Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Animal instinct

New Yorkers are ablaze this week over a new book release entitled "Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers by Amy Sutherland. The book is on the surface about the students at the training school in Moorpark College, California as they are taught an improbable talent: how to communicate with animals.

But never trust New Yorkers to let sleeping dogs lie. No way, intent as ever to delve deeper into the meaning of modern relationships many have turned these lessons of exotic animal trainers into a guide to training a species more familiar: the modern man.

Seems only logical, really. If exotic animal trainers can get their students to do the seemingly impossible: sea lions to offer their paws for a nail clipping, dolphins to spin on command, and chimps to skateboard. Surely, there must be a tip or two from which to train the modern man?

And indeed there are:

"Approximations", defined as rewarding the small steps towards a new behaviour. Which really means you can't expect a man to pick up his socks and underpants off the floor all in one day, but you should reward him by praising every small act (i.e. one sock) every time he does it.

"Incompatible behaviour", my favourite, which is defined as a behaviour that is impossible to perform at the same time as another specific behaviour. In practical terms, this refers to giving your partner a chore which necessitates that he/she can't interfere with what your doing. For example, if you want peace in the kitchen whilst cooking set out a beer and the sports section across the room. You will quickly find you are on your own. Simple, but genius.

And lastly, "Least Reinforcing Syndrome", the idea being that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behaviour. But if it is unable to provoke a response, the behaviour dies away. So the next time you hear panicked pacing, doors slamming and the inevitable shrieking "where are my keys?" just ignore it, as hard as that can be and wait and you are likely to hear a calmer voice announcing "I found them."

Like doctor's swear to the Hippocratic oath, trainers vow that "It's never the animal's fault." And this is likely to be the hardest part - not placing blame when you don't get the result you want.

But heck, we also have to accept that some behaviours are instinctive reflexes that can't be trained into extinction. Like you can't stop a bird from building a nest, you can't stop a man from losing his keys, or a woman from ranting after a glass too many.

Where to get a copy:

It is only published in the US for now, but you can order a copy on amazon though www.amazon.co.uk for £12.67.

Could make for good summer holiday reading material, and allow you to try out some training techniques on the beach. But don't take my word, I also have a copy of Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? by my bedside table. Which must emit some incompatible behaviour signals, now that I think about it. I must remember to move it, or at least turn it face down.

Oh, and in the Evening Standard yesterday:

Pictures of both Kate Moss and Kate Middleton sporting respective Mulberry handbags, with Ms.Moss toting the coveted Emmy design. But we knew this.


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