Sunday, December 21, 2014

Working With Baby Animals (a.k.a. The Best Thing Ever)

Baby animals.


OMG, right?  What's cuter than baby animals?

Even this guy doesn't know.


The end.

Thanks for reading!

Ha ha, just kidding, that's not the end.  But seriously, let's talk about young's   

Training baby animals is one of the coolest experiences a trainer can have, for a number of reasons.  And like most cool experiences, it comes with its fair share of frustrations and insecurities.  It's hard to separate the "cool" from the "unglamorous" aspects of working with very young animals, because I genuinely feel that they are not mutually exclusive.  I have worked with a few dolphin calves from the moment they gave a hoot that I existed, and I'm now working with three one-year old California sea lion pups.  Not only do I learn from my direct experiences, but I also have the honor of helping other trainers learn how to train and get to know brand new animals.  

So what are my favorite things about working with baby animals?  Here's a little list!

1) Babies are an unknown quantity

You don't know ME!

When they're born, they don't even know who they are.  Their own moms don't know who they are*.  And if you're any kind of decent trainer, you know that getting to know an animal as an individual is the first key to establishing a fantastic training program.  We say all the time to colleagues and laymen alike that Relationship Is King.  Some of us mean that sincerely; we don't just mean we have a rapport based solely on food.  We get to know what intrinsically motivates the animals.  We figure out what kind of temperament the animal has; are they quick to spook? Naturally curious? Completely laid back to the point where they could ignore mild-to-moderate nuclear warfare?**

But babies present us with a challenge in this relationship-department on two levels: a) we don't know anything about them, and b) they probably don't want what we're serving.  If you work with mammals, your baby animal friends are pretty happy drinking milkshakes all day instead of eating whatever slop you've got in a bucket.  So where do you start?

Of course, like any challenge, this presents some incredible opportunities for growth for us trainers.  If you get the opportunity to work directly with a young'un, you learn very quickly not only how to establish a meaningful relationship from nothing, but I think you also appreciate more what hard work and tremendous love and dedication it took to establish relationships with your older animals.  And for those of you who haven't had the chance yet to work with babies, I'm not saying your relationships aren't special, nor am I implying that you didn't have to put a lot of time and effort into building a meaningful bond with the animals for whom you care.  But it is a different type of experience working with a baby; they have no concept of us Weird Hairless Creatures giving them anything they want.

Um, okay, not this hairless creature.  Question: is there such a thing as a cute baby blobfish?

We got our three naturally-weaned sea lion pups from another facility.  They had some training before they came to us, but only a few months worth.  The trainers at the other facility did amazing things which gave us a head start; they already ate fish, they did well with following trainers, and they knew how to crate.  However, they didn't know targets, and they didn't know the fundamental behaviors we (both sea lion and human) need in order to safely interact in the type of habitat they are in.  

Answer: Yes.  Baby blobfish ARE cute.***

I remember when we first got them and did our first training sessions, I looked at their cute little faces and thought, "Who are you guys?"

Over the past few weeks, I've gotten to know them more on a temperament level (as they have with me).  Our littlest is the sassy, too-smart-for-her-own-good who is more motivated by learning four hundred different things at once than she is with the fish she eats.  When she eats, it's like she's swallowing it to get it out of the way.  Like, "Okay, I swallowed that thing, can we get back to the targeting now puh-lease?"

When will we get to the advanced lessons, like astrophysics?

Another is a mild-mannered, very tentative sea lion who has a serious stubborn streak I thought was only found in things such as: my dog.  My dog, the one who tries to eat poisonous toads despite how it makes his mouth foam and burn...over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over.....  She is Gandhi-like in her stubbornness, though.  She went through a period of time that just the presence of a target pole rendered her unable to come within a 10 foot radius of her trainer.  It wasn't just being scared of it; it was a dramatic flop back into the water, and then several attempts to station with other trainers, completely ignoring or refusing to sit with her original trainer no matter what we did.

Just slap some flippers on her and you've got it.

Our bigger male, well he's just not too happy about his fun training session ending.  "Dude, NO" he seems to say when we try to leave.  He will sample just about any behavior if it superstitiously got us to come back in the habitat.  He'd be great at free-shaping, that's for sure.  And boy, does he test us.  "What if I do THIS?!" his eyes say as he sniffs our boots.  "Or THISSSSS?" as he crawls along the ground with one flipper up on a wall.

I wonder what they think of all of us, too.  Because it's a two-way street.  I bet each one has their own opinion of me.  Like would they describe me as the hulking yellow-hair who doesn't shut up and bares her teeth all the time?

You know, cuz I'm smiling.

Still, the sense of accomplishment you get after you figure out WHO the kid is is unlike anything else. It requires an open mind and compassionate mindset.

2) Babies are blank slates

LOOOKKK AT HIMMMM (or herrrrr....IDK does it matter?!)

Isn't that an understatement!

Like humans, many baby animals have extreme mental plasticity.  They learn skill sets at alarming rates, both in the natural world and in a training sense.  When it comes to many of the species we work with in marine mammal facilities, we are working with non-precocial kiddos.  They are not born knowing how to just be a dolphin or a sea lion.  They've got mad skillz to learn; hunting, avoiding predators, and (just as importantly) social skills.  Without all of those three skills, a marine mammal is in deep trouble.  

In the training world, once a baby shows interest in his/her trainer and has learned the basic building blocks of operant conditioning (like bridges, targets, etc), there is a major power curve in trained behaviors.  This is one of the main reasons I personally feel it is critical to try to engage a baby marine mammal as early as the mother will allow, because sometimes I feel we spend too much time and energy trying to get the kid to eat fish.  


One of our standard industry answers to the question, "When do you start training the babies?" is, "When they start eating fish."  Well, in my experience at least, most of the dolphin calves I've gotten to work with from a young age did not start showing an interest in fish, but showed an interest in other things like ice cubes, toys, and rub downs.  If you've got something they want, you can train them just the same.  The fish can come imagine if you can start your training with a calf at two months old instead of 8 months!  

I know every situation is different, but in general, I think it's a good idea to optimize the amount of time you get when their little brains are just big ol' sponges, ready to learn!  Hey, if they only want snacks, okay.  But it's worth trying other possible reinforcing things instead of just waiting for them to show interest in fish, right?

But even if your relationship with a calf or pup is solely food (as it is with our little sea lion pups right now!) for whatever reason, you know that those little guys are learning, learning, learning.  

What could POSSIBLY be bad about this?

Baaaaad habits!

Well, they learn everything.  Not just what you intended.  They are retaining so much, and observing so astutely all of your little quirks.  All your little mistakes.  Those big, adorable eyeballs? They see all of your flaws, and they will capitalize on it.  

In fact, training a baby is like playing an old school, side-scrolling video game.  You know, like Sonic or Contra.  You can be really, really good at it but the fact is, there are no save points.  When you mess up, you have to start the level all over again.  And that's what it's like training baby animals.  One little mistake can unfurl your entire training program. You might be the most seasoned Mario player in all the land, but one little mistake and BOOM you're back at the beginning.  As terrifying as this sounds, it's again important to remember that a) these babies are not software; they don't just learn in a steady upward trend and b) they will learn as much from their mess ups (and yours!) if you know how to rally.

Old school gamers rejoice: you probably can handle training baby animals.

I got so excited one time that this little dolphin calf was making such zealous progress in his lateral layouts that I was taking early approximations and getting really animated when I reinforced him with rubs and footballs.  I thought I was really on a roll with teaching this guy critical husbandry behaviors.  But what did he learn?  Oh, he learned that lateral layouts lasted 1.4 seconds, and you should come out of them at warp speed creating as much water disturbance as possible.  It took me twice as long to calm his crazy self down as it did to teach him the basic layout.  It made me realize how extremely careful I had to be with my criteria, bridge points, reinforcement and ENERGY with a little brain sponge as babies tend to be.   And hey, it made me be that much crisper (i.e. predictable and fair) with the other, older animals!

3) Babies test the limits

What if I do....THIS?

This is probably the biggest point of insecurity and woe of trainers everywhere.

Yes, babies are blank slates.  They learn fast...right or wrong things.  The really bright, really motivated and/or really sweet babies always give you time after time of warm fuzzy feelings.  You connect with them, you fly through behaviors, and you feel the connection.  You feel validation in your career path as a trainer, because you're training a BUTTLOAD**** of behaviors and you've got this little nugget who just so excited to see you and find out what today's lesson will be.

But then at some point, you are boring.  I mean, c'mon.  We are adults.  They are kids.  It doesn't matter that you come from an entirely different lineage than them.  You are still slow and stupid and boring and an adult.  Kids is kids.  You can't possibly keep every baby animal, especially of the marine mammal variety, interested in you every single moment of every single session.  And what does a curious, eager and sassy calf, pup or cub do?

I declare!

Mess with your a##.

This is probably the biggest pitfall of working with babies, especially if it's your first time.  Let me give you two real-life examples.

Our male sea lion pup really has a problem with his trainer ending the session.  We have a training plan in place for this, which occurred after we realized we had a serious blocking problem.  Okay, we thought.  This is the problem, we are trainers, we can handle this.  

There he is, far left.

So we implement the plan.  Within two days, we saw significant improvement in Big Guy's behavior (because you know, his sponge brain).  His primary trainers felt really good; you could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices as they recanted the sessions to other trainers.  Oh, isn't working with babies so much fun?

And then, the Big Guy decided the game of letting us leave needed some new rules.  He started testing us.  He'd jump out, he'd stand on the wall, he'd swim in the water with his left flipper in the air.  He'd bark.  He'd try to mouth our boots.  He'd go in the water headfirst.  He'd go in the water butt first.  And I could see his trainers' confidence wane.  What HAPPENED since the last two days, they thought?


Not that older animals don't test the ropes, but babies do this like it's their job.  I had to remind the trainers that while we must stick with predictable behavioral principles so our little troublemaker pup knows what to expect, we also have to remember that he is learning as much from his failures as he is from his successes in these "testing the waters" moments.  Any reaction he gets from his trainers with any of his random sampling is logged in his brain and will be used again later for better or for worse.  That's what kids do.

In fact, the other example I have of this was with one of the sweetest, smartest little dolphin calves I've ever known.  I mean, this guy is LITTLE.  He's just a short dude who is still healthy and happy, but as a calf he was a Tiny Tim.  He started showing interest in trainers at two months old.  His mom was pretty laid back, so he ended up learning full shallow-water interactive programs before he was one year old.  Like, he could do the entire 18 minute program.  He was a little genius (er, still is).  

The subject of our story.

You'll understand then, that he was basically everyone ever's favorite.  The maintenance staff loved him, guests loved him, and every trainer loved working with him (or couldn't wait until the day they'd be allowed to work with him).  He was very snuggly, interactive, and loved to play outside of session.  Did I mention he was little?  Like, so little he was even CUTER than the cutest dolphin calf you can imagine?  Perfect little dolphinchild.

And then, this precious cherub used his brains for evil.  Well, not really evil, but you know what I'm getting at.  He tested us.  How?

Well, when we were standing on this underwater ledge, he'd suddenly leave his trainer, sink to our feet, and then BOOM.  Hit our instep with his rostrum, KAPOW.   

Push puppets! I didn't know that's what these were called until five minutes ago.  Thanks, Google!

You know those weird push puppets? The jointed toys that are on top of a little box and when you squeeze the underside of the box, the entire toy collapses?

That is exactly what happened to us.  This little dude would bop us point blank on this pressure point and down we'd go, collapsing into the water.  Oh, think of how much fun this looked to a baby dolphin.  Over and over he'd do it.  We'd have perfectly good sessions, where we thought this dude was really having a great session, and we were doing a good job of keeping his focus...and then boop! You'd feel the hit and down we'd go!

Pretty much just like that.

Eventually, we worked through this and he stopped.  But even the Gold Star baby animal will go through a phase of testing his/her limits.  So don't let it get you down, or make you think you're a bad trainer.  Think of it as a milestone for both you and the calf or pup; and it's an opportunity for you to teach them something.  Not just that, it's something you should seriously consider writing down and logging how you navigated through it.  It'll probably make for a funny story, but it'll also remind you (and other staff members you work with down the road who work with babies for the first time) of a unique time that really boosted your trainer knowledge.

4) Sometimes, you get to see births


In the case of our pups, we didn't get a chance to see their birth or their life with their moms.  But the trainers at the facility they were born at sure did.  And with most of the dolphin calves I've worked with, I've personally seen their births.  I've only worked with babies who were born in human care, and I can tell you I'll never, ever get sick of seeing them born, or watching them hit developmental stages on their own and with their mothers.

It is an experience that, like so many we are privileged to have as marine mammal trainers, makes you grow as an animal caretaker.  No birth is the same, no baby is the same, and the process of being born and growing up from both the baby and the mother's perspective is one that all animal care professionals should be familiar with.  It is one of the most important events in an animal's life, and trainers should know what that natural process entails for better or for worse.  If you have the opportunity to witness it, don't miss it.

5) Babies is cute


This is never a bad thing.  Oh good lord, they make you melt.  And most babies, once you have their trust (and the trust of their mothers, if they are still with their moms) are usually at the most snuggly part of their lives.  Some of our otters are still pretty cuddly, but not like I'm told they were when they were kits when they first arrived at the place I'm working now (which was before I started working there).  I've had the same experience with dolphin calves; a few are just as into toys and rubs, but others grow to like other things (and no, not just fish).  They mature and change, just like any of us do.  So if you get the chance to work with babies, make sure you don't take it for granted.  Even if you've done it 45 times; it is a precious experience that should be cherished.

Don't take us for granted!

* Are you reeling from my "anthropomorphic" lingo?  Get over it. :D

** All of us could ignore severe nuclear warfare, because I suppose we'd all be um, no longer alive.

And they make adorable cupcake decorations.

And even adorable blobfish stuffed animals!!!!!  Want one? Go here!

**** I have yet to find any standard quantifiable measure of Buttload, but I think it's like 90 pounds.

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