Lads Before the Wind

Welcome to my Book Project, currently called Animal Notes, but I’d love suggestions for a better or more apropos name- Keeper Records, Training Notes, Reviews for Zoos… Whatever conveys the sharing of ideas to improve the lives of (not just) animal care professionals so we can show up as the best versions of ourselves for the animals, the community, and the world.

For this review, we’ll be looking at Lads Before the Wind by Karen Pryor.

Karen Pryor is the founder of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, the leader in positive reinforcement training methodology. She is the author of dozens of books, including the international best-seller Don’t Shoot the Dog, which is considered by many to be the Animal Trainer’s Bible (and rightly so). Lads Before the Wind chronicles her eight years (from 1963-1971) working with dolphins (called porpoises back then) at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park, while establishing some of the most innovative techniques which are standard practices in today’ training world.

I chose this book as my first note on Pryor’s work because, well, I had just received it in the mail, it had been on my wish list for ages, and I couldn’t wait to read it. It’s considered ancient by modern science standards, published in 1975, but it’s the development of these principles which sparked my interest. I’m glad I dove in with this book, because it has so many gems, I can’t wait to share some of the eye-opening Big Ideas I’ve received from it, so let’s get to it.

“Following the rules for shaping, you can get virtually any animal to do anything it is physically and mentally capable of doing. Turtles, lobsters, minnows, anything can be trained.  All you need to do is figure out how to break down the behavior you have in mind into small enough steps so that you can train one step at a time.”

 “It is astonishing how easily we ourselves tend to develop habits.”

Even though this book features principles probably well known to animal professionals, I still felt that the ideas I’d be sharing would more than likely pertain to trainers, zookeepers, and the like. But as I delved into this fantastic memoir, I became more and more convinced this wisdom Karen shares so long ago is VERY pertinent to nearly everyone. A lot of my ideas for ZooFit stem from principles originally developed by Karen and early pioneers of positive reinforcement training, and this book didn’t just CEMENT these ideas, it actually brought new ones to life.

  1. The Excitement of Learning and Figuring Things Out

  2. Go Back to Kindergarten

  3. Putting Undesired Behaviors on Cue

  4. When the Show is TOO Good – We are never exonerated

  5. How smart are dolphins? Fixed Mindset versus Growth Mindset

The Excitement of Learning and Figuring Things Out

“Here were the rules, the scientific laws, underlying training…It was written in thick prose and stiff scientific jargon…I could see why other trainers had been unwilling to digest it. It was exciting, though.”

Karen’s whole book is about how she developed different training techniques, part from a manual written by Ron Turner, a psychologist who worked on establishing training criteria, and part from trial and error. But the one thing she keeps saying throughout each new challenge and learning situation is that LEARNING is fun.

When Karen was working on training Sea Life Park’s animals, many of the principles we animal professionals use every day hadn’t been developed yet. In fact, it was Karen who developed most of these innovative practices. But it didn’t overwhelm her. This whole new world was exciting. I feel sometimes animal trainers today are kind of spoiled. We have all this knowledge from the pioneers already at our fingertips. Sometimes we are even fortunate enough to receive personal guidance from modern experts like Steve Martin, Susan Friedman, or Ken Ramirez.

But imagine having to figure all these principles out for yourself! Imagine what it would be like to have this dolphin in front of you, not knowing how to overcome a particular challenge or obstacle. You couldn’t call in an expert to show you how to handle this, because there weren’t any at this point. You just FIGURED IT OUT YOURSELF. But it’s more than that, imagine instead of seeing this process as extraneously difficult and exhausting, you loved and cherished EVERY MOMENT. You found it exciting and exhilarating.

Karen wasn’t the only one excited from learning. The dolphins responded to the learning process with excitement and eagerness as well. Karen recounts how she was training her animals to create novel behaviors, actions they had not been trained before. After only moments of frustration at not receiving reinforcement (rewards) for doing spectacular behaviors, the dolphins became quite inventive, and caught on to Karen’s agenda pretty quickly.

“Malia seemed to have learned the criteria. She was deliberately coming up with something new…Sometimes she was very excited when she saw us in the mornings. Ingrid and I had the unscientific feeling that she sat all night thinking up stuff and rushed into the first show with an air of; ‘Wait till you see this one!’”

So, not only do the TRAINERS look at these learning opportunities as exciting, but the ANIMALS find challenges exciting, too. To me, that’s a fantastic approach to learning! It IS exciting, and part of this adventure.

Many times while reading this book, I would boldly interrupt my husband and say “Hey, listen to this! This is AMAZING!” Karen didn’t just get her trainers and dolphins excited about sciencey stuff and learning, she helped ME change my attitude about learning and figuring things out with a positive attitude as well.

How do you view learning, and challenges? Do you find it excruciating, wishing someone would just wave their magic wand and make it stick? Or do you thrive on the challenge?

Go Back to Kindergarten

“The two whales plunged away in opposite directions, turned, leaped, one from the left, the other from the right, over the rope- and had a 3000-pound 20-mile-an-hour head-on collision in midair. Of course, they refused to jump again. ‘No, ma’am! Not me!’ We had to revamp the shaping plan completely”…

Karen describes the training process for two Pseudorca crassiden, false killer whales, learning to do a double jump. Rather than the normal side-by-side leap out of the water, Karen wanted the two to cross going in opposite directions. The training was going great with each whale jumping the correct direction over a rope, and the trainers felt the whales were ready to try the jump together. And then, crash! So how did Karen and her colleague get over the hurdle? They took the whales back to kindergarten.

The way Karen and Jennie reworked this behavior was very inventive, but the principle became a standard practice for when the animals regressed, or were dealing with an entirely new situation. Trainers incorporate what they called “Going Back to Kindergarten”. The criteria of “perfection” relaxes considerably, and the trainers go back to the stages where they were seeing success to rework the behavior.

Karen and Jennie trained the whales to jump on far opposite ends of the rope, and then let the rope sag in the center. The natural tendency for an animal to do the least amount of work for the highest amount of reward led the whales to gradually gravitate toward the middle of the rope. As they came closer to each other, the whales learned to gauge the other’s approach and keep to their own side as they jumped. The trainers then had what they were aiming for- a beautiful double bow from two beautiful and exotic whales.
As Karen reminisced “It remains, I think, one of the most stunning behaviors we ever developed.”

Now, the trainers didn’t go ALL the way back to the beginning stages of training the jump (that would be “rebirth”, not “kindergarten” I think). The whales were successfully jumping over the rope. It was jumping together that they caused “regression”. So, Jennie and Karen went back to a baseline where the whales were successful and then moved them forward in a different path.

This concept reminds me of Brian Johnson, of Optimize (a way to improve your life with ancient wisdom and modern science) and his stance on making your prior best your new baseline. As we incrementally get better and better, we will falter a little along the way. It’s going to happen. But as we continue on our trajectory, we don’t have to start all over again from scratch. Just go back to the last level where you were achieving success- your NEW baseline.

So, are there any habits or goals you are working on that have you stuck? Are you feeling you are headed for a 3000-lb 20 mph collision in midair? Go back to kindergarten, and continue on your trajectory, spiraling up toward achieving our dreams.


 Putting Undesired Behaviors on Cue

“Once Makua was down there, there was not much I could do. Time outs had no effect; indeed, by sinking, he was giving me a time out. There was no way to punish him.
…How do you get rid of a behavior you don’t want?”

Oh, how I relate to Makua. Makua was doing everything in his power to avoid his training session, much to the increasing frustration of the trainer (Karen). Whenever he was “done” with the training session, Makua would just drop down to the bottom of the pool and hang out. I mean, this guy was the KING of procrastination. And if he is the king, then I’m the queen. Lately, I’ve developed this annoying habit of scrolling around social media, YouTube, and doing ANYTHING except my creative work I ultimately want to get done. But social media is SO REINFORCING, and sometimes my creative work is so….NOT reinforcing.

So how DO you get rid of procrastination?

Well, as Karen discovered, you can put it on cue…

“The word ‘extinction’ cropped up a lot in the business of bringing a behavior under stimulus control; when the behavior is occurring on cue, it is extinguishing off-cue. There was the answer! I would train Makua to lie on the bottom on purpose, to a particular sound cue. Then I would extinguish the behavior off-cue. Then when I didn’t want him to play possum, I wouldn’t give him the cue. The next time Makua sank himself, I blew the whistle and threw him a handful of fish. He emitted his large, astonished bubble, and surfaced and ate the fish. We went back to work. By and by he sank himself again. I reinforced it again. By the next day he was sinking over and over, and I began requiring a certain length of sinking time and even going as far as giving him a time out if he came up too soon. Soon I introduced a sound cue, which Makua learned rapidly.”

Karen even incorporated the sinking behavior into the program they presented at Sea Life Park.

The key to making this work isn’t to NEVER ask for the behavior again, but to ask for it when it’s appropriate. So, basically, I started scheduling my unproductive/procrastination time. I put the behavior…on cue. I reward my productive efforts of writing, creating videos, or completing modules or lessons in my coach class with 10, 15, or even 20 minutes for watching YouTube videos, going down rabbit-holes on Twitter, or spacing out on zoo posts on Facebook. If I’m feeling antsy about a bunch of projects, instead of getting overwhelmed, I honestly just put my computer aside and play my Find-it game on my phone for 5-10 minutes. This idea is like “getting it out of my system, detaching from stress, and then figure out What’s Important Now, and focus on that.”

And guys, it works. I don’t have statistics, but this AMAZING principle for dealing with unruly behavior WORKS. I’ve been more productive and more focused on my Big Three (Energy, Work, and Love) than ever before, and I don’t feel bad about procrastination, I just SCHEDULE it.

Can scheduling YOUR undesired behaviors work? Put it on cue, and when you don’t want your bad habit to rear its ugly head, simply don’t ask for it until you’re ready.


When the Show is TOO Good- I.e- We are NEVER Exonerated

“We decided the show at the Ocean Science Theater was getting a little too good, a little too polished. The animals knew the routine perfectly; the narrators, myself included, were slipping into rote narration; there were no mistakes. Consequently, there were none of those interesting moments when no one, including the trainer, knew what would happen next.”

Karen talks about this aspect of her work in her chapter called “The Creative Porpoise”. And this decision, that the show was TOO good led to amazing (I mean innovative, ground-breaking) research into dolphin cognitive studies. Just for the show, Karen and her colleagues started training a novel behavior to the dolphin, so the audience could see the training process. But in order to do that accurately, they couldn’t use previously trained behaviors. The DOLPHIN had to come up with something on their own.

One thing led to another, and soon Karen and her team were studying ORIGINALITY and INNOVATION with dolphins. Unheard of concepts for areas of research in those days. And it all started because their show “was getting a little too good.”

And this is an important thing to remember- when things in our own show (life) are getting a little too good (aka- easy, BORING), that’s a huge indicator that we need to change things up as well. Brian Johnson from Optimize program says “We will NEVER be exonerated from doing the work. We are always going to be working towards perfection, but we will never get there.”

Karen is basically saying the same thing, only she is adding “Why would you WANT to be exonerated? Exoneration and Perfection is BORING. It’s nothing the audience wants to see.”

So we are always going to keep upping our game, learning new behaviors, experimenting with what works, what doesn’t work. And this is GOOD. This is progress. Just like the dolphin show, we are never exonerated. We have to keep going. Keep getting better. When it’s too good, we aren’t challenging ourselves. But when we shake things up, progress and shift, we make amazing discoveries that change our lives, and make our lives and the world just a little better.


How smart are porpoises? Fixed mindset versus Growth mindset

“It began to seem to me that ‘intelligence’ is made up of a lot of different things: the ability to solve problems; the ability to learn and retain; the ability to observe… There are individuals in a species that star in one or another aspect of intelligence…How smart is a porpoise? I think, somehow, it’s the wrong question.”

A dolphin drifts idly in a tank shortly after a performance show ends and patrons exited for other attractions at Sea Life Park in Waimanalo, HI. (photo © Karen Ducey)

Karen calls this kind of questioning of animals’ intelligence “linear thinking”. I completely agree. There is no line that maps “dumb animals” at the bottom, and “smart animals” at the top. It’s multi-dimensional. As Albert Einstein once said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

This is similar to what motivation researcher Carol Dweck calls a Fixed Mindset versus a Growth Mindset. How smart is THIS animal compared to THAT animal situates them in a linear fashion, and we do it to ourselves frequently, too. As Carol states in her book Mindset:  “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.
In a growth mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. It’s based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

So, I feel when we place this question of proof of how smart an animal is, we are projecting a fixed mindset upon the species. And it’s not a question that can be easily answered. Dolphins can use tools, they think ahead, they problem solve. But so do crows. And even squirrels.

When we think this linearly about animals, it’s just as easy to think this way about ourselves. Animal intelligence is similar to human abilities. It’s not what we are born with, it’s our mindset. As Carol writes: “Is it ability or mindset? Was it Mozart’s musical ability or the fact that he worked till his hands were deformed? Was it Darwin’s scientific ability or the fact that he collected specimens non-stop from early childhood?”

So, how smart are dolphins? Wrong question. How do dolphins think and grow in their ability to adapt to new challenges? There you go. That’s moving from fixed to a growth mindset.

Well, that’s what I’ve got from this FASCINATING memoir from Karen Pryor. Lads Before the Wind, Diary of a Dolphin Trainer. What big idea did you love? Share with me, share the book, and share our knowledge. Take care of the world by taking better care of yourself.

Quotes (all from Karen Pryor):

“Designing a porpoise show is one of those tasks for which naivete is probably an advantage. If you don’t really know what has been done before, you’re not tempted to copy. If you don’t know what can be done, you’re not limited by ideas of what can’t be done.”

I think this is great wisdom for all of life. If we don’t know what others have accomplished, we won’t be tempted to place limits on our potential.

“The path to the desired end point can take any direction; there are probably as many ways to shape a given behavior as there are trainers to train it.”

There are NO wrong ways to learn, folks. There’s no one “the way”. Your path will be unique.

“That simple rule, when things went wrong, to look at what you were actually reinforcing, bailed me out of a lot of problems…”

Are you struggling with a behavior of yours, or a behavior of someone else? Are you inadvertently reinforcing it? Change the game, and change your life.

One Response

  1. I loved the first big idea. Love of learning, and your point about our current spoiled situation. I was thinking about all of the ancient and modern, yet decades old, wisdom out there that most of us take for granted.

    If we all intuitively knew that the troubles and obstacles we are facing have been faced and conquered before, common humanity, than we would see out this knowledge and scale the inevitable obstacles with greater velocity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.