Why is My Animal Being Such a Jerk?!
We have all had that one session… the one where your animal just gives you the middle flipper, the middle paw, the middle toe. Then you look at your fellow trainers with those wide eyes and say “man, why is my animal being such a jerk?!” There’s a good chance you might use another word other than “jerk,” but we’ll keep it clean. It might not seem like it but they have a reason, I promise you that much. So how do we figure out what it is that’s causing this behavior?
There’s the obvious one- environment. Has something changed, or moved around? Is the weather different? Are your guests being noisy? Is there construction or some kind of festival or concert nearby? ANYTHING that targets one of your animal’s senses can easily be the source of their jerky-ness. Hopefully, whatever it may be is temporary; if not, or even if so, work through it!
Now, how’s their motivation? How’s their drive? If it’s not strong enough, then you’ve got a big problem. I would say, most trainers are pretty well off to notice this one. Our animals often earn their meals, and their extras (treats, toys, extra love, etc.) So if you don’t have their motivation in the bag, that is easily the first place to start.
Are you fulfilling their internal instinctual needs? This is a big one. So often dog owners will say, “well I play fetch with them, but they’re still being a jerk!” Okay. Your partner gave you five minutes of their time- are YOU going to be genuinely happy and content for the next 24-72 hours until they maybe give you another five minutes? HECK NO!
Most all animals that we care for are social creatures, make sure their social mind is fulfilled regularly and PROPERLY. Dogs- they need to play tug (correctly!) They need to sniff, be social, roll in the dirt, run, play frisbee, chew- remember what breed you’re working with- and don’t give me the “they’re a mutt mix” excuse. DO NOT just take them to the dog park and expect that to fix all of your problems!
Marine mammals, they’re all a predator to some other species. Allow them ways to hunt, and be creative! We get in such a rut of using the same EEDs, but think bigger! We are their only opportunity to explore those senses, so make it worth their while!
This week, I started a new job. My dog Rory (lab and pointer mix) who was regularly able to come to work with me, is now no longer able to. I made the poor mistake of thinking that she would be fine in my bedroom rather than in her crate for 9 hours. Well, day one she tore apart a whole mess of things (she has not eaten one single thing in the house since the day I adopted her.) When I opened the door and first saw the mess I had to clean, I took a deep breath and wasn’t even the least bit mad. That’s only because I knew in that instant, that I had not been fulfilling her needs; I’d been slacking big time on her training and was not allowing her a proper outlet for her drives.
Also, the irony of this picture kind of made it all worth it.
Guys, there’s so, so many reasons your animal may be acting like such a jerk- hormones, a bad day, factors below the waterline that you can’t even see, and plenty more. Its happened to every trainer or pet owner, but think through it. Think to yourself what you and your team can be doing differently to improve the sessions or general behavior. It will almost always pass (I only say almost, because I don’t like absolutes, but I can pretty much guarantee.)
You might think that finding your animal’s drive is a no-brainer; to a dolphin- a fish, to a dog- some kibble. But depending on your subject, you might be able to find another drive in your very first session that’s NOT a primary reinforcer, or primary drive.
Think about it- we all have things that we as humans find reinforcing besides pizza and tacos, right? We thrive on certain “love languages,” kind words, physical touch, gifts, receiving someone’s time, or acts of service. Guess what?! Our animals are all the same!
Now, we know these by the term secondary reinforcers in the training world. But the question is, how do you find it?
Let’s say you’re working a dog for the first time. The owner brings in a Border Collie whose pulling on their leash, barking, sniffing.. basically doing anything they can to find a “job.” First off, you should know the dog’s breed well enough to say that this is a working dog, and a working dog without a job is a dog that will start their own business (likely, one that you don’t want them to.) So get them working! Reinforce with your primary and build the relationship. Then quickly give them their job. I would suspect that throwing a ball or frisbee for that dog would be more reinforcing than their treats. Get them working, then practice that structured play time- this will reinforce your relationship, satisfy that INSTINCTUAL DRIVE they have, and get them tired in the process…for at least 5 minutes or so.
I once was interning with an Atlantic Bottlenose, the most handsome Fiji who is pictured below. With Fiji, you could go through his whole session simply with physical touch as his reinforcer. He is so driven by that touch and affection, that you could just hang with him for 20 minutes and no fish! Now a man’s gotta eat, I know, but those sessions are such strong relationship builders because they can count on you to relax that drive tension that’s going on in them.
Need more? Here’s a lengthy definition of what I mean:
“Drive refers to increased arousal and internal motivation to reach a particular goal. Psychologists differentiate between primary and secondary drives. Primary drives are directly related to survival and include the need for food, water, and oxygen. Secondary or acquired drives are those that are culturally determined or learned, such as the drive to obtain money, intimacy, or social approval. Drive theory holds that these drives motivate people to reduce desires by choosing responses that will most effectively do so. For instance, when a person feels hunger, he or she is motivated to reduce that drive by eating; when there is a task at hand, the person is motivated to complete it.”
More in that article, here.
We have to remember guys that these animals, whether they be our pets, working animals, or those in zoos and aquariums- they all count on us for everything! They crave that biological fulfillment, sometimes even more than just their food, or a measly pat on the head. Finding your animal’s drive will strengthen your future training sessions and give them a more healthy state of mind.
As aforementioned, handsome Fiji enjoying his snuggle time…