Sunday, October 7, 2018
Whether we like it or not, the language that we use matters. Specific terminology helps to keep everyone at the same level of understanding and theoretically helps to avoid confusion. It's when one or more parties use a word incorrectly, that things can go astray. This is a fact that I seem to keep running into.
Case in point was a talk at a conference I went to this year. For work, I will occasionally need an animal to ingest a bitter or displeasing compound. A task that can be rather daunting if I am limited with the amount or type of food item(s) I am allowed to disguise said compound in. When there was a presenter at the conference giving a talk about training for just such a circumstance, I was very excited to hear what his shaping plan was. I was more than a little disappointed, however, when it became apparent that what he did was exactly what I usually do, and that was disguising the flavor in a treat. What he described as training was really desensitizing the animals to taking a food item from his hand. For me, that's a very important distinction.
To me, training an animal to ingest a bitter compound means that I present them with said compound in whatever vehicle it's made up in, and regardless of how much of that displeasing flavor is there, they will ingest it in it's entirety. In this case, this involves teaching the animal to over come the aversive flavor in order to gain a positive reinforcer. I'm not sure why, but training an animal to voluntarily, and often repeatedly, consume something that tastes terrible is more challenging than training them to present a leg for a voluntary injection. Both involve aversives, but for some reason the aversive in the mouth is more challenging to get past than the aversive of a needle poke. Something that I'm sure anyone who has tried to pill an uncooperative pet can start to understand.
In the case of the presenter, there was no training to take something that the animal had clearly indicated was distasteful. Instead, they disguised the flavor. No training involved. Well, maybe the training of the handlers who had to figure out how to mix the food items up. But generally speaking, it wasn't training that he was describing in his talk. It was desensitization that he was describing.
Via Wikipedia, desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it. Initially the animals had a negative emotional response to his presence and were reluctant to take a regular treat from his hand. After continued positive interactions with the animals, they all got to the point where they would take a treat from his hand. He had built up a bank of positive associations and was then successful at administering the compound. He then proclaimed that positive reinforcement training works. Which is a great outcome all around, but the language needs work.
Fast forward to more recently, but again surrounding discussions of training animals to voluntarily ingest something bitter. This time the mode of desired administration is via a large syringe that the animal can drink from. A lot of non-pet animals will build up negative associations with syringes. A syringe frequently means that they are going to be sedated or have an injectable medication administered. Both of which can be undesirable outcomes for the animal, which leads to building up a negative emotional response to syringes. Getting them to overcome this negative emotional response and voluntarily drink from a syringe would fall under the category of desensitization. Technically you could also lump it under training, as long as you were specific about your outcome. If all you're wanting is for that animal to drink a liquid that it finds appealing from the syringe, that's not so complicated. If you want them to drink an unappealing liquid from that syringe, you now have a process that requires desensitization AND training and you really better be specific about the outcome.
In addition to specific word choice, how we communicate our definitions is also important. Frequently everything gets lumped under the word training. Which is not entirely incorrect when you're being very general. It's when you get specific that the waters start to get muddied. Lets take this syringe drinking for example. Lets say you have one party who is requesting the training of an animal and you have another party who is providing the training of the animal. Both parties use the word training as the descriptor in their communications. Lets say that the requester knows that the whole reason they want their animals trained to drink from a syringe is because they will eventually be ingesting something very aversive tasting from it. Maybe this lighting gets brought up in the conversation, but the emphasis is always placed on training for drinking from a syringe. And lets say that the person providing the training generally knows the reason behind wanting this behavior. But both parties keep using the same phrase, training to drink from a syringe. This is where using the correct language would greatly help when the trainer does not end up producing the actual desired outcome of the requester.
The trainer desensitizes the animals to drinking from a syringe and they will happily drink appealing liquids from said syringe. Given an aversive liquid, the animals will not. The requester is disappointed because they have not gained the desired outcome that they need. If both parties had been specific in their language, confusion could have been avoided. The person providing the training, having more experience with the specific terminology, should have also explained that what they were capable of providing were animals who were desensitized and should have explained the difference between the two terms in this particular case.
I catch myself starting to say that it's annoying that we have to be specific, but really it's not. Being specific helps us all understand each other better. It helps us try to avoid confusion and misunderstandings. It helps us to be honest and to be seen as honest in what we are trying to convey. Yes, it may take a little effort initially, but it really is worth it. Just like when you start training for the very first time. It takes effort to learn the mechanics and the language, but it's so incredibly worth it.