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Training Lessons From Summer Movies

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I am, admittedly, a training geek. I love talking, teaching, learning, and participating in training activities. Another great passion of mine is film. I see an average of three movies in the theater a week—if not more. I seem to find training lessons in every film I see, and I walk away with new pearls of training wisdom or fresh insights into behavior.

Three films stood out for me this summer. One is a lesser-known film, titled Max, about a military dog and his recovery after the loss of his handler during an incident in Afghanistan. The other two films have already become the top two blockbuster films of the summer: Jurassic World and Disney Pixar’s Inside Out.

Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen these films, note that I will reveal plot points that could ruin your enjoyment of the film. Please read on at your own risk.

Jurassic World and the clicker!

Jurassic World, the newest installment in the popular Jurassic Park series, is the type of film that summer blockbusters aspire to be. The movie is full of action, special effects, and a not-too-complicated plot: evil or greedy humans get their comeuppance at the hand of genetically engineered dinosaurs.

The protagonist, Owen Grady, played by Chris Pratt, is a dinosaur expert and trainer. That’s right, he has built a relationship with four dangerous velociraptors, and the story revolves around that relationship and the training that Owen has accomplished with them. I enjoyed the film and really didn’t think much about it afterward, until a few weeks later when so many colleagues were up in arms that Owen, the dinosaur trainer, used a clicker—and used it wrong! I watched the film a second time to see if I had missed something. The character Owen does indeed use a clicker, which he clicks many times. The clicking sound has been referenced in previous Jurassic Park films as a velociraptor feeding or hunting call. So while he was indeed using a clicker, I did not feel Owen used it wrong, just differently from the way many of us use one. (See KPCT’s blog post Clicking Dinosaurs.)

I found it exceptionally refreshing to see how much weight they placed on the human-animal relationship.

What struck me most about this story was the value the filmmakers placed on the relationship between the trainer and the dinosaurs. As trainers, we know that this is a key element in what we do. I found it exceptionally refreshing to see how much weight they placed on the human-animal relationship in Jurassic World. The character of Owen showed compassion and an interest in doing the best he could for the animals for which he was responsible. This is a noble role that most of us who care for and train animals share.

Max the hero dog

If you did not catch Max within the first two weeks of its release, you may have missed it. It didn’t stick around in theaters for long, as it could not compete with the higher-octane films that summer is known for. A look at the fan-film internet site Rotten Tomatoes reveals the way the film has been received: 75% of the public reviewed the film favorably, while only 39% of film critics gave it good marks. The film was panned by some critics due to a problematic story, poor acting, and an overly predictable ending. Some trainers expressed concerns about a few references to traditional training methods and beliefs.

Although the story may take some liberties with the way military dogs do their jobs, I found the representation of a working military dog to have merit. I have worked with several military dogs and have great respect for the work they do and the way they assist service men and women in the field. The way the film focused on the challenges that a family, including the dog Max, faced and how they dealt with the loss of a loved one was realistic, and a story worth telling.

I am a strong believer in second chances for both dogs and the people in our lives.

The story takes some unusual and perhaps far-fetched twists, but results in a misunderstood dog and a troubled teenage boy gaining a strong bond and teaching those around them some valuable lessons along the way. I was able to accept the storyline for what it was: a vehicle for sharing the challenges of military conflict, the healing of a dysfunctional family, and the value of a bond between a boy and his dog. I appreciated the focus on relationship-building and the need to give dogs (and people) second chances. I am a strong believer in second chances for both dogs and the people in our lives. The film reminded me of the many ways obstacles can be put in the way of second chances. It is always easier to give up and not put forth an effort to help others overcome their challenges; working with them is hard. This powerful reminder added to the emotional impact of the film.

Inside Out and the emotions in our minds

The inventive animated film Inside Out revolves around a young girl named Riley who has a happy life in Minnesota until her parents decide to move to San Francisco, which upsets Riley’s life. The story is told from inside Riley’s head, from the perspective of the five emotions that rule her life: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. Each of these emotions takes a turn running the control center in Riley’s brain; the film uses creative ways to show how these emotions interact and balance each other to make decisions that impact Riley’s life.

Briefly we get to see inside the parents’ brains and see their emotions at work, and in a brief humorous segment we get to see inside the brains of a few household pets. But the focus of the story is on Riley, which is where I will focus as well. Joy was the controlling and predominant emotion for Riley before the family’s relocation. Then Joy gets lost (figuratively and literally) and the other emotions take over. As Joy tries to make her way back into Riley’s life, Joy believes she needs to suppress Sadness in order to return to Riley. In the end, Joy recognizes that the other emotions play a valuable part in providing balance to Riley’s life. Each emotion plays an important role, making Riley the complete person that she is. All of those seemingly conflicting emotions are critical to her survival.

While we hope that training will be a joyful experience for our animals, we recognize that other emotions are equally as important.

What a great lesson for trainers to take away from a movie! Sometimes I think we work so hard to suppress and change the emotional responses in our animals that we set ourselves up for a nearly impossible task. I don’t think we want to completely get rid of those emotions; we just want to channel them in more productive ways. Fear, disgust, anger, and sadness all have a role in our pets’ lives, not just joy. The “bad” emotions evolved for a reason: to protect us from danger. As trainers we must find ways to show our dogs (cats, horses, or any animal) how to change emotional responses to certain triggers, but not erase those deeply rooted feelings completely. That is a difficult balance to find, and it is one of the reasons why the world needs skilled professional trainers. Our focus on positive reinforcement is the key to our success. While we hope that training will be a joyful experience for our animals, we recognize that other emotions are equally as important.

I see training lessons for myself everywhere, and I think about them all the time. I hope you have found these random musings and observations worthwhile.

Happy Training,


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