What is the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference?

As some of you know, I’m involved with ORCA (the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals) a graduate student group at the University of North Texas that conducts research related to animal training and behavior.

In their most recent newsletter, ORCA published an interview with ORCA advisor Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz discussing the origins and purpose of the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. I’ve reprinted the interview below for anyone who is interested in reading it. This awesome conference brings together top animal trainers from all over the world to give lectures about cutting edge ideas and innovations in animal training.

You can find notes from the past conferences in the conference notes section of my website.

What is The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference?

Newsletter writer Katie Rossi caught up with ORCA’s advisor, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, to ask some probing questions about ORCA’s annual conference…

K: What is the purpose of “The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference?”

JRR: The purpose of the conference is to disseminate concepts, innovations, applications, and research about animal training. The conference begins with a keynote speaker who presents about a general topic related to the theory and technology of animal training. This is followed by presentations by some of the world’s top trainers who share strategies and tactics that extend the principles of behavior to particular species or particular behavior. At past conferences we have learned about a wide range of topics, from the history of animal training to using errorless learning to improve shaping to training dogs to help rescue sea turtles after hurricane Katrina. The conference ends with a panel discussion of questions from the audience. I am happy to tell you that at the upcoming conference, ORCA’s research will be part of the program as well.

K: Who is the conference for?

JRR: The conference is not just for animal trainers. Anybody interested in how behavior works, from pet owners to professional trainers, will find value in attending the conference. The speakers are world experts on training and tailor their presentations so that the presentations will be interesting and useful for all who attend the conference. The beginner, the knowledgeable, and the expert will all find the presentations instructional, thought provoking, and even inspirational. You cannot lose with such a stellar lineup.

K: How did the conference come about?

JRR: The idea for the conference came about from conversations between Kay Laurence, Steve and Jenn White, Ken Ramirez, Alexandra Kurland and me. The six of us would get together in the evenings at ClickerExpo for productive and stimulating conversations. Kay even nicknamed our group “the wicked minds.” However, although we had some great conversations at ClickerExpo, we agreed that we needed more time and a more relaxed format to continue to exchange ideas and talk about general issues in animal training.

We thought it would be great to be able to meet every year and share what we were doing and thinking about animal training. Kay suggested that ORCA organize an event to allow us to meet every year. She pointed out that ORCA, as a university student organization, also had the resources needed to host a conference. ORCA loved this idea since one of ORCA’s missions is to disseminate the science of animal training. ORCA students were also excited about how much they would be able to learn by interacting with leaders of the field. Two years after this idea, ORCA held the first Art and Science of Animal Training Conference, largely thanks to the leadership of April Becker, who was the president of ORCA at that time.

Every year ORCA invites a scientist or a leader in the field of animal training as a keynote speaker. The keynote speaker is chosen because of the speaker’s expertise in behavioral research or animal training. The keynote speaker’s purpose is to discuss a concept, theory, or approach to animal training that is not widely known or understood. Following the keynote speaker are presentations by each of the wicked minds. In addition, every year ORCA also invites a guest trainer who is an expert on a topic or species not covered by the other speakers.

K: What is the wicked minds meeting?

JRR: In addition to the public conference, the speakers and ORCA members meet for two additional days to exchange ideas, debate questions and discuss current projects. During this meeting each speaker is given time to present a particular topic, project, or concept for discussion and feedback. The meeting is invigorating and a great way to expand our knowledge and refine our thinking. In addition, ORCA students share their current research projects with the speakers for feedback and suggestions. This helps us refine our research and often raises new questions for future studies. For ORCA students, this is also an excellent experience in their education, as it lets them see how the principles they are learning in the classroom are being used by top experts in the field.

The speakers leave the weekend with plenty of new ideas that they are eager to take home to play with and incorporate into their training programs. The ideas that come out of our meetings are developed and refined into brand new training strategies and procedures, which often become presentation topics at our public conferences in future years. We have been thrilled so far about the outcomes of the conference and private meetings. Our interactions have been productive and rewarding and we look forward to continuing to get to share the products of these discussions with you.

For more information about ORCA’s upcoming animal training conference at UNT, please visit ORCA’s website.

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