30 Days of ZooFit: Focus on the Positive, Learn from the Animals

If you would like a glimpse into my inspiration and what influenced me for ZooFit’s first cornerstone, Fitness Through Operant Conditioning, look no further than the book Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. I really love this book because every time I read it, I find something new I never before considered with ZooFit.

I am a staunch supporter of using positive reinforcement in all areas of my life. In fact, when I discuss ZooFit with others, I mention how my program differs from others in its distinct focus only on positive reinforcement. There are no penalty burpees for being late or using the word can’t (I always remind my athletes they can’t do it YET).

It’s weird to me that in this day in age, people are still so blind and naïve to positive reinforcement training. There’s a video going around the internet from a companion animal show at a theme park which prompts rage and wrath from armchair activists. The clip is of several cats and dogs, along with some birds, and a pig, doing an end of show extravaganza. It’s unique in that the trainers are completely off-stage. These animals are doing everything without the “watchful eye” of their “masters”.

The behaviors are simple, and fast, but it is obvious to any animal observer that these critters are having fun. Tails are wagging, or held in a high excitement position. This is the result of positive reinforcement training, and an example of what is possible with positive reinforcement training. All the cats and dogs (and even other pets featured in the show) were rescued from an animal shelter. After a tenure of performing for a few years, the show adopts the animals out to employees at the park. The show gets new dogs and cats from the shelter and the cycle is repeated.

However, the comments range from amused shock on how trainers MAKE (we’ll get to why I hate using this word) the animals do these amazing stunts to outrage from how trainers make the animals do these amazing stunts. No amount of logic or reasoning can change their minds to the “cruelty” of animal training.

More people need to read Don’t Shoot the Dog, or any of the other dozen titles dealing with training animals using positive reinforcement. This is also why I have the urge to publish my book What Animals Taught Me About Health and Fitness. When I was a zookeeper, nothing was more important than my animals. They didn’t receive the best care possible, they received the best care, period. It’s frustrating to have the knowledge my animals were in excellent hands and read how horrible animal training is in the eyes of Joe Public.

If you have a pet at home, you know how hard it is to MAKE them do anything. And often, we let them do whatever they want. My cats sit in my chair all the time, and most of the time, I pull up a shorter, less comfortable stool, and sit there. The cats rule our house. But that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy learning. To assume animals with minds don’t enjoy using those brains is ludicrous. Kiddy does weave, figure eights, high five, and jumps through hoops. But I never MAKE him, and he’s only 16 pounds (I know, he’s a big cat). Can you imagine trying to MAKE a 400-pound gorilla, or an 800-pound dolphin, or an 8000-pound elephant do anything they didn’t want to do?

If I can’t MAKE my cats get off my chair, I KNOW Chris Pratt couldn’t make his raptors do anything!

ZooFit is all about incorporating the principles of zookeeping to our fitness for a stronger impact, both on our health and the health of the planet. This means, if I didn’t do it with animals, I haven’t tried it with people. Since forcing an animal would remove the fun out of training, forcing people in a fitness context would probably be just as effective.

If people see that using operant conditioning without punishment is both effective and fun for themselves, they may change their ideas about animal training. Or they may read the book to scoff. That’s fine, too. I don’t mind a skeptic. Because my methods work. Even on non-believers. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “the great thing about science is it’s true whether you believe it or not.”

Yesterday, I received the best reinforcement for my coaching abilities, a compliment. Not to me, to my boss. That’s when you know you’ve made a difference. According to Dan, the new owner at South Island CrossFit, one of my Masters students said this about me: “I really appreciated that PJ helped with my new, vexing issue of sudden severe headache. She was so encouraging, and (when I rejoined class) found an alternate exercise for me to work my arms and shoulders. I have continued at CrossFit because of this kind of coaching I receive. You are patient and positive, always. I am not athletic, and have played the violin all my life, meaning I have a host of issues (with) my neck, arms, and wrist. Yet, I feel I have made tremendous progress with CrossFit, and I feel welcome here. Thank you, and best of luck.”

I could mention when this member first started coming, they needed A LOT of special attention. But with a focus on positive reinforcement and always being encouraging, this person is now empowered, self-sufficient, and getting better and stronger each class.

I can’t speak for every coach at CrossFit, either at my gym I teach or elsewhere, but in my classes, athletes will only receive praise, encouragement and instructions on what to do to improve. Because of this, my classes pick up on new skills faster, enjoy challenging workouts, whine less, and leave not just satisfied, but happily fulfilled. The new owner was a student in my class before becoming a coach, and he prefers my approach to coaching with positive reinforcement.

What ways could changing your routine to incorporate positive reinforcement improve your life? And who wants to join the ZooFit Nation?


One Response

  1. You’re right, I find it so easy to fall into the negative responses rather than the positive. What I find interesting is that when I respond to someone negatively I feel worse also. Taking a positive outlook on anything seems to help everyone.

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