Current Research

ORCA members conduct research related to animal behavior and training. These research projects help improve the care and training of both domestic and exotic animals. Projects are conducted in a variety of settings, including animal rescues and shelters, zoos, and in homes. ORCA members often work together on projects, with senior members teaching and advising newer ORCA members.

ORCA research has been published in academic journals and has been presented at national and international conferences. The results directly benefit other institutions and professionals who are concerned with animal welfare.

Current Projects

Teaching a horse to say “no”

Project Members: Maasa Nishimuta

“Having choices” is an interesting concept in animal training as well as delivering service to people. What does it mean when we say animals have choices? Do they really have choices? Important considerations when we think about this are coercion (Goldiamond, 1974/2002) and supplemental reinforcement. This is because those control may influence the animal’s behavior. If we are not familiar with those control, we may interpret their behavior as if the animal like to do it.

One element that can be added for our observation and interpretation is that the animal can say “no” to the environment. The purpose of this project is to investigate how to teach a horse to say “no,” which is a clear signal for both the horse and the handler.

This project is currently in progress.

Is It Errorless? A Replication of Terrace (1963) with Humans

Project Members: Maasa Nishimuta, Sarah Sumner

Two procedures that are often used by practitioners to reduce errors during teaching are superimposition and fading. Early research by Terrace (1963) showed that these procedures could be used with pigeons to transfer stimulus control from a color discrimination to a shape discrimination with zero responses to the s-delta. The present study first attempted to replicate Terrace’s superimposition and fading procedures with college students. Unlike Terrace’s pigeons, our participants made some errors during the procedure, often during the final fading step. For several participants, when the shape stimuli were presented for the first time without the colors, the individual performed at chance level. During the second part of this study, another fading phase was added, in an attempt to further reduce errors.  This included slowly reducing the size of the colored circles. However, some participants still continued to make errors. Further variations are currently being tested with additional participants.

Collateral Behavior during DRL Schedules: A Systematic Replication of Bruner & Revusky (1961)

Project Members: Jessica Auzenne, Leah Herzog

Differential reinforcement of low rates (DRL schedules) have been used in applied settings to reduce rates of responding. Bruner and Revusky (1961) studied response patterns in humans during a DRL schedule using an apparatus with four keys. Although only one key was part of the DRL contingency, the experimenters observed identifiable patterns of responding on the other three keys. They suggested that these alternative, collateral responses helped the participants meet the DRL requirement. For our research, we are interested in how the number of available alternatives affects collateral behaviors.

Teaching the Operant Quadrant

Project Members: Jessica Auzenne

This research is focused on designing an instructional program to teach animal trainers about behavior analytic principles. Our goal is to create a program that will teach learners to read a scenario then to identify whether it describes a positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment contingency.

Teaching a Puppy to be Calm for Food

Project Members: Alyssa Schmidt

Receiving food can be a highly stimulating and exciting event for dogs, and especially young puppies. If owners and trainers are not careful, these excited behaviors can be unknowingly reinforced. That is what happened with April, a three month old labrador retriever puppy. She began barking and jumping as soon as she heard the rustle of the bag of food. With the use of chaining and shaping, an intervention was designed to teach April what behaviors to do instead. Firstly the behavior chain that was already in place, that signaled she would receive her food for barking and jumping, needed to be removed. Her meals were portioned into sandwich bags and she was fed from the hand, instead of from the bowl. Through shaping, April was taught to sit and wait quietly in her exercise pen. Finally, at the end of the shaping plan April was able to hear her food being prepared and placed in a bowl in front of her, all while sitting quietly!

Teaching Horses to be Calm During Clipping

Project Members: Alison Hardaway

Performance horses and working horses are commonly subjected to a hair removal process called clipping. Many horses find this to be unpleasant, which results in the horse engaging in unwanted behaviors and which can endanger the handler (Yarnell, et al. 2013). As a result, horses sometimes must be sedated to be clipped (Glough, 1997). However, the long-term effects of repeated sedation are unknown. The current study evaluated whether a negative reinforcement shaping procedure could be used to teach horses to be calm during clipping so that sedation would not be required. The shaping procedure included three stages: touching the horse with the hand, touching the horse with the clippers while they were turned off, and clipping the horse. Each stage included a series of shaping steps. At each step, if the horse reacted, the clippers or hand stayed in place until the horse emitted a calm response. A calm response resulted in the removal of the clippers for a brief period of time. Preliminary results from four horses showed the procedure to be effective. All horses were able to be clipped after less than an hour without the use of sedatives. Data collection is in progress for additional horses.


Project Members: Hayden Heath, Nolan Williams

Autoshaping is produced by repeated non-contingent presentations of a preferred stimulus immediately following the illumination of a manipulandum. The result is consistent operation of the manipulandum (Brown & Jenkins, 1968). Autoshaping shaping has been observed in both pigeons and humans (Gonzalez, 1974; Picker & Poling, 1982; Wilcove & Miller, 1974; Pithers, 1985). When different stimuli are paired with different probabilities of food delivery, allocation of autoshaped responses varies accordingly (Picker & Poling, 1982). The simultaneous choice between these stimuli has been shown to be a sensitive dependent measure of autoshaped response strength (Picker & Poling, 1982). Experimenters studying autoshaping in humans have used levers similar to those in animal operant chambers and coins as the stimulus delivered noncontingently based on FT schedules (Wilcove & Miller, 1974; Pithers, 1985).  This study was an attempt to replicate the Picker and Poling results with humans using the portable operant research and teaching laboratory (PORTL) designed by Rosales-Ruiz and Hunter  (2014). This study used the presentation of different buttons as CS’s and the delivery of clicks followed by tokens as the stimuli to be delivered. Simultaneous presentation of the three buttons followed by 3 different schedules of reinforcement was used to replicate the choice trials of Picker and Poling. Successful replication of the autoshaping phenomenon was achieved. Analysis of the results indicated that the autoshaped responding observed by our subjects was an operant phenomenon. Supporting data and directions for future research will be discussed.  

Exploring Conditioned Reinforcement using PORTL

Project Members: Maasa Nishimuta

Researchers sometimes use conditioned reinforcers that are delivered after a specific number of responses to help facilitate performances on large-ratio schedules (e.g. Findley and Brady, 1965). Sometimes the stimuli that are used as conditioned reinforcers are “paired” with the unconditioned reinforcer before they are used on the large ratio schedule, other times they are not (e.g. Stubbs, 1971). The current experiment explored three types of stimuli and their ability to maintain college students’ performance on a large-ratio schedule. The first stimulus was paired with a conditioned reinforcer, the second type was a novel stimulus, and the third was introduced outside of the context of the task but was not paired with anything. The experiment consisted of five phases. After establishing an FR5 performance, each of the three stimuli and an extinction condition were tested to see if they could facilitate performance on an FR100. Overall, the results showed that the stimulus that was paired with the conditioned reinforcer and the novel stimulus were able to facilitate performance on the FR100, the stimulus that was given prior exposure but no pairing with a conditioned reinforcer did not facilitate performance.

Teaching a Cat to Go to a Safe Place in Response to a Tornado Siren

Project Members: Isabel Cunningham, Regan Garden

Due to changes in national legislation and public awareness, new attention is being paid to emergency planning and management of both household pets and captive wildlife. Help with training relating specifically to emergency preparedness is a growing area in applied animal behavior. This project provides one example of how backward chaining, stimulus prompting, and transferring stimulus control can be used to train a household pet (a domestic cat) to go to a designated place of safety during a tornado when the owner is away from home. The learner in this study was a domestic shorthair household pet adopted from a local animal shelter. Training domestic animals and captive animals to go independently to a safe location can improve animal welfare. Similar projects could increase human compliance to evacuation procedures and restrictions, protect critical endangered species and zoo assets, and enhance public perception of facilities housing captive animals. Training domestic animals in safety behaviors can also be a valuable educational tool when training children about emergency situations and responses and can be a great way to share information and increase excitement for behavior analysis within the community.

High School Education Program at the Give Them Love Animal Shelter

Project Members: Laura Will

Many students who are preparing for college are not aware of the wide variety of careers that involve working with animals. This education program is designed to give local high school students a unique opportunity to explore behavior analysis and participate in hands-on work with animals. The curriculum consists of classroom learning and hands-on projects where they are able to apply the techniques they have learned in the classroom.

Establishing Equivalence Relations in the Dog’s Natural Environment

Project Members: Kim Vail

The phenomenon of stimulus equivalence has been demonstrated mainly with humans. However, dog owners have anecdotally reported equivalence (or what appears to be equivalence) in their canine companions. The present experiment tests the possibility of equivalence with a 10-year-old-female-Husky-Doberman. During the first phase of the experiment the dog was trained to perform identity matching and was successful with minimal training. During the second phase (A-B training) the dog was trained to perform name-object relations, and then was trained symbol to object relations (C-B). Finally, the dog will be tested on name-symbol relations (A-C). Results are in progress.

Give Them Love: An Experimental Demonstration of Petting As a Reinforcer For Shelter Dogs

Project Members: Chase Owens, Laura Will, Morgan Katz, Sean Will, Tayla Cox

Common reinforcers used while training dogs include food, toys, and access to favorite activities. Gentle stroking and petting is a less recognized, but equally effective reinforcer. The present study is an experimental demonstration of the use of touch as a reinforcer to teach acceptable behaviors to dogs. Five shelter dogs that jumped up on people were chosen as subjects. Five conditions were used to determine which environmental antecedents resulted in the dog jumping. These conditions included entering the dog’s kennel with a rope toy, bowl of food, or a leash, entering the kennel while talking to the dog and petting the dog, and entering the kennel but doing nothing. Using a systematic petting procedure known as Give Them Love, touch was used as a reinforcer to teach alternative behaviors in all conditions where jumping had occurred. The study used a multiple baseline design across conditions and across dogs. The intervention resulted in an immediate reduction in jumping and an increase in sitting and lying for all dogs. For dogs that required training in multiple conditions, training time decreased for each subsequent condition.

Give Them Love Shelter Program

Project Members: Chase Owens, Sean Will

Animal shelters around the world struggle to get dogs adopted and to ensure dogs have a high quality of life while at the shelter. Shelter dogs ideally should receive proper medical care, accurate temperament assessments, appropriate environmental enrichment, and individualized behavior programs. This project will provide a sustainable behavioral system that addresses the job needs of staff and volunteers and the care of the dogs. A four-level volunteer training program teaches volunteers to use job aides to insure the shelter is a healthy and enriched environment for the dogs, conduct behavior assessments, and implement individualized training programs for each dog. Dogs receive training in one or more of the following areas based on a behavior assessment: fear, aggression, and how to politely and patiently solicit and receive attention from humans. The ultimate goal is to reduce euthanasia rates and increase successful adoptions.

The More the Merrier or the Bigger the Better? Comparing Dimensions of Treats for Dogs

Project Members: Emily Rulla

Dog trainers manipulate the number and size of treats they deliver, such as by “jackpotting” (delivering multiple treats for especially good behavior) or giving very small treats to avoid satiation. However, not much is known about how such manipulations affect training. This study uses a paired-choice preference assessment to determine if there is a preference for one large treat or two smaller treats. Once the preference is determined, the preferred and non-preferred treats will be tested on actual training tasks to determine if there is a correspondence between the preference assessment and the performance on the training task. The subject for this study is a nine-year-old Chihuahua mix. In the preference assessment, the dog is presented with two bowls, each covered with a visual stimulus. A red circle covers the bowl containing one large treat and a blue square covers the bowl containing two small treats. The experimenter uncovers the bowl the dog noses. After a preference is determined, the effectiveness of one large or two small treats will be tested with a simple task (touching a target) and a difficult task (entering a crate that has previously been used for trips to the veterinarian). Results in progress.

Treating separation anxiety in a dog using a stimulus control procedure

Project Members: Morgan Katz

Separation anxiety in dogs is a critical problem for pet owners. Owners with such dogs cannot leave the dog unattended for any length of time because of behaviors such as destructive chewing, barking and howling, and inappropriate elimination (even with otherwise housetrained dogs). Separation anxiety is commonly treated with a combination of behavioral and pharmacological interventions. The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that the relaxation induced by a drug can become conditioned to new environmental stimuli, after which the drug can be successfully withdrawn using a fading procedure. A dog with a history of generalized anxiety and separation anxiety was treated using a routine that included the benzodiazepine Oxazepam and several new environmental arrangements. After observing behavior changes such as a reduction in vocalizing and pacing, the dosage of medication was gradually decreased to zero, while leaving the routine of environmental arrangements in place. No change in behavior was observed as the medication was reduced. However, stopping the routine of environmental arrangements resulted in the immediate return of anxiety related behaviors. This was demonstrated using a multi-element single-subject design. Further research conditions explore the critical aspects of the control by the environment arrangements.