make sure the animal understands the difference.

I may have to apologize for this statement, but my children and my husband are like animals in that they also want (and need) instant reinforcement. I cannot praise my one year old today because she was quiet in her car seat yesterday. I cannot tell my three year old that I was proud of the coloring she did last week. Catherine is just now beginning to understand the concept of "tomorrow" as I try to teach her that tomorrow we are going to church, or the park, or where ever.

I find that I need to praise my husband right away or I may forget to praise him later. In fact, "may" is probably too weak of a word there. Our lives are so busy that it is almost a certainty that I will forget to praise him later. Then, I have lost the opportunity to reinforce the behavior I want him to repeat.

The author, Amy Sutherland, closed her book by stating that the number one lesson she learned from studying animal trainers is to carefully analyze what behaviors I am reinforcing, either intentionally or unintentionally. If I want my friends to respond to my e-mails quickly, I need to model that behavior and engage them in e-mail communication when they do respond. If I want my children to keep their toys picked up, I need to encourage them to do so every day until they develop the habit themselves. I need to keep the rest of the house clean and orderly.

This post was inspired by the book "What Shamu Taught me about Life, Love and Marriage" by Amy Sutherland.

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