Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Review: Reaching the Animal Mind

I picked up this book with the intention to better understand the positive reinforcement branch of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning was coined by the behaviourist B.F. Skinner. Skinner believed that internal thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behaviour; basically his theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviours we exhibit daily. It's insightful to see these theories applied to creatures big and small.

Karen Pryor's ethological expertise gives her an edge to train animals, that is traditionally out of reach from the "old school" trainers. She understands basic biology and behaviour of the animal and is able to leverage that information when training. It's interesting to read her experiences with dolphins of varying species, fish, octopi, dogs, ponies (presumably horses too), cats and even humans. The chapters are made up of mini stories and exhibit examples of what she is trying to convey in both detail and a particularly honest tone; she lays out her thinking process as well as her outcomes--successful or not. She gains a reader's attention and trust quickly... as if she's telling you the story directly!

Her subject is, as the title outlines, reaching (deep into) the animal mind; humans included. Her initial foray into the training is kind of accidental and developed based purely on her innate scientific mind, if you will. She doesn't have a formal graduate degree in animal behaviour or the such but she's keen and observant and thinks critically of what she perceives. The concept of her training is derived through the animal's natural behaviours and then positively reinforced, to encourage those favourable behaviours. Her story telling method builds through small blocks (much like clicker training!) and aids the reader to understand. To further enhance the stories and observations, she has a website that lists references and resources about the chapter topics as well as videos of exactly what happened.

The best part about it? You can take something away, after completing the book and start your own clicker training. And if you don't, you have a renewed insight into the mind as well as animals as thinking, reacting and feeling creatures. The training success is incredible; animals learn at an astonishing rate. I have enlisted Buckingham on my clicker training trek and we are working on a few novel tricks and "good behaviours". Yes, Buckingham is a cat; and he's completely trainable. Most cats already have many desirable behaviours but when you want to have some fun with the little guy, clicker training is by far the best way to teach a cat. After all, when has punishment ever worked on a cat? Good luck to ya.

Clicker training goes beyond just telling an animal to do something because you said so... you develop a teacher and student relationship where you are asking him to think about what it is that you want of it and then associating a cue with that behaviour. He is happy to do it b/c he successfully learned it on his own and received something from it--he's basically playing! And what creature doesn't enjoy playing and then getting treats from it?

Karen doesn't just stop at how to accomplish this technique through plenty of examples but she looks into the science/biology behind it. She seeks out members of the academic arena to better understand the way the clicker training works and you have proof that this isn't just some whacky hippie science based on anecdotal observations. In my opinion, the only way to be sure that you're not just imagining things.

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