Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Rewarding research

Kathryn Mason ’14 works with Shep on overcoming his fear of the Hula-Hoop.

Can positive reinforcement lead to better results in animal behavior modification? Faculty and students are studying miniature horses to find out.

It all began with a casual conversation in the faculty suite in the Mars Center for Science and Technology.

Shari Ackerman-Morris, faculty associate in biology

Biology Faculty Associate Shari Ackerman-Morris was telling Associate Professor of Psychology Kathleen Morgan about the miniature horses that she was training with her daughter’s 4-H group. A longtime horse rider and licensed riding instructor, Ackerman-Morris was interested in applying all-positive reinforcement methods to train these pint-size horses which, at less than three feet tall, can still be very strong.

“It’s not uncommon for these little guys to really pull the kids around,” she observes. “I was interested in exploring other ways for kids and ponies to work together.”

Kathleen Morgan, associate professor of psychology

A five-member team of faculty members and students began researching those ways this summer. What they discover could have important implications far beyond the horse-training world. For pet owners and trainers of other animals, their success with all-positive reinforcement techniques could mean less stressful and better working partnerships between pets and owners, and better-trained pets in less time. And their current work could lead to a new applied behavior analysis research team at Wheaton, which would be yet another opportunity for students to get real-world experience related to their classroom coursework. [Read more...]