Dr. Andrew McLean explains Learning Theory, Equine Research, Empathy - Equine Health and Welfare

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Dr. Andrew McLean explains Learning Theory, Equine Research, Empathy

HCBC Staff
Created: December 10, 2015

That is what is so fantastic about understanding learning theory: It frees you to a large extent from being spoon-fed about training and removes the glass ceiling of ignorance and secrecy.

A decade ago, a handful of ethologists—that is, scientists studying animal behavior--came together to create the world’s first International Equitation Science Symposium (ISES). I was one of them. The term “equitation science” had only recently been coined, and our dream of informing horse people about what research is revealing about horse cognition and behavior would soon become a reality. We wanted to share what we know about horses rather than just what we assume.

Of course, we were and are careful to recognize that horses have been trained for millennia, and so there is some great horse knowledge out there. But sometimes things are not always as they seem. The scientific method has in many areas of human endeavor shown truths that are different to our expectations and imaginings.

So we plowed ahead with arranging that first symposium. It was to be held at my Equine Behaviour Centre here in Australia, and I arranged to have a lecture room constructed for the 40-odd expected delegates. Ultimately, 95 turned up to hear the eight papers we managed to pull together.

Well, what was to emerge in the coming years was truly astounding: The International Society for Equitation Science became possibly the fastest-growing scientific society in recent times. Each year we held a symposium, until the event’s exponential growth dictated it become a conference. As of 2015, around 800 papers have been presented at these conferences. People’s interest in equitation science has flourished, and with it the impetus for research.

So, where do elephants come into all of this? Well, during this time when the equitation science community was growing by leaps and bounds, I was approached to help develop training protocols for working elephants in Nepal using the same learning theory (the study of animal learning processes or nurture) that applies to horses and, indeed, all animals. As ridden animals, elephants could easily fit into the paradigm of training cue/response entities as horses do, so it wasn’t too big a leap to simply cross out “horse” and write “elephant” on the initial training program. Since that time about eight years ago, I have been to Asia many times and have honed my elephant-training skills as well as my mahout (individuals who work with, ride, and tend elephants) teaching skills, which is really the most essential component. We have developed a nonprofit training company called HELP: Human Elephant Learning Programs (www.h-elp.org).

My HELP clinics focus on teaching the mahout instructors in the elephant camps throughout Asia so they can take that knowledge back to their individual states. I often reflect how, in the horse world, I’m teaching some of the wealthiest people, while with the elephants I'm teaching some of the poorest and least educated. Yet the latter group always seems more open to change and logic. I have written a book on humane elephant training so mahouts can learn autonomously and can be ultimately free from dependency on others. That is what is so fantastic about understanding learning theory: It frees you to a large extent from being spoon-fed about training and removes the glass ceiling of ignorance and secrecy.

Unlike horses, elephants are not domestic animals. Working with them has taught me the ubiquity of learning theory and just how safe and reliable even a wild animal can be when trained with best practice learning theory, providing other ethological needs (such as space and access to forage and other elephants) are also met. Best practice learning theory of course removes any need for the punishments that plague traditional training systems because of benevolent/malevolent mindsets that arise from anthropomorphism--attribution of human traits to animals. In other words, traditionally, a trainer might expect elephants to be brave because of their size and strength and, thus, might punish the elephant when it reacts in fear. But, what they’re doing is teaching the animal that it has no control over its situation and pain may occur randomly. Like all animals, elephants are not brave or reliable if they suffer from unpredictable and uncontrollable pain, mostly via punishment.

Exactly why do elephants need to be brave? Simply, they have an important and life-saving job: They must seek out poachers who are rapidly exterminating fellow members of this magnificent species in National Parks and forests. There is no better all-terrain vehicle than an elephant. Plus, they can be trained to sniff out humans, as their sense of smell is greater than a bloodhound’s.

Yet it is not only the poaching mission for which elephants need to be brave and reliable. During these expeditions they might encounter dangerous animals such as big cats which can unnerve even a full-grown elephant. Animals and people that are unable to predict what might happen and unable to avoid pain (in contrast to animals in the wild that have control over their own lives and can fight or flee to avoid pain) may weaken and panic in the face of challenge. I believe it’s the same as raising children: If you are nurturing, yet rule-consistent, you will raise children who ultimately develop empathy—the ability to understand another individual's condition from their perspective.

With the pendulum swung back to humans, I want to conclude that empathy is vital for those of us proposing better animal welfare. If it doesn’t drive your treatment of people as well as animals, the next generation will not grasp it. I believe the way forward for ISES lies not only in the truths that we believe we speak, but also by the example we set as humans. Those who live and work with animals are entitled to the same dignity and respect as the elephants and horses themselves.
About the Author
Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, Dipl. Ed

Andrew McLean, PhD, BSc, Dipl. Ed., founded the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, in Victoria, and is an honorary fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science. A renowned horse trainer and public speaker, he’s authored five books and more than 35 peer-reviewed articles

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