Sunday, March 7, 2010

Trainer Arrogance

Once you think you have it
all figured out, watch out.

A couple of weeks ago, a tragedy took place in an Orca tank, to a trainer of an animal the size of a minivan.

I'm sure she felt she knew her animal. From the many photos, it's clear she loved the whale, and that they felt a common bond. But what is always below the surface, and is nearly always too seldom consciously considered, is the true animal nature that is always shimmering just below the surface of the glossy phraseology so often applied to the training of animals.

It's a sort of thinking that claims us all, even those of us whose animals are more the size of a dust bunny.

We fall in love, not only with the animal, but with the mystique, the power, of training them.

For many of us, our thrill at the very idea of being able to communicate, and be responded to, by a non-human living creature is nothing short of a small miracle. And when those really magic moments happen -- the light goes on, the idea connects -- we feel the wonder of it deeply.

As we travel with them step-by-step through the classic process of Train-Teach-Proof, we become entranced by the animals we train.

So much so, we ultimately forget that they walk on four legs, not two. And even if they did walk on two, it would not be possible for them to be as in tune with our feelings and intentions as we so very dearly wish for them to be.

We lose sight of the fact, or maybe never understood, that beneath the veneer of socialization and training, the hard coding of DNA still play out.

We say, "He KNOWS how to weave. He ALWAYS makes his entries at home." When in fact what we have on our hands is simply an animal who is out of his familiar environment, blinded by new sensation and faced with several seconds of difficult concentration on an activity and a way of moving that is completely artificial to his nature.

Like even we humans, he defaults to the encoded responses to stress: fight, flee, freeze, appease. Which in the world of the agility ring plays out as missing the pole, zooming, visiting, sniffing, leaving the ring.

In our world, of course, we don't (usually) get eaten. But we often do, all too often, underestimate and misunderstand.

All of which means that by losing sight of the animal within, we loose opportunities to identify real solutions.

We get lost in rationales while missing the reality.

In a tank in Florida, a trainer soothingly stroked the snout of a whale she accurately sensed was stressed. What she missed, and that the whale picked up on, was the movement of a pony tail, and the release offered by giving in to a deeply rooted natural drive.

The misinterpretation, in this case, resulted in a tragic loss of human life.

However, in our own much smaller way, we make the same mistake each day. It is a very loving sort of arrogance based on thinking that we know more than we do.

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