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Horses, Butterflies & Surgeons: The Secret to Training Success

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ClickerExpo Cincinnati wrapped up a few weeks ago and, as always, it was a great experience, full of enlightening discussions with great trainers. A common theme in our conversations during this Expo was the thrill and the challenges of exposing new people to clicker training and the power of positive reinforcement. One of the biggest challenges when someone in our community tries to introduce positive reinforcement to a new group is that they’re often faced with excuses for why it won’t or can’t work.

I spoke to working-dog trainers who face opposition from colleagues who believe that positive reinforcement training either takes too long or is less reliable. We had a series of seminars on training horses, an area where positive reinforcement is growing. Nevertheless, trainers shared with me that frequently they face beliefs that horses are too flighty and will not respond well to positive reinforcement. In my opening talk, I presented the challenges I faced in trying to train 10,000 butterflies to fly on cue, in the face of the assertion by many that butterflies are not smart enough to be trained. During dinner, Theresa McKeon told me about the challenges that she and Karen Pryor faced recently in using positive reinforcement with surgeons to improve their surgical skills. Early discussions with some surgeons raised concerns that surgeons might be too intelligent to respond to learning in this way. The excuses and reasons presented by those opposed to the use of positive reinforcement are always varied and, sometimes, contradictory.

Those of us who have been successful working with difficult groups are often asked how we convinced individuals or organizations to accept positive reinforcement. Just last week I had a trainer ask me for the “one-minute elevator speech” that can convince someone to consider the use of positive reinforcement. It was that question that made me realize that perhaps we are too eager to find the easy solution. I began comparing the techniques of those who have been successful teaching positive reinforcement in new arenas, and I discovered that the only thing we had in common was not what you might expect.

Most of us try to persuade others of our point of view by using science, effectiveness, and ethics. These are important parts of the discussion, but they are not enough. We definitely need to have evidence and accurate information if we are to speak intelligently, but the secret to opening the dialogue may surprise you. In each case, the successful trainer was accepting, tolerant, and kind.

Can it really be that simple? To paraphrase Bob Bailey, it’s simple but it’s not easy. To be effective, tolerance and kindness must be sincere. People will only listen to you if they feel accepted and understood. You can explain the science, you can show the data from effectively run positive reinforcement programs, and you can describe your personal ethics, but you will get nowhere unless you accept that others train differently and you are open and tolerant about those differences.

Remember that our positive reinforcement skills work just as effectively with people!
At ClickerExpo, people asked me how inroads were made in various areas and the answer in almost every case was that we were invited in. As Susan Friedman said at a recent ClickerExpo panel discussion, trying to convert those who have no interest in hearing our message is a waste of our valuable resources. Sometimes we are so certain that we are right, and we are too eager to prove our point. Instead, we should develop a real rapport with the person first, listen to their full story, and understand their perspective. We must recognize that they have skills that work for them, and that they love their animals as much as we do. Only later will we influence them, but we must wait for them to seek help and ask about our methods. Remember that our positive reinforcement skills work just as effectively with people!

Ultimately, we have to continue to do good work and allow that work to speak for itself. At the same time, we have to be tolerant of other approaches to training. When someone asks how we accomplish a task or inquires about the techniques used, it is important to be kind and approachable if we want anyone to be open to what we have to say. There will always be plenty of ways to help others learn about positive reinforcement.

Acceptance, tolerance, and kindness. Simple? Yes! Overly idealistic? I don’t think so! I have seen it work firsthand. In looking for complex answers, sometimes we need to begin in a simple, straightforward place.

Happy Training,


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