Please note: I was not requested to write this review, or compensated in any way. It’s something I bought and am just sharing my experience.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 4 paws
I’m finding that I’m mostly inspired to write reviews of stuff I love and this lecture 100% fits that bill. I purchased it a while ago, so I “had” to go back and watch it again to verify my memory. I thought there would be less weeping. I was wrong, but I’ll get to that later.
Dr. No: How Teaching an Animal to Say "No" Can Be the Right Prescription is a 2-hour recording of a lecture Ken Ramirez gave to professional dog trainers and positive reinforcement training enthusiasts at the clicker expo conference in 2017. In it he details a protocol he created in response to a problem they were having with a beluga whale at the Shedd Acquarium in Chicago when he served as Executive Vice-President of Animal Care and Animal Training.
Kayavak, the featured whale, was born and raised at Shedd. For 5+ years she performed all her trained behaviors to fluency and with enthusiasm. They even have on record (and video) a session where she worked with Ken for 90 minutes straight, performing perfectly, where the only reinforcement she received was tongue tickles.
Over time, Kayavak gradually started balking at requests for certain behaviors when working with certain trainers. By the time the team realized the severity of the problem, she was completely refusing to perform any of the behaviors needed to provided routine medical care for any trainer except one of her 3 favorites.
I’m not going to give you the blow-by-blow (ha!—it’s a whale joke) because Ken does that beautifully, extensively and with videos of whales doing wonderful things like wiggling their melons (aka their big, bulbous foreheads). So if you’re interested, you should really get the lecture and watch it for yourself. But I will give you a quick (for me :) rundown.
I will warn you that for the non-studied trainer it may be a bit on the technical side (he is speaking at a professional conference after all), but not so much as to be inaccessible. If you’re curious about and/or fascinated by all the thoughts and details that go into real science-based animal training, and the practice of giving animals the opportunity to offer consent, then you’ll get a lot of both here.
Ken starts the presentation by being clear that we can’t really know if an animal is truly saying “no” in the way humans understand it. We can only observe their behavior and attempt to interpret significance. So he defines “no” behaviorally, meaning the animal’s “no” signal is a specific behavior that was first trained and then repurposed.
He briefly looks at why giving animals choice is important, pointing to Dr. Susan Friedman’s statement that choice is a primary reinforcer. He discusses some of the logic and evidence to back that up. He also talks about how real choice is rare—usually it’s forced because you lose reinforcement, e.g. you are “free” to choose not go to work tomorrow, but you may not like how that turns out.
He goes over other options animals have for giving choice aside from a distinct “no” signal—e.g. stationing, manding, positive reinforcement training (to some degree), and a behavior that says “I’m ready to proceed.” The most important factor is humans getting good at reading (and choosing to listen to and respect) animals’ body language.
He discusses behaviors/situations that provide the illusion of an animal saying “no” including Intelligent Disobedience in Guide Dogs, the “Go-No Go” signal in research, and the “All Clear” signal in scent detection work.
The last thing he covers before diving fully into Kayavak’s story is the inspiration for his protocol—a project from the New England Aquarium. They had a sea lion who was biting trainers whenever they left his area, so they gave him a behavior he could use to politely request that they stay. I’m sure everyone was relieved.
Ken’s plan for Kayavak was to give her what he thought would be a true “no.” Kayavak’s “no” behavior would be paid just the same as any other behavior, with exactly the same reward—one fish.
His staff thought he was crazy. They thought that once Kayavak realized she could get paid for saying “no” then that is the only thing she would do. His argument was that if training was truly enjoyable for the animal, as we positive reinforcement trainers like to believe we make it, then that shouldn’t be the case. He convinced them to give him 6 weeks.
He then goes into the details of the behavior (a buoy touch) and how they trained it. And there is lots of awesome whale video.
Also, I know ‘anthropomorphize’ is a dirty word in the animal industries—and yes we shouldn’t use it to justify our training because we should use science. But it is also engaging and hilarious and we all do it and I loved hearing Ken’s guesses at the whale’s opinions of her trainers getting things all wrong.
After all that awesomeness, Ken gives a detailed picture (literally—he uses several pie charts) of the results of their experiment. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. Many different trainers can now easily do medical behaviors with Kayavak, though new-to-her trainers first have to commit to a little on-ramping while she uses her buoy to decide whether or not they are trustworthy.
At the time of the presentation Ken had used this protocol with Kayavak, 1 sea lion and 2 dogs. He shares the story of one of the dogs—a bomb detection dog who had to be removed from service because his accuracy rate had dropped to 72%. We don’t get all the details here, just that his handler was the type to get upset and use force, that the dog got a “no” signal he could use to opt out of the search behavior, and that after 6 months on the protocol his accuracy rate was 96% with no incorrect detections (meaning the other 4% of the time he either refused to search or actively said “no” when asked to search).
I can’t stop wondering why the drop in accuracy occurred. Was he unable to focus? Unmotivated and apathetic? Did the stress of his training interfere with his scent biochemistry? Though I assume those questions remain unanswered, I still find the inquiry fascinating.
Finally, Ken ends the lecture with a brief discussion on whether or not all animals should get a formal “no” signal behavior. His short answer, ironically for Dr. No, is “no.” Basically he thinks that for the most part animals already communicate “yes” and “no,” and that, in most situations, humans who interact with animals can and should learn how to listen to their body language. He does however think it could be useful for animals who have lost their trust in training, or humans who are slow to listen.
The most tangible effect this lecture had for me was inspiring me to try this protocol with my dog Ginny. I already thought the concept of giving an animal an active “no” was important and interesting (hence purchasing the lecture), so after learning the choices and mechanics behind Ken’s protocol, I decided to give Ginny a “no” signal just to see how she might use it. So far it has been amazing and enlightening, I’ll definitely write about it soon as it is too big a story to cram into this review.
The immediate effect this lecture had on me was the evocation of many, many feelings. I wasn’t exaggerating about the weeping. (To be fair to myself, both times I watched it happened to be smack in the middle of serious health crises, though I really don’t know if different timing would have reduced my tears.)
Part of my emotional response is anchored in an experience I had the summer before my sophomore year in college. I was studying chemical engineering, but I took a month to volunteer at a marine mammal lab in Honolulu, Hawaii. The lab had four dolphins, and the work done there contributed to a body of studies that “have blown big drafty holes in the wall that supposedly separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.” (Quote referring to “a century of experiments" by Frans de Waal in his book Mama’s Las Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.)
In addition to sorting a lot of dead fish, we volunteers got to actually interact with the the dolphins during sessions when they weren’t directly doing research trials. I remember one particular session with a young female dolphin names Elele. I caught her favor that day, who knows why—maybe the first fish I fed her had a double liver. Regardless, she and I clicked (ha!—it’s a dolphin joke) and she was more enthusiastic with and responsive to me than her regular trainer. When I made the requests, she swam faster, jumped higher and generally just performed with more delight. At the end of the session when I asked for a hug, she squealed and rose straight up out of the water into the waiting circle of my arms. It was a truly magical experience.
After the session the trainer sought me out to say, “If you ever want to do this work, I am happy to write you a letter of recommendation.” That was 27 years ago, and I spent the majority of the time since searching, experimenting and desperately longing to find work would allow me to feel both useful and fulfilled. So it’s a little charged for me to be reminded of that experience now, knowing that at the time I was entering my sophomore year at a school that had one of the foremost veterinary medicine programs in the country. I can’t help wondering what would have happened, and where would I be now, if I had let go of the path that had been laid out for me and followed my own curiosity. So that’s part of the emotion.
But the other part is just in the soothing balm that is Ken Ramirez. I have yet to meet him in person, though taking one of his week-long classes out at Karen Pryor’s Ranch is definitely on my bucket list. Just listening to him speak and watching videos of his training sessions is enough to make his inherent care and kindness blatantly apparent.
If you wanna know who a trainer really is, watch what they do when the animal gets it wrong. I’m pretty sure he’s an actual human, so I’m not under the illusion that he never gets angry or frustrated, but in the footage I’ve seen of him working with dogs or whales or seals or sea lions or tigers—when an animal makes a mistake, Ken’s response 100%, unambiguously neutral.
I know this is a conscious choice on his part, one that he and other zoological trainers operationalized into a technique called the Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS) in order to teach younger trainers how to do the same. But the thing that still blows my mind is the complete and utter absence of any reflexive anger or frustration. It just isn’t there.
I know this is what my clients see in me when I work with their dogs (though my own are a bigger challenge on this front). Whenever I get the awe-filled comment of “Wow, you’re so patient!” I laugh and tell them my husband would disagree.
But I had to do a ton of work to get to that place. On the personal development side, I had to build the skills to inhibit, process and shift my own reactivity (another ongoing project). On the training side, I am in near constant continuing education, and it’s knowing in advance what the best options are when things go wrong, knowing and practicing operationalized protocols like the LRS, that allow my training to be thoughtful and conscious instead of reactive.
It’s sad that my nervous system was so conditioned (as so many of ours were) to a high-pressure environment where emotional threat was always imminent, and that rage became my anticipated response to error. I’m grateful I have the capacity to change that, to whatever degree I succeed, and I am amused by how surprised I am when confronted with it’s absence.
Which brings me to yet another part of why this lecture is so emotional for me—I desperately want to be that whale.
One of my best friends once told me, “In my whole life, I have only ever met one other person who is as particular as you and I.” So I can totally relate to a whale who might be agonizingly aware of a trainer not breathing or breathing too much, or touching too much, not enough or just wrong, or taking too long to give cues or hand over the fish, or being distracted, or having feelings not related to our interaction—I get it.
And I think it would be worth about 5 years of therapy for me if a teacher, or any authority figure, would be willing to hang a buoy next time we talk and give me a piece of dark chocolate every time I touched it—no frustration, no attempts to control and no questions asked.
To purchase access to the streaming video of Dr. No: How Teaching an Animal to Say "No" Can Be the Right Prescription, visit the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website, https://video.clickertraining.com/programs/dr-no-how-teaching-an-animal-to-say-no-can-be-the-right-prescription.
For more information about Ken Ramirez, you can visit his website, https://www.kenramireztraining.com.