NLP Insights from Training Animals Helps You Learn and Teach

NLP Insights from Animal-Training helps you learn and teach more effectively!

Whenever you're looking to learn something (or train others in something), chances are you're interested in minimizing time required for learning and training, without sacrificing quality, while still maximizing ROI (return on investment -- whether time or money or both).

Towards that end, the purpose of today's blog is to share ideas that are essential and relevant in the valuable pursuit of training people in a way that maximizes retention and depth of development, while minimizing time required to acquire new skill and knowledge.

NLP is centrally built around the idea of creating desired changes through accelerated learning (whether an NLP-trained Therapist or Coach is training a client on a new mental process that helps them achieve a change, or an NLP-trained Speaker or Trainer (cough, cough) is training audiences on how to do something more effectively.

Not every innovation for accelerated or optimal learning and training comes from the field of NLP (though many do). In some cases, fascinating insights can be gleaned from the field of animal training, and by exploring these from an NLP perspective, we can establish a new way of thinking about training people.

Let's Review “Don't Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor

Karen Pryor writes about animal training in a way that I believe is also aimed also at helping us learn how to train people more effectively. As an aside, in my opinion, she's also written one of the closest things to using NLP while training Animals, in her book, Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training

I'll begin this blog entry by reminding readers of the most basic understandings of classical and operant conditioning (and we'll discuss anchoring later on). I do this because both classical AND operant conditioning can be a critically important aspect of training. By contrast, operant condition is usually absent from just presentations, and classical conditioning typically can only play a minor role in just presentations.

Classical Conditioning is when some reasonably-neutral conditioned stimulus (CS) is presented alongside any biologically powerful unconditioned stimulus (UC). The aim is to cause a subject to associate the normal response to the UC, now also to the CS. Like Dogs, salivating after hearing a bell ring. Like if we use a certain song for our cellphone ringtone, exclusively for someone specific we really want to hear from. Then if we hear that tune on the radio, we'd feel anticipation for connecting with that special someone.

Operant Conditioning is when the likelihood of a specific behavior or response is either strengthened or weakened, depending on setting specific consequences (i.e., reward or punishment). This would be like giving salespeople a higher bonus and a better shift schedule, vs giving them an unwanted work schedule, entirely based on positive or negative sales performance.

There typically are NO feedback loops in Classical Conditioning. But there are feedback loops in Operant Conditioning,  and great training absolutely requires feedback loops. 

Let's jump into “Don't Shoot the Dog.” Karen's sections in the book cover...

  • REINFORCEMENT: Better Than Rewards
  • SHAPING: Developing Super Performance
  • STIMULUS CONTROL: Cooperation Without Coercion
  • UN TRAINING: Using Reinforcement

Let's look at Reinforcement

Reinforcing is about adjusting ongoing behaviors. Shaping is about creating new ones. We're going to focus on reinforcing for the moment.

There are a lot of NLP Trainers and NLP Master Practitioners who've done some dog training in the past. It seems to be a commonly shared history. What dog-training has taught us is that with animals (and we are animals!), reinforcement requires INSTANT response. Any positive desired result or behavior must be reinforced instantly.

Karen states that "Reinforcement only with Positive means" works better than both positive & negative Reinforcement, because it saves one decision. Therefore it can be unconsciously acted on. We should begin by providing a small reward at or after every positive desired result or behavior. Negative results should be ignored, not punished, and then the relationship between subject and trainer requires less justification.

This means that even if someone has a negative response to something, we shouldn't ignore them, we should simply pick anything about what they are doing that is positive, to compliment or notice. If someone's negative response persists, then keep reminding them of verifiable positive facts and results (rather than on opinions where their stubborn focus on the negative can flourish). Begin with fact-based compliments and chunk up to the higher value of those compliments.

For example: Let's say your co-worker manages to complete an extremely complicated research project, culling together and effectively organizing the material into a format that's easy to digest. You're happy with it, and you use it to make smart decisions for moving forward that increases earnings, and reduces costs. What if they know they could have done better, and they complain that they didn't do that good a job. You can then say “While I know you're not as happy as you could be (Pace), some great evidence is already in (Pace), we've saved Four Million Dollars this quarter (Pace), you bumped sales up by 22% (Pace), and the higher-ups and shareholders are all obviously happy (Pace). We can build further on that again in the next quarter (Lead). How good does it feel to have this many people thanking you (Lead)?

Let's Look at Shaping Desired Behavior

Ms. Pryor describes Shaping being based on 10 high-level rules, with 3 'short cuts' to Shaping being : Targeting, Mimicry, & Modeling.

Targeting is about building a behavior with piecemeal elements... that string together bit by bit. NLP'ers might accurately consider this to be like chaining states. (I have an audio program available on chaining-emotional-states, called “Creating the Automatic Yes”).

Mimicry is something some animals do easily & well, so if you demonstrate, they follow. Mimicry can be like mirroring in Rapport, but in this case with Mimicry, we're referring not to rapport, but to learning. Mimicry actually has parallels to NLP Modeling, whereby we use mirroring and unconscious uptake intentionally not for rapport, but to physically mimic another person's skill so as to acquire it.

(Clarification): the term “Modeling” is used by Ms. Pryor to refer to pushing a subject through something. Like, showing someone how to make a copy at the copy machine, or like showing someone how to complete a form on paper or on screen. Or like handing your husband the garbage can and pushing him down the driveway. So Ms. Pryor is suggesting that in training animals, she uses the word modeling to help intentionally show a desired behavior to others. In NLP, we refer to modeling as what a subject does in trying to acquire a model of something from an exemplar. A minor distinction – but an important one. We can model our own behaviors for others to pick up (Karen Pryor's usage), AND, we can unconsciously model others' behavior (NLP's usage).

Targeting could start with when the wife smiles every time her husband offered to do the dishes, and then another bigger smile if he offered to massage her feet. Targeting could be used anytime a manager gives a retail salesperson a “thumbs-up” when they actively walk out to greet a customer, and another “thumbs-up” when the salesperson steers a customer towards a certain product or area, and another “thumbs-up” when a sale is made, and another “thumbs-up” when the salesperson hands the customer their card, to encourage return business with a specific helpful person.

To do targeting, reinforce any behavior that comes close to what you want, and provide some small reward within a half-second of what you want to reinforce – this is about building instant and unconscious associations. We don't want much conscious thinking here.

Some years ago, because a student asked a question about this book, I then replied by using some of Pryor's techniques to demonstrate training a specific NLP behavior at a workshop.  I brought another student up, and demonstrated shaping a totally new behavior for the trainee in under 5 minutes, in the context of an NLP exercise (this is something I've been doing regularly for years at courses without necessarily telling students I'm demonstrating behavioral shaping). I wanted the student to visually mirror my behaviors real-time, instead of afterwards.  When they didn't display what I was looking for, I didn't respond.  When they did, I offered positive verbal feedback.  One of Karen Pryor's rules of thumb is to minimize the size of the reward -- and slowly make the reinforcement less easy to acquire.  The demo worked like a charm, because these training methods work beautifully and reliably.

While training any technique, language model, behavior, or skill, naturally I make active use of targeting, mimicry, and modeling to help shape the behaviors and language of students. It's another reason why my students get so effective with these wonderful NLP skills!

Here's an example with using food to train dogs. I used tiny sliced hotdogs. I had a spot on the ground, marked with a penny or bottle-top. You don't need to use food -- you can use a "clicker" too (or instead) -- which is like auditory and/or gustatory reinforcement. I put the spot on the ground, and gave my dog a tiny piece of hotdog after she touched her nose to the spot. The 2nd time, she hit the spot faster. The 3rd time it was instant, but I was already on to building the next step. I moved the spot to another location. My dog went for the new location, and didn't get anything, but rapidly went back to the 1st place and then looked at me. She didn't get anything, so then she went to the new place and I did give her a hotdog (rewarding the behavior of touching both spots. We repeated that experience a few times, and then by the 4th round of practicing this new pair of behaviors, she was touching both spots, and getting the reward consistently. I helped my dog build a totally new sequence of behavioral choices that led to the reward.  What I liked about this technique was the way in which it involved the reverse of the usual paradigms for learning. 

My dog moved from certainty to uncertainty. The trainee moves from the certainty of getting a small reward, to the uncertainty of whether they understood what was suggested or asked for. When every positive response is instantly rewarded there is a certainty in that for the trainee. It is ONLY when it is time to move on to a new behavior that the rewards become less certain.

Another way of saying this is that inducing confusion in a contrived, controlled space, is an incredible paradigm for enabling cognitive leaps from one stuck state to a more resourceful and creative response. I like creating these moments repeatedly for students. Yes, mild confusion is an extraordinarily useful training tool. Deep confusion – not so much.

In the last chapter Karen Pryor discusses UN-TRAINING behaviors. I think her entire book, can be thought of “at a process level” as being about UN-TRAINING old ideas about how best to train, to learn, and to condition, while she talks in entertaining and interesting ways about how much more elegantly and quickly people can learn.

So, I invite you to wonder: is Ms. Pryor discussing learning how to train animals from what we've learned about human learning? Or is she talking of learning how to train people from what we've learned about animal learning?

Essentially, I think she's talking about training people to train... anything.

So naturally, I think every educator on the planet should read this book.

Let's Look at Un-Training
(before looking at Stimulus Control)

Ms. Pryor details eight methods of getting rid of a desired behavior (either in favor of a preferred behavior, or just getting rid of it). I won't go into all of these (read her book!), but I will say that there are pros and cons with each method. There is no one tried and true method that always works with eliminating every type of behavior, and there are situations where one method may be more or less effective than another.

I often encounter situations where people arrive at NLP courses having either trained themselves ineffectively, or, worse, were trained badly by certain other trainers. I do a lot of cleanup work. To help them improve on a badly-or-insufficiently-trained skill, it's usually useful to find indirect ways to un-train old behaviors or skills where they're clearly not getting good results for those students.

One of my favorite ways when training people to untrain less useful behavior, is to tap into students' own values, and get them dissatisfied ENOUGH with their old, less-effective way of doing something. Then I can get them to want to learn a newer, better way. When people are motivated to eliminate an undesirable behavior, they will. If they're not motivated to learn a better approach, they won't really absorb the new training content as thoroughly or be as motivated to try a different approach.

As a result, if I see people in a course demonstrating an unwanted behavior or communications skills strategy, I may want to enable them to make better choices in the future. So, without telling them what I saw or heard, I'll sometimes briefly train what I saw or heard them doing, and demonstrate reasons as to how and why that approach was ineffective. Then I can describe a better way, and describe the results I get with it, then they find themselves motivated to want to learn it. This is like creating a “propulsion system,” for those of you who know that NLP phrase. Essentially, I often won't train a better alternative until I've shown them how ineffective that behavior can be (in a different context).

Animal Training, Anchoring, & Stimulus Control

Anchoring, in NLP, enables us to associate certain stimuli, with the onset of a behavior, or a choice, or an emotional response or state, or thinking, or language. We use anchors to help direct attention and call forth responses and resourceful results in others. Anchoring also occurs constantly, all around us, whether we know it or not. And many examples of anchoring that weren't intended, end up causing undesirable responses. Anchoring with intention is all about setting up stimulus-response mechanisms.

In her book, Karen Pryor had a lot to say about anchoring (using different wording). She defines 4 rules for perfect stimulus control.

  1. Desired behavior is immediate in response to stimuli
  2. Behavior is reserved for whenever ONLY the stimuli occurs.
  3. Behavior never occurs in response to other stimuli
  4. No other behavior occurs when that stimuli is presented

For those of you who many not know,  the above conditions are extremely close to what we in NLP refer to as “Well-formedness characteristics of effective anchors,”  where following these principles will make for stronger, more effective, and longer-lasting anchors.

  1. The Intensity and Clarity of the original experience, will make for stronger anchors. If you're anchoring a set of emotions or experiences that have been polluted with irrelevant details or information, that can reduce the anchor's effectiveness. One stimuli, one response only.
  2. UNIQUE Anchors maintain longer. Ideally, use a unique sensory stimuli that won't be used commonly elsewhere, by ourselves, or others.
  3. The Timing of the Anchor needs to be very precise, consistent, and immediate.
  4. Context plays a very important role. An anchor set in a kitchen will not be as strong when fired (recalled) outside in a yard. Contextual triggers act as additional components to an anchor.
  5. The more sensory systems used in concert, the stronger the anchor. Making a certain sound can be an effective anchor, but if you wave your hand in a unique way while you're making the sound, that's better. Even stronger if you add touch or some kind of kinesthetic experience to the anchor. These combined sensory systems create synesthesias, and that will lead to strong anchors (if they're done well with precision, consistency & effective timing.

What does THAT set of conditions sound like to you?

If you're an NLP enthusiast, and Stimulus Control sounds to you like Anchoring, you're in good company.

The value of the NLP Presupposition:
"There is no Failure, only Feedback."

This presupposition is primarily used in and meant for NLP training and learning contexts, but students are invited to apply this throughout their lives, because it helps free us from self-deprecation and negative reinforcement. Mistakes are only tragic when and if we don't learn from them. Self improvement material is awash with infographics and great quotes from people like basketball great Michael Jordan, who said:

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

If you disallow a negative emotional response to mistakes and instead adopt a curious attitude about what can be learned from a mistake, and what can be done differently next time, your body remains in a resourceful state and your mind remains in a positive and creative place.

So, of course, in NLP courses, we train this presupposition, and it doesn't end there. Every time I notice a student having a self-deprecating response to a poor result, I remind them that we're looking for positive states, cognitive and emotional state flexibility (such as a laugh and a curiosity about the next attempt), and a resourceful response overall. I don't 'let' students get upset about mistakes without offering a more positive interruption.  If you attempt to learn NLP at home or without trainer mentorship, you're unlikely to catch yourself during these less resourceful responses.

It's not that errors or mistakes don't have costs. They do. In the real world, mistakes can cost enormously. What costs even more, though, is spending even a second wallowing in those mistakes, and getting angry or upset at yourself (or others), instead of not only turning them into fabulous opportunities to learn and grow, but instead, having mistakes instantly trigger resourceful responses. It's not just a nice-sounding daydream – it's a reality for NLP students attending good quality training.

The difference between
Learning, using only Positive Reinforcement, and
Motivating, using both positive and negative consequences

Every time I discuss the value of positive reinforcement only for training purposes, someone reminds me that people are more motivated by pain. I hear this both from NLP-trained people, and people who've never heard about NLP.

And yes, that's true:  More people are more motivated by moving away from pain, than they are by moving towards a desired result (towards pleasure).

The largest number of people are most motivated by a combination of pain and pleasure, and again, in NLP circles we call this a Propulsion System.

And while motivation is centrally important to learning... the actual learning process occurs most deeply and effectively, with positive reinforcement only.

So what's the difference and why is this critically important?

We need to motivate human beings with a combination of (1) a desired result for moving forward with one choice, and (2) an unwanted result from moving forward with a different choice (or of not choosing at all). This creates a desire to move forward in some directed way.

At that point, it's best to discard the negative reference, and teach or train, using only positive reinforcement.

So, use pain to motivate, but once someone is motivated to learn something, stay away from negative reinforcement while they're actively learning and acquiring new skills and knowledge.

What if you find that you've been doing things the wrong way in the past?

You are an amazing learning machine.  You have the capacity to learn things and build habits that may have served you well in one context, but perhaps you've carried those habits over into contexts where it can be a rude awakening to discover they're not serving you well.  

In considering the possibility you may have trained other people to have unwanted responses to you -- some of you may want to review your past behavior with friends, loved ones, and professional contacts. Maybe you've been unknowingly training employees to continue doing unwanted things. Maybe you've been unintentionally conditioning your spouse to dread conversing with you. Maybe you've been making it increasingly difficult for people to do new things, even while you were intending to help them.

While none of those potential concerns are easy to swallow, they are, fortunately, easy to fix!

The most basic "do-it-yourself" advice you can use... is essentially to stop doing what wasn't working well, and start doing what's known to work more effectively. For some of you, that will be easy and natural to do differently, now that you recognize certain past behaviors as less useful.

If doing the above is not solving the problem overnight, then you may be finding old less-useful habits to be deeply ingrained, and not yet know the best way to move forward on changing these unconscious unwanted habits. For people like yourself, it would be valuable and useful to either acquire private NLP-based coaching (with one of our very experienced coaches and trainers), or, attend NLP courses that will help you to change old habits, build new ones, and become a far more flexible, effective communicator, with the latest techniques and approaches to aid you in your future efforts.

In particular, to help unwind old habits, learn new ones, expand your awareness to pick up on (and start to circumvent) every circumstance where you've been practicing the less-useful behaviors... here are a list of NLP skills that may be critically useful to solve your particular dilemma:

Anchoring, Calibrating, the Meta Model, the Milton Model, Sensory Acuity, State Management, Strategies, Meta-Programs, Circle-of-Excellence, Timeline work, Distance-based Swish, Visual (or Kinesthetic) Squash, Time Distortion, and more.

Remember, any of the above have been found by thousands of people before you to be highly effective at creating change easily!  Let us know how we can help!

author: Jonathan Altfeld