The State of Our Profession and the Science of Applied Animal Behavior

Jim Ha, PhD, CAABscience ethology animal behavior

I am sitting in the New Orleans International Airport, waiting for my (much delayed) flight to Atlanta (severe weather!), and on to home in Seattle. The purpose of my travel to the Big Easy, and specifically, to a small hotel with conference facilities in the French Quarter, was to attend something called the Interdisciplinary Forum for Applied Animal Behavior (IFAAB). IFAAB brings together, by invitation only, no more than 30 of the top Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) and Board-certified Veterinary Behaviorists in the country. Each attendee must make a presentation to their colleagues, presentations designed to stir up discussion and even dissension as much as simply being lectures on new discoveries. I have attended IFAAB in the past, in addition to more traditional meetings for a professional animal behaviorist with interests in both the research and clinical ends of our field. These more traditional meetings include 25 consecutive years of attending the meetings of the Animal Behavior Society (the certifying body for CAABs) as well as attendance at several meeting of the International Ethological Congress, the American Society of Primatologists, and others too numerous to count.

But the IFAAB meetings are different: animal behavior is a longstanding academic discipline dating back to Charles Darwin’s work and well before, but the clinical side is very new. Both CAAB and vet-board certification for behavior was established only in the 90’s, and to this day there are only about 50 of each in the country. There is very little research in applied animal behavior, and because of this, so much of what we do has had to be learned by trial-and-error (which is not necessarily a bad way to do it, just not always the most efficient or accurate), and handed down to new entrants in the field through avenues like IFAAB and the internship program that CAS is establishing with the University of Washington.

Given that much of what we have learned has been very personal, one-on-one, and very much in a vacuum, it is also not surprising that we don’t always agree on what it is we have learned. So these IFAAB meetings are always interesting: it is a group of people who realize that we all have a single-minded passion to help companion animals and their owners, and who have learned that they need each other and the knowledge that we have learned collectively. And yet, we come from a wide range of backgrounds, and as I have said, we have in some cases learned different things, different ways of accomplishing our task.

The upshot of this is that outsiders, newcomers or invited guests like equipment makers (we had a [very successful] inventor looking for new ideas at this meeting: fun!), always marvel at the degree to which we pound tables, argue, mutter, and disagree during the day-long presentations, and then all head to dinner together perfectly happily, supporting one another in the recent loss of a beloved herding dog, or the latest troubles with a teenager, all evening. It’s a fantastic meeting, an important opportunity to learn and to support each other. And a way to rationalize a little sunshine in March too!!

What did we discuss this year? Well, many of the topics will be showing up in blog entries here in the near future, but here’s a short list: the ability to train dogs to increase the variety in their behavioral repertoires, the effectiveness of new devices for cat environmental enrichment and dog leash control, several presentations on how to increase the amount, and improve the quality, of research in clinical animal behavior (one major factor: $$$ and how to raise funds), a new socialization program for fearful cats, competitive foraging in dogs, reading micro-expressions and what they tell us about emotional state in humans and dogs, assessing training techniques using heart rate, how the training of military and police dogs differs from pets, and the proper role of inhibition devices in training. Whew! And that still left time for the arguments.

So exhausted and ready to get home, but feeling reinvigorated about our field and the opportunities to help our clients, I await the call to board that delayed flight to Atlanta and on to home!

Comments

  1. Great Post!! Thank you very much!

  2. I would very much like to see a blog post on the discussioin about the differences between training military and police dogs and pet dogs. I’ve been having this discussion recently with some colleagues.

  3. Marilyn,

    See my blog on confrontational training techniques. My point is that confrontation (ok, punishment) based techniques can be very effective in the hands of highly qualified trainers, with dogs of particular temperament and upbringing (like, say, police and military dogs!). But in the hands of the inexperienced trainer (like, say, most pet dog owners) with dogs of inappropriate temperament and upbringing, punishment techniques have a strong potential for producing a lot of negative side-effects like anxiety. Positive reinforcement techniques, while one can argue the relative effectiveness in the hands of the unskilled, are very unlikely do damage, to make things worse. Hence I am very opposed to any suggestion that pet dog owners should use punishment or confrontational techniques with a high degree of training and assessment of the dog. This is different than saying that no one should ever train any dog with punishment techniques.

    Hope this helps! If you have a specific, or additional, question, let me know!

    Cheers,
    Jim Ha

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