The Legend of the Trained Monkeys

Once upon a time there was a family circus that was down on its luck. They had a string of shows that didn’t draw big crowds and couldn’t make payroll. Their “roadies” quit and left them sitting near a railroad siding in Kansas. Their circus cars, animals, wagons and tents were on a rail siding with no hopes, prospects of future. The family was about to sell off the whole shebang when they got a telegram from Canada. A group in Toronto wanted them to come and perform their show. They would even send an engine down to haul the circus train north. The family realized they wouldn’t be able to set up the tent when they got there but figured it was better to take the money and try to find a way to insure that the show would go on.

As they sat in mixed joy and concern, a garishly painted circus wagon pulled up in front of them. A little man stepped down from the driver’s seat, secured his horses and greeted them.

“My name is Eugenio Frasetto. I am a fifth generation circus trainer and I’ve been looking for an old-style family circus just like yours. Me and my monkeys can help you secure your future because I am the best monkey trainer there is.!”

The family was simultaneously joyous and saddened. They had to tell Mr. Frasetto the truth. Though they had a job and would love to hire him they would be unable to put up the big-top when they got to Canada.

“Oh, thatsa no problem. I teacha my monkeys to put uppa the tent. Molto bene – very good. Letsa getta goin’.

With that word of confidence the circus packed up, hooked up their train to the Canadian engine and arrived safely in Toronto, three days later. Everyone was amazed when the monkeys put up the tent even faster than the former roadies ever did. (No smoke breaks) A crowd started forming and soon the vendors were selling popcorn, hotdogs and cotton candy. The seats sold out quickly and soon the first act began to a packed house.

The first act was made up of very funny, very loud clowns. They shot fake canons and honked horns and caused the crowd to lift the big-top with their laughter. No one noticed the chittering noise from the center area of the tent. No one noticed that Mr. Frasetto had consumed some very potent drink and forgot to put his monkeys away after they finished putting up the tent. Soon, the next act opened in the center arena. It was a very pretty lady with a pink costume, a pink horse and a pink poodle – the classic “dog and pony” show. After the poodle leaped upward and did back flips on the horse’s back and the crowd oohed and aahed at each new feat, something very strange happened. A money poop flew out of the center of the big top and knocked the poodle head over heels. A raucous cacophony of monkey shrieks startled everyone and in a heart-beat dozens of monkey poops pelted the horse and lady. (Monkey see, monkey do) The horse startled and plunged out of the ring, knocking down the guy-ropes and the center pole of the tent. The whole thing collapsed and miraculously no animal or human was harmed. The show was a disaster.

As with all fables, this one has a very simple moral. You can use as many trained monkeys as you want to get the show going but once it’s performance time you better make sure they are locked up in their cages. For trainers this means you can use any props necessary to get a behavior to happen but any you use will have to be removed before the behavior can be dependable. This includes things like giving double commands, pushing a dog’s rear downward to cause him to sitl, clickers, prong collars, e-collars, and treats. Contrary to fantasies of early behaviorists, there is no advantage to avoiding trained monkeys – they are the tools of our trade. Meaning that “Free Shaping” simply wastes more time that it would take to eliminate the props used to rapidly cause a behavior to happen.

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