Jurassic World and Training Dinosaurs

 

You might not have noticed, but there’s been a bit of a reaction in the animal training community to the blockbuster release of Jurassic World. And not just the recreations of actor Chris Pratt’s pose — which I absolutely love, by the way. (No way I’m picking a favorite pic. Go scroll through them.)

A lot of chatter has gone on about the depiction of clicker training in the film. I’m of very mixed opinions about it.

Originally I was really put off by the “dinosaur whisperer” tone of the trailer — and I love Jurassic Park, so it’s hard to put me off. I took paleozoology in school, and behavior is my day job, and so naturally I’ve put a lot more thought than the average person into training a Deinonychus. I really didn’t want this movie to portray outdated caveman-style training instead of modern behavior work.

So in the film itself I was glad to see that while they couldn’t quite get past the alpha mythology (species which have a strict pecking order don’t accept other species — like humans — as alphas, among other fallacies) and other ethological silliness (no, Owen, you don’t imprint on them at birth, not if they’re a functioning social unit, and anyway that verb goes in the other direction), the filmmakers were at least moving in a better direction.

On the one hand, it’s great that we’ve reached the point where clicker training is mainstream enough to be included as a de facto method in action movies (Jurassic World) and comedy (the RiffTrax commentary on Sharknado). Something really has to be present in the social consciousness before it can be used for humor, so it’s cool that we’ve made such strides. I remember when my clients had more often never heard of clicker training than had.

Chris Pratt's iconic pose with velociraptors, text "Reinforce every click or get eaten"

It’s best practice AND healthy.

On the other hand… it wouldn’t have been too hard to show some proper clicker training, instead of just making a really irritating noise behind Chris Pratt’s lines. I’m not sure anyone on the set knew what the clicks were intended to mean for the scene, as they were neither reinforcement markers nor keep-going signals nor cues nor anything else I could discern.

I did see one suggestion that Pratt’s character Owen was mimicking the natural raptor clicking sound to speak their language (much the way we bark at dogs and trumpet at elephants to cue them… except, yeah, we don’t do that), but that was in a rather unhelpful article and seems pretty unlikely. (I don’t usually like to bash here, but really: Animals aren’t intelligent? Adults of exotic species cannot be trained? And birds aren’t capable of recognizing even words like their names? C’mon, some animal cognition research examples as Alex the African Grey and others use English as well as a child, not just in trained mimicry. Alex’s grasp of language isn’t even unique in the field — he just had the advantage of using our own language to wow us.)

No, I’m convinced training dinosaurs is not only quite possible, but would be a ton of fun. And good clicker training would be by far the most effective and efficient option for them, too.

The scriptwriters could have found good material. If you Google “clicker training,” the very first result is the very SEO-friendly and newbie-friendly www.clickertraining.com, which is Karen Pryor’s company and a super resource with tons of videos and articles. Search specifically for “clicker training dinosaurs” and you can even find my own blog post on training dinosaurs. In fact, I could have been a consultant on this project, as I was already clicking dinosaurs back in 2012.

Laura clicking and offering a treat to a dino

Click once for clarity, to avoid frustration and potential aggression.

Why didn’t anyone call me?

Training really makes a big difference. Besides the mental enrichment for the animals, it makes taking care of them so much easier — veterinary care and life-saving recalls. Think of how many times a recall signal in Jurassic World would have saved animal and human lives, either stopping a predator or summoning potential animal victims to safety? Yeah. Recalls are important.

Laura targeting and clicking dino

Dinosaurs love targeting.

Though I have to say, the facility where these photos were taken was really ill-equipped as far as protected contact. The Jurassic World enclosures aren’t up to all modern standards — I’m going to assume the park isn’t a member of the AZA — but did have better protected contact.

Alena trains an "up."

“Up!” /click/

But the important thing to remember is, always mark clearly and reinforce promptly. Mind your fingers.

Alena feeds a tiny dinosaur

These are life-sized velociraptors, by the way.

There’s already some great advice out there about improving the training division at Jurassic World, so I’ll keep my final words simple: Animals do what works and they follow reinforcement. Reinforce what you want. Always.

Bob Bailey and Karen Pryor advise Chris Pratt's character: "I clicked ambiguously and  didn't reinforce consistently, and my animal chose a new alpha." "Reinforce better."

 

(That’s Bob Bailey and Karen Pryor in the image above. I won’t take the space here for full bios, but they, along with Bob’s late wife Marian Breland Bailey, are some of the most influential scientists in the development and propagation of marker-based operant conditioning to the general public. Both are superb trainers with experience with hundreds of species. And I’ve heard Bob say he wished he’d had the opportunity to work with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.)

Yes, I like to mix my geekery with my behavior. Check out my original Avengers post, too.

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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2 Comments

  1. Ivy Schexnayder

    Fun article. When I saw Jurassic World last week, I knew about the “clicker training” in the movie. My thought was also that they soooo could have incorporated real clicker training in there easily and that, in fact, the dinosaurs could be clicker trained and they don’t have to take over the world when let loose. They could be trained to go back to an enclosure or to be handled, just as we do with animals today. 🙂

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