Can you tell us about how your interests led to your profession? Did you begin with an interest in animals, or otherwise?
I began my studies in psychology (I had no idea this would turn into behavior analysis) because I was interested in improving the services of people with mental retardation and children culturally disadvantaged in Mexico. Although I care a great deal about the welfare of animals, I never thought I would be involved to the extent that I am now. Like almost everyone, we had a dog in the house when I was young and he was special to me, but I had to share him with six brothers!
How did your program at North Texas begin?
Animal training began at the University of North Texas because I was assigned to teach a class in respondent and operant conditioning and I did not have a lab for the students to see, in practice, how the principles of behavior work. Then I remembered that my professor, Og Linsdley, in one of his graduate courses, had assigned us as one of our projects, to train a pet of our own (or find a friend with a pet). So my first year of teaching the course, I did the same. Given the enthusiasm of the students and the learning produced, I began to think this worked very well.
That year, one of my students (Tony Cammilleri) became very interested in animal training and I arranged for him to do an internship at the San Diego zoo. Then Dawnery Ferguson, another student, approached me with the idea of doing her thesis with horses. At first I wasn't sure, since there was no precedent. But then I thought that if she could find a socially relevant problem that was of importance for horse owners, it would be a good research topic. She chose trailer loading. That was the first research project and it was published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Around that time, I invited Bob and Marion Bailey to visit UNT to give a talk and for the next two or three years they gave their chicken workshop as part of the class. In subsequent classes (both undergraduate and graduate) I incorporated more experiences and more and more students became interested in animal training and research.
One student, Eddie Fernandez, and a group of other students approached me and asked how they could make a career out of this and receive more training. I told them that it would be helpful to form a student organization to promote themselves and that the mission of the organization should be a scientific approach to the welfare of animals and the promotion of positive interactions between humans and animals. That is how the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals, or ORCA (and its associated listserv to discuss animal training topics, the Animal Reinforcement Forum, or ARF) was born under the leadership of Eddie, now at University of Indiana with William Timberlake at the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior.
Then my student Nicole Dorey further developed the mission and expanded the scope and settings of ORCA. Nicole is now at the University of Exeter in the UK working with gorillas at the Paignton Zoo. Currently, ORCA is under the leadership of Kelly Snider. She and the other students are working in a variety of settings tackling new and exciting frontiers.
Of course, during the early years we also had Karen Pryor in for a workshop and she generated enthusiasm and furthered the commitment to positive approaches to training and gave the students all kinds of wonderful and rich ideas about the use of the clicker. In recent years, Gary Wilkes has visited and, as a result of my involvement in ClickerExpo, Virginia Broitman, Sherri Lipman, and Melissa Alexander also have come to share their talents and knowledge with the students.
ORCA members are doing controlled research projects in applied, or uncontrolled, settings. What are the challenges?
Well, the challenge is to achieve control in those settings. I think it is a myth that controlled research can only be done in laboratory settings. The whole premise of applied behavior analysis is that you can do experimental analysis with socially relevant behavior in the relevant settings and be immediately useful. The first choice is to study the phenomenon where it happens, if an experimental analysis cannot be done under the natural conditions then the lab or the clinic would be the next choice. ORCA research has shown us that one can achieve experimental control in zoos, farms, homes, shelters and parks. Sometimes, however, this is not easy. When this happens, I tell students that they are lucky, that nature has a gift for them. I'll tell them that the problem is a chance for discovery and remind them of Pavlov's words: "Control your conditions and you will see order." This gets the students thinking about possibly relevant variables and how to manipulate them. For the most part they are successful in achieving control and consequently learn something about behavior.
Another benefit of doing research in the applied settings is that students are required to learn and exhibit the professional and personal behavior necessary to maintain their research setting. In addition to research projects ORCA has a number of ongoing training projects based on particular needs or problems for particular settings. ORCA does the training and then transfers the process to the relevant people.
What are a few of your students' research projects?
ORCA began working with a Doberman rescue project in Fort Worth, Texas. At the time we wanted to increase the adoptability of the dogs. We wanted to teach some simple obedience behaviors and tricks. During that time, one of our main concerns was to develop procedures, measurement systems, and designs that would allow us to evaluate the acquisition of behavior. We tried to apply what we learned from Dawnery's thesis about documenting the shaping process.
After that experience, another student, Paula Murphy, began working with the SPCA of Dallas. She developed an assessment procedure that would improve dog placements and decrease recidivism. Through her assessment procedures we could identify things like living conditions and compatibility with children. Eddie Fernandez made connections with the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainsville, Texas. Our first job was to train the animals in the petting zoo not to hurt children! Among many other research projects, Eddie completed his master's thesis at this zoo. He demonstrated the tremendous advantage of using the clicker during halter training of sheep and goats. His study is now under review in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. We have another study on preference assessments published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
Other projects at the Frank Buck Zoo included target training for a group of tamarin monkeys, decreasing stereotypic behavior in bears, and enrichment and husbandry procedures for several other species. Kim Smith researched the effects of the delay between the click and treat. Nicole Dorey's thesis was conducted at one of our other sites, Animal Edutainment, Inc. She decreased the self-injurious behavior (biting and hair pulling) of a baboon. This study is under review in the Journal of Zoo Biology. We are also preparing a manuscript for publication on a group training procedure for tamarins to discriminate their own targets.
More recent completed projects have included work by Nicole Byrd on the effects of negative reinforcement during training with dogs, "The Poisoned Cue," Melissa Morehead on the transition from negative to positive reinforcement in fearful cows, and Francisco Gomez in training variability in "low response" dogs that have been deemed clicker "untrainable." Each of these studies has or will be presented at our professional scientific conference and will be prepared for publication. Current projects underway include the development of assessment procedures to evaluate enrichment procedures for stereotypic bears (Katie Kalafut), several research protocols to study the click-click-treat versus the click-treat technique (Pam Wennmacher, Rachel Dunham, Michelle Lamancusa), and a protocol to treat dog-dog and dog-human aggression (Kellie Snider).
I do want to say, and I hope you can tell, how important student involvement is to me. They are our future and it is important that they learn to stand on our shoulders and go beyond our knowledge and skills. That is one of the reasons I have been so happy that ClickerExpo has embraced their participation. Involvement in the Expos has enriched their experience and I feel our work is much better because of this.
Can you tell us about your student Nicole Dorey's work with primates in England?
Well, I am very proud of Nicole. After she left UNT, she was accepted to complete her doctoral studies at Exeter University in Leeds, England. There she is co-coordinator (with Dr. Vicky Melfi) of the Behavioural Husbandry Working Group. She assists with current and potential training programs for husbandry and veterinary routines on a range of species at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park, and is undertaking research to investigate the impact of training on the behavior and biology of species at the zoo.
Nicole is also organizing the Second Zoo Animal Training Workshop: Zoo animal learning and management workshop to be held in June 2006. As a research assistant in the science department at the Paignton Zoo, she supervises undergraduate honors research projects at the zoo and assists on the Zoo Conservation Biology master of science program. The BBC recently interviewed Nicole and taped her clicker training gorillas at the zoo. Her work demonstrates the impact of training in a zoo animal's life.
What is the impact of training that Nicole and other zoo-based researchers and trainers observe?
We see significant changes: a baboon with a history of self-injurious behavior, which ceases after clicker training begins, for example. A lot of our work is about is improving the interactions between keepers and animals. Much more can be done toward employing training to improve the quality of life of zoo animals. I'd like to develop a project in which we partner with veterinarians who are versed in the physiology of animals. What are the muscles an animal needs to move to increase health and longevity? What clicker trained behaviors can we use to exercise those muscles? Kay Laurence is exploring this idea with older dogs; it may be of value to zoo animals, as well.
We are grateful that you have joined KPCT at several ClickerExpos. What do you find of value at the Expo, for yourself and others?
Expo is a great way to disseminate behavior analysis. During Karen's last visit to UNT, she told us about ClickerExpo, annual conferences that would bring together trainers and researchers and teachers from all areas of clicker training and applied behavior analysis. We immediately embraced her vision and felt that it was an excellent way to disseminate positive techniques and keep the "clicker" momentum going and, as she says, "take it to the next level." This is important for me because, although behavior analysis has very valuable knowledge, the academic and scientific communities don't communicate to the world at large very well. ClickerExpo accomplishes this very well.
More and more people know about positive reinforcement and its applications through clicker training; it seems more of a grass-roots (or bottom up) movement coming from pet owners who care deeply for the well-being of their pets and want the best for them. Once we see that positive reinforcement pays off in one area, it can then be expanded to other areas of application such is being done with TAGteach. During Karen's last visit, she also showed us the beginning of the TAGteach work and it immediately caught my attention. I dream of the day that every sports coach will have a clicker in their hand! I thought to myself that this could be the cheapest and most effective behavioral technology ever invented. By asking the coach (or teacher) to communicate with the tag (and to stop the nag) the whole relationship changes and becomes more effective and happier. To me, this is important, and I will always be willing to help pursue these goals in any way I can.
ClickerExpos are also a wonderful way to learn from some of the best trainers in the world. The faculty of ClickerExpo are very good examples to watch and match. That is one reason it is important that my students to attend Expo, so they can also see the tremendous value of what excellent trainers have to offer to behavior analysis. I have learned a lot from the faculty and they have made me understand shaping to levels that I could not have done by myself. The good news is that so far I do not see any end. Every ClickerExpo takes me to the next level.
What are a few of the things you have learned from the other faculty members at ClickerExpo?
There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge about training within the ClickerExpo faculty. It is fascinating to see the clever and elegant ways they use the clicker to teach all kind of things to many species, including humans. In my first Expo, for example, it very much impressed me to see Virginia and Sherri demonstrate how to shape "Leave it" (or "off") with a dog from the audience. It was done so fast and elegantly!
More recently Ken Ramirez has shown us how to teach matching-to-sample to dogs. In addition to learning from these demonstrations, I also learn from our discussions about training, research, and concepts. One example is of course the poisoned cue (thanks Karen). Another example is Kay Laurence's notion of microshaping. Her point reminded me of the importance of defining behavior as a movement cycle with a definite beginning and end. Ogden Lindsley used to say that behavior is not over until the organism is in the position of doing another behavior.
The alternative and I think more popular approach is to think of behavior in terms of end results or final behavior (e.g., touching the ball). In a two-minute video contained in Clicker Clips Intermediate, she contrasted the two approaches and showed that ignoring the beginnings and concentrating on the ends of the movement cycle has consequences for the speed and precision of the shaping of behavior. Reinforcing small beginnings before you move on to the next approximation produces faster learning and more controlled and clean movement; not to forget that a high rate of reinforcement in turn produces happy organisms. Another example of the benefits of our interactions during ClickerExpo is the ongoing discussion with Alexandra Kurland about the nature of negative reinforcement and its applications in training. So far the interactions with Expo faculty have been very productive and rich in ideas.