Trying to pry hubby loose from the TV and over to the dinner table, but find yourself competing (once again!) with THE BIG GAME? Or calling junior in from playtime? Out of the bathtub? Away from the Game Boy?

If you find yourself using the phrase, “And I mean right now, mister!” then chances are you’ve been left twiddling your thumbs on more than one occasion.

A solution lies in what animal handlers call the limited hold, a window of limited opportunity for reward, which can be gradually narrowed until results are nearly instantaneous.

Humans as well as animals are responsive to limited holds. Often, we’ve been trained without even being aware of it. Just think of how quickly the average person responds to a cell phone vibration. Not quick enough? Oops, sorry. Now you have to retrieve a voice mail, usually far less rewarding – and certainly less immediately gratifying – than chatting live.

If we’re already conditioned to respond to limited holds, then why, oh, why must we so often wait in frustration for those we hold most dear to respond to a simple invitation to the feeding trough?

The problem in daily life is that when the desire for instant gratification (ours) meets perpetual procrastination (theirs), we often find ourselves communicating unintended messages and reinforcing unwanted behaviors.

I mean, when hubby does finally offer a glacially slow response to the dinner call (probably somewhere around halftime), he still gets to eat, right? Possibly even finds his plate piled high, ready and waiting. But maybe he shouldn’t.

And probably he wouldn’t – at least if he was a dolphin in the high stakes world of show business where responding to behavioral cues (and I mean right now, mister!) is what earns show troupe actors their bread and butter. Or at least, their fair share of squid and mackerel.

Veteran animal trainer Karen Pryor first began using limited hold training with a group of spinner dolphins in the 1960s. In preparation for the opening of Sea Life Park in Hawaii, Pryor and her trainers were hard at work shaping a visually spectacular opening for the park’s dolphin show. And what could be more spectacular than a troupe of dolphins bursting from the water, vaulting into the air, and spinning their way to splashdown?

It turned out there was some troubleshooting to take care of first. Several of the dolphins lagged noticeably behind the frontrunners, so that their leaps were taking place while the more eager performers were already downing their fish rewards.

At first, all the animals – including those arriving late to the dinner table – received their fish snacks as long as they performed their spinning leaps. But the show bit was hardly what Pryor had in mind.

The solution: limited hold training.

Starting with a time limit that all the dolphins could manage, the trainers started tapering down on rewards by successive degrees for the latecomers – until arriving at the end of the allotted time interval earned them nothing at all.

And guess what?

The laggards learned in short order to arrive just a hair’s breadth sooner than they previously had. Once all the dolphins were reliably leaping and arriving for fish within the new time margin, the window of opportunity narrowed again. Not by much, just by a little.

Consistency was key. By the time the park opened, all the dolphins were on a three second limited hold between leaping cue and response time – a narrow enough window to wow show audiences with an impressive coordinated leaping behavior.

I’m not advocating not feeding family members when they are late to dinner. But something as simple as latecomers having to dish up their own plates, or get their own silverware can serve as non-confrontational inconveniences – perhaps just enough to set the ball of behavioral change rolling.

On the flip side of the coin, novel rewards can be offered for showing up just a bit earlier than usual. A dinner joke of the day perhaps? Often the cornier the better, so that it gets to be a joke within a joke. Pretty soon, everyone will want a turn at telling the best worst joke they know.

But it doesn’t have to be jokes, and it doesn’t have to be dinnertime for limited hold strategies to be effective. The simple fact is that response times – both slow and fast – are learned behaviors. Which means the good news is they can be adjusted either up or down, under the right conditions.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

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