ASAT 2018: Ken Ramirez on “Problem Solving.”

detective snoopyThis is the sixth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Ken Ramirez: Problem solving: the eight causes of problem behavior

Problem solving can be a big part of a trainer’s job and is one of the main reasons he is called in as a consultant.  In this presentation, Ken shared his approach to identifying the cause (or causes) of problem behaviors.  The list he presented is one he started using when he was a young trainer, and he said “it has stood the test of time.” In all his years of training, he has not found a cause that could not belong under one of the eight possible causes that he’s going to describe.

Understanding the causes of problem behavior can aid in finding solutions to resolving challenging issues.  But, determining the cause is just one part of his normal approach to problem solving.

Problem solving as a 5 Step Process

The Basic System

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Determine the cause (hypothesis/analysis)
  3. Consider the balance of punishers/reinforcers – (motivation)
  4. Implement a plan
  5. Constant monitoring

People are usually too quick to jump to step 4 – implement a plan, but there’s no point in trying to make a plan before you have some idea what might be causing the problem.

Determine the cause:  8 causes of problem behavior

  • Environmental
  • Social
  • Psychological
  • Trainer
  • Session use
  • Regressing
  • Desensitization

Ken had videos and some great stories that accompanied each of the eight causes.  Because I don’t have that material, my notes are somewhat brief.  If you ever get the chance to see this presentation in real life, I recommend it. The stories and videos add a lot.


  • Weather
  • Facility changes
  • Prop changes – story of how the dolphins stopped coming to their stations for the show, but instead, they stationed farther out. It turns out that he had new boots with white soles (instead of black) and that changed their behavior.
  • Public activity


  • Their social interactions are important to them
  • Dominance/ submissiveness in social groups can make it challenging – every animal is stressed, not just the least dominant one
  • Competition
  • Sexual activity
  • Set up training sessions so the social interactions don’t cause more problems


  • Boredom
  • Neurotic or aberrant behaviors
  • Stereotypic behavior
  • Frequency of these problems is small, but we tend to get called more often for them


  • Health
  • Aging – we don’t always recognize changes in our animal’s ability as they age, or from an injury
  • Sometimes something happens once or twice and we think the animal can do it, but really they were just lucky and it’s beyond their normal capabilities
  • Example of sea turtle with injury who had to have a special scale


  • Is it me?
  • This should be the first question you ask
  • Am I working beyond my skill level?
  • Check the basics: cues, criteria, markers, reinforcers – sometimes we just get sloppy
  • Check our emotions, they impact our training, especially when we are in a high emotional state (good or bad) – story about the trainer whose boyfriend proposed during the show and how she dumped all the fish in the tank because she was so excited.
  • Attitude – story about the trainer who didn’t want to train sharks- what turned her around was presenting for a TV program and getting recognition from her colleagues

Session use

  • Planning – if you’re not prepared, the animal may lose focus
  • Number of sessions
  • Frequency of session – don’t want to do them so frequently that the animal is tired or satiated
  • Pacing – some animals work well at fast pace, others need a slower pace
  • Balance of reinforcement (story of sea otters after oil spill – they needed to collect blood samples but the otters were reluctant to be caught after a few sessions. They turned the hallway (where they did blood draws) into a fun place so that the blood draws were insignificant. They put the otters in the hall 4-5 times a day, blood draw was once a week.


  • Normal part of the learning curve
  • Ok to see a step back, or two


  • An ongoing process that never ends
  • You can’t desensitize them to everything


  • Pinpointing the cause gives you some things to change
  • This list is just one part of the overall system he uses
  • It’s a helpful checklist when you don’t know where to start, or want to make sure you consider everything
  • It stimulates thinking and helps clients explore ideas that they may not have considered



2 thoughts on “ASAT 2018: Ken Ramirez on “Problem Solving.”

  1. This is such a useful summary – I am going to print it out and keep it handy ( the kitchen, not far from the tea pot!). Thank you so much for posting your notes.


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