“Until the age of 43, Phil Wylie was a terrible dancer. He was not just your normal bad dancer, who rocks timidly from side to side in time to the music. He was a really rotten dancer, the sort that sweats, bumps into people, doesn’t keep time and steps on your feet. After dancing with Phil, you were relieved to be able to sit down.”
That quote comes from Karen Pryor’s book “On Behavior.” Phil Wylie was her father, and yes – he did learn to dance. The story of how he learned to dance is one of many that she shares in the book, which is a collection of essays and research. How did he learn to dance? Slowly and systematically, with careful instruction. Karen writes:
“His teacher took the first ten lessons or so to teach him to tap his foot in time to the music. For him to master learning to walk in a straight line in time to the music required new miracles of coordination. He also needed lessons in stepping back and forth and sideways according to a pattern, a skill Phil was temperamentally unsuited for.”
Doesn’t the description of Phil’s dancing skills sound like some horses you know? Or perhaps it’s how you feel when you are working with your horse? I’ve certainly met lots of horses that started off as inept dance partners. But, I’ve also seen how those horses can be transformed through careful training that teaches them about their own balance, body awareness, and how to coordinate their own movement with the movement of their trainers.
I chose to share these quotes for several reasons. The first one is that I think we are all inspired by success stories, especially when the stories remind us that we can achieve great things if we take our time and break the skills needed down into achievable steps. I find it helpful to read about how other people overcome difficulties. Seeing the similarities and differences between training different sports and activities can also generate some novel thinking about how I might approach any current training projects.
I also thought that the quote had some great parallels with horse training. It’s no fun to handle a horse that has no sense of his own space and lacks the coordination to respond to the trainer’s cues. I know it’s a bit of a trite expression, but I really do want my horse to be able to respond as smoothly and gracefully as a nice dance partner. As I get into more advanced ridden work, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that I have to learn to be more self-aware, have better body control, and be more clear and consistent in my cues and aids. At the same time that I carefully work with my horse to develop her coordination, flexibility, and strength, I have to do the same thing with myself. We can learn it together, but I need to focus on me as much as I focus on her.
The third reason I wanted to share a quote from this book is that I’d like to remind everyone that there is a wealth of information out there in the form of books and articles by some of the early practitioners of applied operant conditioning. These are people who have spent thousands of hours observing and training animals. Reading about their experiences is one of the best ways to get some insight into how trainers think, plan, and implement their training. I also find it interesting to read and see how much has changed in animal training over the last 50 years. We’ve come a long way.
I chose to start with Karen Pryor because she has always been a masterful storyteller and she has such a wide range of experience both across species and for different applications. If you are interested in learning more about Karen, she now has her own website, karenwpryor.com. If you are looking for additional reading, Karen has a number of other books. “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is an excellent resource for new clicker trainers, but you can learn a lot about training and the history of animal training by reading any of the others. You can also find recommended books on the “Additional Resources” page for my book, “Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement.”