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Who Is Easier To Train – A Dolphin Or A Toddler?

Who's training who?

Before I had my son, I used to always joke that dolphins are like giant toddlers. They’re both incredibly smart, they can’t always communicate exactly what they want in the moment and they’re both clever and sometimes manipulative. Now my son is 3 and it’s really got me thinking – who is easier to train? Have my fundamental beliefs regarding Animal Training and operant conditioning changed since becoming a mother? How has being an Animal Trainer helped me in my parenting journey?

Before anyone gets upset that I used the word “train” regarding my child, it’s really just semantics. Train, teach, instruct…call it whatever you want, it’s all the same thing. Also, anything I write comes from my own experiences as both an Animal Trainer and a Mother. I am not quoting any scientific data, nor do I assume I am representative of all trainers or parents in my experiences and feelings.

Training a baby a hand target

So, who is easier to train?

Hands down, the dolphins! Training a dolphin and raising a young child both certainly come with their challenges and frustrations. Days you feel you accomplished so much, and days you feel you failed so miserably. There were many times as an Animal Trainer I would go home feeling frustrated that a behavior I was training wasn’t going as well as I wanted. But here’s the thing – even with those frustrations, I knew that animal most likely hadn’t given our training sessions a second thought once the day was over. I would do my best to release my frustrations and remember that tomorrow was a new day. Now, enter parenthood. I *should* be able to apply all the same mentalities and be like Elsa and just let it go. I wish it was that easy. I don’t know whether to blame it on hormones or just a biological instinct to help your child succeed and thrive, but the anxiety that comes with your child potentially not succeeding at the simplest of things is unexplainable. As a new mother, I was constantly riddled with anxiety over my son “learning” new things – rolling over, eating solids, crawling, walking, talking…and my newest daily exhaustion – potty training. So far, he has excelled at everything (minus the potty training, haha), but I would still lay in bed every night stressing about him, even though I KNOW he’s happy, healthy and absolutely thriving. I could also look back and realize stressing about those things was useless, but here I am now in the present day stressing about new things, such as his first t-ball season, teaching him how to swim, learning how to share and be kind, and so on. It’s just a different kind of anxiety. Also, I’ve decided I am going to blame the hormones!

Let’s also talk about emotions. This can be a tricky subject when referring to animals, and I’m not going to apologize for any anthropomorphism I throw in here. I DO believe animals, specifically dolphins, have emotions. You don’t have to agree with me. For those of you who do agree with me, you may or may not agree when I say I undoubtedly believe humans, especially young children, have bigger and more complex emotions. While I do believe dolphins experience joy, sadness and grief, just from my experience observing them I believe these emotions are a bit more “watered down” than they are for humans. Again, I’m not pulling out any scientific data here (not sure I’d trust the validity on this hard-to-study subject anyways). When an animal was frustrated, simply backing off whatever we were working on usually did the trick, at least in the moment. With a young child, the most simple frustrations can lead to epic meltdowns and tantrums, and can really send your day in a downward spiral. While both are exhausting situations, one ends with me clocking out and going home and the other one doesn’t.

My human baby interacting with my dolphin baby

Have my fundamental beliefs regarding Animal Training and operant conditioning changed since becoming a mother?

When it comes to reward based positive reinforcement, mostly yes. When my son was about 1 year old, I came across two terms I had never heard of, but fit me to a tee. “Gentle Parenting” and “Attachment Parenting”. They are different, but fit together quite well. I realized that my instinctual parenting style was both gentle and attached. I breastfed, co-slept and wore my son in a carrier almost all the time. These are all examples of attachment parenting. This is not meant to spark debate, nor am I shaming different parenting journeys. I’m simply sharing mine. I don’t believe in spanking, or physical punishment of any kind, and I try to be as empathetic and understanding as possible. These are examples of gentle parenting.

Probably the biggest similarity in being a Mother and an Animal Trainer is my belief surrounding physical punishment. In my 11 year career with dolphins I NEVER laid a hurtful hand on a single one of them. In regards to raising children, I can be open minded about many different parenting styles, but physical punishment of any kind is something I will never agree with. However, in regards to my empathy and understanding, motherhood has blown the door off the hinges, that was previously only half open as an Animal Trainer. When a dolphin either wasn’t cooperating or was exhibiting poor behavior, we usually did one of two things – give them an LRS or walk away. In the simplest of terms, an LRS (or least reinforcing scenario) is using just a few seconds of calmness and not giving attention to negative behavior before moving on to something else or trying again. This link from SeaWorld defines it better. I utilized this A LOT with training dolphins – it helped us both to regain composure after a “failure”, and when used with positive reinforcement, taught them to be calm and attentive. I also utilize this a lot with my 3 year old. For example, he happily shouts “Mommy, watch me” as he’s putting spaghetti noodles on top of his head. I don’t yell. I don’t laugh. I look straight-faced at him and calmly say “I don’t like that, I’m not going to watch that.” Then I wait a few seconds, look at him and say either “can you show me again how you use your big-boy fork?” (if I want to try again) or “do you want to take a break from eating and play cars?” (if I want to move on). Where my motherhood journey has differed though, is in walking away and completely ignoring poor behavior. When dolphins were distracted, bored or frustrated, the easiest (and sometimes safest) thing to do is exit the water and walk away. I have learned that this is not the most empathetic reaction, nor does it usually lead to the best outcome, when dealing with children. I will admit, sometimes I do walk away. Sometimes I need a moment to myself so I don’t lose my temper. But when I return, I can see the hurt in his little face. I can see the abandonment, even if it was only for a minute. And I feel the guilt. I am constantly reminding myself that he’s so little and so new to navigating big feelings. He needs me there. Even when he shouts “go away!” I know that means “please stay close”. So, I sit a few feet away and sure enough, within seconds he’s crawling into my lap, crying in my neck while I hold him tight. He knows I will always be there for him no matter what, and I know this will help him develop into a more well-behaved child and eventually, a more emotionally mature adult. I often wonder if that mentality would have benefited the dolphins. The “strictness” of operant conditioning now just feels a little cold to me. It really all depends on how deep dolphins’ emotions go, to which I will never have those answers. But I just wonder, if when my dolphin failed, and I exited the water (which is the safest thing to do), what if I hung around close-by poolside for cuddles? Would I have been reinforcing their negative behavior? Or would I have been offering attention and support that would have helped them later on? I honestly don’t know the answer. It’s possible it would be beneficial. It’s also possible that dolphins and children are just two different species that thrive off different types of training.

With positive reinforcement, it was a no-brainer when it came to dolphins. Reward positive behavior. It’s so simple, so obvious. So, what about children? While I do agree, and it’s a pretty proven fact, that positively reinforcing a behavior will result in an increase in that particular behavior, is that the only goal? I’m starting to question everything I’ve ever learned, because honestly, as a mother, that really isn’t my goal. Nowadays, it’s increasingly hard for me to distinguish positive reinforcement from bribing (and no, I will never judge you for bribing, I totally get it!). I don’t want my son to do things because he will get a reward, or do things because I want him to do things. I want him to WANT to do these things. I want him to WANT to be kind to his friends, I want him to WANT to be gentle with our dog, I want him to WANT to eat healthy food, etc. I want him to learn to intrinsically value certain behaviors, not be “taught”. I will admit, it’s a HARD road to venture down, and I learn and fail at it every single day. This is a huge reason why I am writing this blog – I want to spark curiosities and have discussions. I don’t have the answers. I still use positive reinforcement, but I try really hard to be mindful of the way I use it and the way I speak. For example, instead of “if you eat your green beans, then we will go play outside”, I will say something like “let’s be quick to eat a few green beans so we have time to play outside”. These new ideas floating around in my head sometimes send me spinning, because they challenge everything I know! And guess what? I still catch myself bribing him, and sometimes I see no other way around certain challenges – and that is ok! It’s all a work in progress for sure.

As for the dolphins, there are certain behaviors I hope they intrinsically want to learn, such as how to safely interact with their trainers, meeting new guests each day, doing aerials, and all the “cutesy” behaviors. I don’t have the answers on how to go about doing that. Positive reinforcement is the only answer I have, and it works. I do know that our relationships with them are a huge factor on whether or not they cooperate – however I cannot say whether those relationships are a result of our “reinforcement history” with them, or if it is because they truly enjoy our presence, like we enjoy theirs.

There are some behaviors, for both dolphins and children, where intrinsic motivation isn’t as important, at least not in the moment. The biggest example I can think of would be healthcare, or in the animal field, “husbandry”. I will reinforce the crap out of a blood draw on a dolphin or a doctor visit for my son. Neither of them will probably ever intrinsically enjoy those experiences, so loads of positive reinforcement is the way to go.

When you're training a mimic behavior and it makes a really cute photo :)

How has being an Animal Trainer helped me in my parenting journey?

  • I already mentioned using an LRS as a parenting tool. That knowledge has helped me immensely. Being able to ignore negative behavior and calmly move on is a win for both me and my kiddo. But yes, I still lose my temper sometimes. I am human.

  • Any Animal Trainer or parent will tell you patience is a must. For some, that comes easy, for others you have to really work at it. While mine isn’t perfect, I am definitely a much more patient person after training dolphins for 11 years.

  • The messes…oh the messes! They’re different, but they’re all so gross. Would you rather be covered in fish guts or baby poop? Because I’ve been covered in both! I’m sure my terrestrial Animal Training friends would have even bigger mess stories. Being an Animal Trainer certainly helps you become less squeamish.

  • Being an Animal Trainer is HARD! Society only sees the glamorous side, but that is only about 10% of the job. However today, 2.5 years after my last day working with my dolphins, I only remember the good days. That is how parenting goes too. I think back to those newborn days and I mostly remember the good – how squishy he was, how good he smelled, the first sounds he made, his first smile, etc. But if I’m being honest, it was a lot of crying, a lot of poop, not a lot of sleep and a ton of anxiety and stress. Knowing the bad days pass and the good days last helps me get through the hard days now. I know a year from now I will look back and remember the good days of present.

  • Flexibility. If something isn’t working, change it up! In both animals and humans, frustration will eventually lead to some form of aggression. So if my child is frustrated, I need to take a quick pause and figure out the root cause.

  • Humility. Dolphins and children are both smarter than us. The quicker you realize this the more humble you become, and the more forgiving you are to yourself and your many, many flaws. They deserve grace, and so do we.

Knowing that my experiences and thoughts are not representative of everyone, I messaged a bunch of parent friends who have also had careers in Animal Training. Out of 35 people, 31 said training animals is easier than children (2 said they were equal, 2 said kids are easier) and 26 said their views of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement have not changed, or have gotten stronger. I think it’s fascinating hearing everyone’s responses, and I would love to hear more about how people feel, and if it’s at all different after reading this blog. Training animals and raising children are such subjective topics, there truly is no right or wrong answer to most questions. Except for the spanking, please don’t spank your kids!

While almost everyone said children were more difficult, and their beliefs have not changed, I did find several recurring and/or interesting themes in their responses:

  • Many found it hard to “practice what they preach” all the time. Not that they need any validation from me, but we all deserve to give ourselves grace when we lose our cool and all the training principles go out the door. We all have a limit, and these little humans are good at blowing past it.

  • Several mamas, like me, also struggle with the idea of walking away during times of difficulty. (I have decided this is NOT a part of traditional operant conditioning that I think is beneficial with raising children)

  • Several still use most principles of operant conditioning, but have had to significantly change their methods based on what works for their children.

  • Several admitted that using operant conditioning is harder with their kids because there’s an emotional component involved with raising littles vs training animals (yes, we all truly love the animals we have trained, but it just isn’t the same type of love as you have for your children…cliché, sure, but it’s true).

  • While what is reinforcing for animals can change, it is guaranteed it will change approximately 1 million times for a kid, sometimes all in one day (sorry for the exaggeration).

  • Sometimes matters of safety have to be taken into account with small children. For example, how you react if they run out into the middle of the road. While these tricky scenarios can also happen with animals, they seem to happen a lot more often with children.

  • One mama, whose son is autistic, said that ABA therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis) has saved her family.

  • One mama brought up a good point – in this 2020/2021 world we’re living in, operant conditioning is all great, but survival is the goal, so anything goes!

  • And a shoutout to the one Dad I talked to! Almost all of the parents I worked with were women, so I apologize for not being able to represent more dad point of views.

If you made it this far, what do you think? If you’re a parent or primary caregiver and you’ve trained animals, which do you think is easier, or are they just too different to compare? If you don’t have kids (but eventually want them) and you’re an Animal Trainer, what are your expectations of how parenthood will affect you as a trainer (or vice versa)? If you have kids, but have never trained animals or work in a psychology field, do you think having professional behavioral knowledge would have benefitted you as a parent? Even for the Animal Trainers who have zero desire to have kids, learning about how they function at young ages, I believe, could really benefit you as a trainer overall. I find this parallel of training animals and raising children to be quite fascinating and I’d love more discussion on the topic!


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