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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


24 September 2012

The science of carrots and sticks

This is not Kate. (source)

Hi Julie,

Today I want to tell you all about the great time I had last week. But first, you have to know about my lovely friend, Kate. We originally met through our research group at Monash University. We’re colleagues who have completing our PhD’s (both aiming to complete SOON) in common, but we also share a background in Zoology and the fact we have been juggling our research with our work for the past few years. Kindred spirits!

This is Kate!
Kate works primarily as an animal behaviourist (you can check out her business website, or follow her on facebook), but she is also a media personality, experienced freelance writer and delivers professional and public training workshops. The Melbourne Aquarium asked Kate to come and present to their staff about the ‘Science of Animal Behaviour and Training’ and Kate asked me to come along to help out.

Hello penguins!
I said yes.

Kate’s presentations comprised of theoretical (learning), observational (watching) and practical (doing) exercises. It is always so good to see ongoing professional development in any workplace and the aquarium staff were really engaged and enthusiastic participants. I took lots of fun video footage that you would have seen on our facebook page.

Kate’s a great presenter and someone who believes in the fact we (as people) never stop learning. She lives this belief and engages in lots of ongoing professional training opportunities in furthering her understanding of animal behaviour and how we can influence it. For example, she just got back from learning with Ken Ramirez at Shedd Aquarium and over the past few years has also been to Natural Encounters Inc and done chicken camp with Terry Ryan.

So what does this have to do with dogs? So much!

Animal training specialists understand about animal behaviour (taking into account the individual animal’s history and the effect of the current environment) and the science of learning theory. They use this knowledge to help shape animal behaviour to improve things like animal welfare, enrichment goals and human safety.

Divers do group fish feeds in the large aquarium in front of the public. There are big sharks and stingrays in there.
What’s the most exciting thing about learning from people who train marine mammals, exotic parrots and chickens? They are able to do this using positive reinforcement training methods! Without force. Because good luck trying to train a 1200kg (that’s 2500lb) walrus or 1500kg beluga whale (that’s closer to 3000lb) using aversive techniques. They don’t do prong collars or choke chains that size.

One of the key findings in the Australian Working Dog Survey in 2009 was that the use of aversive training techniques (such as using electric shock collars and correction methods rather than positive reinforcement) was correlated with lack of formal certified education in dog training. If we can help spread information about the practical applications of scientifically established learning theory, we can help to improve training success, the human-animal relationship and animal welfare outcomes – what’s not to like?

If you’d like to find out more, check out the links of the places Kate has done her training courses. I also really like this book by McGreevy and Boakes called ‘Carrots and Sticks: Principles of Animal Training’. It contains two parts, the first is about the general principles of learning theory (including positive reinforcement, fear, punishment and avoidance training and a chapter about animal intelligence) and the second is a whole bundle of case studies (focussing on companion and performance animals, exotic animals and working animals). It’s easy to read, gives you plenty to think about and the use of real life case studies helps to illustrate how the theory can be applied in so many different contexts.

I saw you got some interesting feedback when you asked the peanut gallery what it is about their dogs' looks that prompt them to attribute personality traits. The M.C. commenter wasn't me (just in case you though maybe it was) I do have a big dog though, and he does get called a gentle giant ALL the time. I tend to always fall in love with floppy eared dogs. 

Why is that?!
Please tell me MORE!


Further reading:

McGreevy, PD & Boakes, RA. Carrots and Sticks: Principles of Animal Training. Darlington Press, Sydney, 2011.

Frear, L. (2009). Carrots and Sticks: Principles of Animal Training. Paul McGreevy and Robert Boakes., Integrative and Comparative Biology, 49 (4) 471. DOI: 10.1093/icb/icp016

Haverbeke, A., Laporte, B., Depiereux, E., Giffroy, J.M. & Diederich, C. (2008). Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team's performances, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 113 (1-3) 122. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.11.010

© Mia Cobb 2012
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