Peta Clarke

We started our first set of webinars in mid-April with Peta Clarke. Peta has been an animal trainer at Taronga Zoo and has trained many different species for movies, TV and commercials. She is an extremely knowledgeable and informative lady and an entertaining and down to earth speaker.

Her webinar ‘Learning about Learning’ involved the science of behaviour change.  Her experience training many different species has given her an immense insight into understanding animal behaviour. Understanding why and how an animal does a behaviour involves understanding the science.

There are 4 different sciences that can be looked at as to how to understand an animal’s behaviour. These aspects will affect how and why the animal behaves in that way.

Medical- the age and physical health of an animal will affect how it behaves. Behaviour is a symptom. For example, if the dog has a physical medical problem it may act differently. Therefore it is important to have your dog vet checked if its behaviour has changed.

Ethology – is a study of an animal at a species level. It involves the evolution of behaviour in the species as a group with specific behavioural traits that are true and common to that species. I.e. innate behaviour. This behaviour is set at birth and is not learnt.

Neurobiology –this science is still evolving and changes with new technology. It involves the structure and function of the brain. Neurotransmitters are modified by the environment and by what the animal experiences.

Behaviourism – this science looks how a behaviour is influenced by the environment. Each individual within a species has to be approached a little differently. Behaviour is the study of one. Therefore the individual animal modifies its behaviour depending on how that individual has experienced the environment.

Applying the science to Dog Training

Traditional dog training (punishment and dominance) was based on Ethology, i.e. that the dog evolved from the wolf and the dog obeys out of respect to a leader. Those methods are now outdated.

Modern dog training now uses Behaviourism. Its stems from the works of scientist BF Skinner and his methods of behaviour analysis.

Now we can mark and reward dogs for a behaviour we want using positive reinforcement. The animal are not obeying us out of respect for us, they are obeying the laws of learning. The animal is behaving based on its past consequences in the setting that it finds itself. Emphasis is placed on the trainer, not the dog and every dog is an individual.

We must remember Behaviour is the Study of One.

We can get general information and foundation about what is typical species behaviour but we must look at the individual animal we are going to train. The individual animal tells us what they like and don’t like by their individual behaviour. E.g. does your dog like or not like to be patted, does it like chicken or does it prefer pork?

Where to start when Training your Dog

There is always more to learn.

Trust the science. The applied behaviour analysis has the answer. So if you have a problem, the answer will be in the science and to learn how to apply it to the real world and becoming better at understanding it involves practicing it.

Practice seeing Antecedents and consequences.  We can’t always look at just behaviour. To influence a behaviour you can change the consequences and change the antecedents, i.e. the environment. Antecedents are the smallest unit of behaviour, eg a cue, it is a stimulus that cues an animal to perform a behaviour.

Find people to learn from. If someone is doing training that you find is fantastic, then learn from them.

Train other species. – this will help you understand how animals learn and will help you understand your dog’s behaviour.

Remember that our dogs won’t always obey us, and this is not what we want, but they will always obey the laws of learning.

Q & A


Are the stimuli that the animal can perceive. It has meaning to the animal. It refers to the environment or preceding events of the behaviour of interest being analysed. Eg. Cues.

When owners want a quick fix.

Treat the owner as an animal also, in that advice should be dictated to the type of person the owner is. When they are in an emotional state, then they are not going to learn while in that state or develop a meaningful relationship with you. I.e. Unlike our dogs, some exotic animals don’t come with an in built level of appreciation of humans.  Therefore we have to build a level of rapport when the animal/human is feeling threatened or vulnerable.

The instructor can interact with their dog rather than just telling the owner what to do.

Walking multiple dogs.

We need as much information as possible when giving advice, so ask more questions. Walking multiple dogs at once is the same as training 4 dogs at once. Therefore the handler needs experience and success at walking 2 or 3 dogs first and then success with different combinations of the dogs.

Apply the method of giving the dog a treat while walking a dog at your side. So look at where and how the handler delivers the reward. I.e. try delivering it behind you if dog is pulling forward. Be consistent, same rules apply if there is one dog or 4.

Before aiming to walk 4 dogs at once, which is a high level activity, they need to start training 4 dogs at once at home at a lower level.

Fear in dogs

The dog needs to have a safe place in its home where no one can impinge on its space.

Understand that the stress chemicals in the brain have a longer shelf life than the happy chemicals. This is because fear is required for survival. It takes at least 72 hours after a traumatic event for the high levels of stress chemicals/glucocorticoids to reduce back to normal levels.

So if you have a stressed/fearful animal, then leave the dog alone for at least a week. Be aware of your body don’t lean over or hug them which will perceived as threatening.

Introduce scatter feeding, allow sniffing in boxes. Sniffing and foraging for food allows the dog to release dopamine and start to feel good. I.e., don’t feed from a bowl.

Aggression in dogs

The dog is in an emotional state. Understand it could be an environmental aspect also. To change the behaviour, need to change the emotional state of the dog.

An example is the story of clouded leopard who was uncomfortable with the keeper passing her enclosure. To solve the problem, the keeper fed the leopard, regardless of what behaviour it was doing. This is not reinforcing the aggression. It took 2 weeks and the leopard would be calm when it saw the keeper approach. The lesson it learnt was ‘when I am in your presence, you will receive food.’

Therefore, don’t add negative emotion by yelling when a dog is aggressive as they perceive you to be angry only when the other dog is there.

Engage a dog in Toys.

The aim is to get the dog to understand that Toys are associated with the food. Aim to train the only way the dog can get food is to play with the toy.

We are linking one stimulus with a consequence. Gather information about whether the dog prefers soft or hard things to mouth. 

Break the training into smaller bits, successive approximations. Introduce the toy as just holding it, then treat the toy as prey like.

The dog has to engage and work at getting the food. I.e. have the food in a pillow case or cardboard boxes where the dog has to engage with the object, by ripping and tearing at it to get the food out.

Handler’s emotions/mood

Some dogs are more socially sensitive than others. The science suggests that the dog picks up on the handler’s behavioural change. Dogs have learnt the value of being aware of our body language.

Calming Exercises

When working on an unwanted behaviour, focus on changing the antecedents/the environment rather than the consequences.

Example for a dog that barks is to wait until the dog stops barking then reinforce being quiet. This is difficult to achieve and rarely works.

When the dog is a demand barker, the dog learns to bark as it knows good things comes from you. It is releasing frustration.

Start to give the dog food, even if barking. Think of the example of the clouded leopard. Scatter feed on the ground. Handler is to talk to another person. Dog then expects that when it sees its owner talking to someone else, it will get food.

Train another behaviour to do when the dog is doing the behaviour you don’t want. It is difficult to train the dog to do nothing. E.g. when the car goes past, call the dog to another room and scatter feed on a mat.