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What Makes an Expert Trainer?

The recent Zoospenseful blog by Steve Martin on the top ten qualities of an expert trainer is I think a wonderful stimulating question (I love top ten lists- haha). As part of ATR’s commitment to Transformational Learning Theory (learning through open discussion) perhaps we could make this into an interesting discussion piece? We should all probably ask ourselves this question- what is an “expert”? I agree with many thoughts on Steve’s list but here are some important additions from my view:

A demonstrated ability to reliably produce quality behavior in difficult situations would be the most objective and quantifiable measure and ranks highly for me, since many people can talk a good talk but actually putting principle into practice is direct evidence. Ask what has been trained and done by the so-called expert and how advanced and challenging is this behavior?

Further, I feel that the animals “vote” on the subject must be also ranked highly (which I presume is at the heart of many of Steve’s excellent points). How are we to measure the animals’ view or vote on the training system and its practices? For me the willing and eager participation in free space is a good indicator (ie: the extent to which they do not have to be “caught” or controlled). This operational measure allows for the respect of different training styles and choices but with the allegiances to the relationship and welfare issues. Putting the results and the animals’ behavioral indicators together, allow us to measure or operationalize the principles rather than merely citing the dogma or doctrine. This allows and respects the art of training, which is fundamentally individual based (as Susan points out).

Which brings me to my third point, I feel an expert trainer will advocate for and train for the well-being and necessary care of the animal before (or at least in parallel with) any human objectives, not merely in rhetoric (words) but in action and resources dedicated. That is to say that we train towards the obvious necessary care such as basic comfort and desensitization, medical procedures, crating and transport and shifting before we train for shows, riding, interactions or other financial and human objectives. This can be very difficult in many situations to convince management but is the modern and best way to have the best outcomes for both human and animals, and it demonstrates our sacred responsibility to those we care for.

Another issue for me is that the trainer treats humans the way they claim to treat animals. Positive reinforcement trainers should be careful to avoid shaming, coercing or otherwise punishing other trainers into submission and agreement. The community should encourage and support while discussing and debating issues with respect and understanding. Walk the walk. Here I think of the relationship between Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama- different doctrines still permits mutual respect.

Finally, while I understand Steve’s reasoning and valid concerns regarding backing up each and every bridge stimulus with reinforcement, I should let it be known that my lab has just completed the first piece of a several month long experiment to quantify some of this issue. We will offer a paper on this hopefully by the end of the year. Preview: we have been able to demonstrate perfect bridge maintenance at levels of as low as 75% (with a stimulus that was initially paired at 100%). Again our measure is the animal’s response to the bridge stimulus, SDs and participation in training session was maintained at above 98% for a collection of 5 pinnipeds and two birds over thousands of trials.

We now offer this question to our community: What do you think makes an expert trainer?


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