Eckerd professor uses grant to study ‘canine creativity’

Published June 12, 2019

Presley Carico crossed her arms and said, “Innovate,” just before her one-year-old black Australian shepherd, Ezra, lifted his paw to receive a treat. When she said it again, Ezra sat and waited for his reward.

Presley, a sophomore animal studies and psychology student from Dothan, Alabama, and Ezra were practicing create/innovate training—a type of routine primarily used to train marine mammals such as dolphins—as a part of the “Creative Canine” research being conducted by animal studies discipline coordinator Lauren Highfill, an Eckerd College professor of psychology and animal studies.

“This command asks the dog to perform any behavior it wants (previously trained or not) as long as it doesn’t repeat a behavior in that session,” Highfill explained. “Dog owners are filming their training for us to code. We also will have dogs come into the lab to work on a problem-solving task, so we can compare dogs trained on create with those not.”

Eckerd College sophomore Presley Carico holding Ezra the dog

Presley Carico with Ezra the dog

The idea for the study came from Highfill learning about a friend who trains marine mammals and then practicing the training on her own dog. The professor is using a nearly $1,500 grant from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers to fund the “citizen science” study. Summer intern Kaitlyn “Katie” Willgohs will collect videos from trainers recruited from around the country and analyze the effectiveness of the training.

“I’ve always been interested in animal behaviors, so when this opportunity came, I was really excited to do it,” said Katie, a junior psychology and animal studies student from Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

Most dogs in the study will be pets, but the outcomes could prove important for a different class of animals.

“The real application here is for working dogs, like scent dogs, who may be stuck on a phase in their training,” Highfill said. “If they keep confusing two similar scents, the handler/trainer can use the create/innovate command to tell the dog to reset or think anew. Basically, it will help them be more creative.”

Professor Highfill standing with Katie Willgohs

Professor Highfill (left) with Katie Willgohs

Thirty-five trainers have showed interest in this project, and 20 have already begun the process by filling out a pet personality survey. After that initial step, Highfill will use the grant funds to provide the participants with a tripod to aid them in recording four training videos. When the videos have been received, she’ll send a gift card in appreciation for their time.

Ezra’s been through create/innovate training once before. Presley learned it while working with marine mammals at an internship last summer and tried it out back then on her pup. She decided to try once again when she heard about Highfill’s study. In her room in the Delta housing complex, Presley took Ezra through his paces. He’s not 100% trained in the create/innovate process yet, but Presley will continue to work with him this summer between her shifts as an intern at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

“Ezra is such a great dog. I exercise him a lot, because as a herding dog living in a dorm room, he has a lot of energy,” she explained.”The ‘create’ behavior is so important because it isn’t high energy. It makes the dogs’ brains think about what they want to do. It’s the mental stimulation they need. Without it, they go and destroy things.”

Ezra has his own Instagram account.