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Photo by Hannele Tervola InsectIntelligence (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Common

By Desiree Conceicao

In World War 2 dolphins were trained to place explosives on the hulls of ships, dogs were used as antitank operatives, and pigeons were trained to guide missiles − although the birds’ skills ultimately were never called upon. Examples abound throughout history of animals doing weird and wonderful things that we would never expect or imagine. Ancient Egyptian paintings show hyenas (which we know from Lion King are not easily submissive) on their backs, being hand fed by humans. Animals as unexpected as guinea pigs and geese have been used as guards to warn of intruders. Dogs working with anti-terrorism forces are sent case samples to be scrutinised for their expert opinion.

How are animals both wild and domesticated taught such a wide range of unusual and unnatural behaviours? In Carrots and Sticks: Principles of Animal Training, veterinarian specialising in animal behaviour Paul McGreevy, and psychologist Robert Boakes, present an in-depth exploration of animal training methods. Calling on decades of research from Skinner, Pavlov, Thorndike, Bekhterev and many others, the writers explain the wide range of theories in both theoretical and practical terms, supporting each thesis with extensive case studies and empirical research.

They explain how blue tits in the UK during the 1930s learned to peck through milk bottle tops to reach the cream, and supplement their section on instrumental conditioning with the example of Rocky, an Irish draught horse who learned to unlock the bolt on his stable door, but who would not escape if the door was replaced simply by a weak chain - suggesting that the reinforcer to his behaviour wasn’t the opportunity to escape, but the ability to view the events occurring at his busy show-jumping home.

Four chapters comprising the section on the general principles of animal training are followed by detailed case files of various animals that have been taught unusual behaviours, documenting the methods used and their results. From elephants trained to paint a canvas and octopi opening bottles, to tricycling macaws and magpies that actually place litter in bins; the cases are both amusing and educational and offer fantastic advice for animal owners, trainers, veterinarians and those who are simply animal enthusiasts.

Featuring a wealth of amusing anecdotes, extensive photographic and diagrammatic material, and written to be a light, easy read − this is a book both amusing and educational, and definitely enjoyable to read.

Desiree Conceicao is a writer and a total and utter bibliophile. She is also incidentally a terribly opinionated feminist and liberal who would someday like to rule the world, but probably won't get that far due to her habit of falling asleep in the middle of whatever she's doing.

See also Review of 'Reflections & Voices'

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