18 Jan

Something wicked this way comes: A brief history of the “Wicked Minds” Conference

The ORCA conference…

The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference…

The Wicked Minds Conference…

Over the years, our conference has been known by a few different names. In this post, we’ll share a bit more about the history of our conference and why it truly is a “wicked” event.

The six wicked minds of the Wicked Minds Conference

The ORCA Conference

The first Art and Science of Animal Training Conference was organized in 2009 by ORCA, the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals. The conference has two main purposes. Its first goal is to increase our understanding of animal training and of the science of animal behavior. Its other main objective is to create a conference that will be useful and inspiring for both experts and beginners.

For those of you not familiar with ORCA, it is a student organization at the University of North Texas. It is also a research laboratory group within the University’s Department of Behavior Analysis. The group, which is mostly comprised of graduate students, studies animal training, animal behavior, and human-animal interactions. ORCA also works with the local community to educate individuals about animal behavior and training. The group is advised by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz.

Because the conference was originally organized by ORCA and was held at UNT, it quickly became known as the “ORCA conference.”

However, the inspiration for the conference started several years prior to the first conference.

The Wicked Minds Conference

In 2003, Karen Pryor began holding the now well-known ClickerExpo conferences. In the evenings, the speakers would meet together to talk about training. These were always productive conversations, full of stimulating discussions that led to new ideas.

One lively group of friends who liked to get together for discussions (and sometimes heated debates!) was Kay Laurence, Ken Ramirez, Alexandra Kurland, Steve White, Jen White, and Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz. Every year, their conversations inspired each of them to go home and explore new training procedures and concepts. Kay nicknamed the group the “Wicked Minds,” because of the insights and ideas that came out of their discussions.

Are you familiar with Kay Laurence? She is a very talented dog trainer from England.

wicked definition british meaningWhen Kay suggested that the group of friends call themselves the “Wicked” Minds, she did so using the modern British meaning of the word. “Wicked” in this sense, of course, means brilliant or outstanding.

However, the time available to talk at the Expo was always limited, and as ClickerExpo grew, there became less and less time. The friends proposed a separate conference with a more relaxed format that would be geared specifically toward exchanging ideas about animal training and sharing what was new in the field of training. This would be a way to have even more discussions, debates, and inspiration.

It was suggested that Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and ORCA should organize the conference. This would benefit the students, as they would be able to participate in the conference. It would also benefit the conference, as the students would be able to organize and run the event. The conference also fit well with ORCA’s mission, which is to disseminate the science of animal training.

The ORCA students were excited about how much they would be able to learn by interacting with leaders in the field of animal training. Two years after the idea came about, ORCA held the first Art and Science of Animal Training Conference, largely thanks to the leadership of then ORCA president, April Becker.

The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference

Participants listen to a lecture at the ORCA conference at UNT in 2015Although the conference started as a local one-day event for animal training professionals and pet owners living throughout north Texas, it quickly gained quite the reputation. Attendees come each year from more than 20 states, as well as a handful of foreign countries.

One reason why the conference has gained popularity is that it brings together pet owners, trainers and research scientists from a variety of fields. The animal training community is often completely segregated by species or discipline and very few opportunities exist for dog trainers, horse trainers, bird trainers, zoo and aquarium trainers, pet owners, and behavior analysts to come together to share knowledge and ideas.

As the conference grew in size and popularity, participants repeatedly asked that it be expanded to a larger, two-day event. However, ORCA was hesitant, as expanding the conference would stretch their resources and require a significantly larger investment of time and effort.

States represented at our one-day Art and Science of Animal Training Conference in 2013

States represented at our one-day conference in 2013

So, in 2015, the decision was made to form a separate non-profit organization to oversee and organize the conference. The ORCA students could still be involved, but this would give the conference the opportunity to expand to a larger, two-day event. The new organization would also be able to provide additional educational programs and services for pet owners and professional trainers.

A truly “wicked” event

There are many reasons why The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference is a one-of-a-kind event.

Every year, ORCA invites a behavior scientist as the keynote speaker. The keynote speaker’s purpose is to discuss a concept or theory that is important to animal training. ORCA invites a speaker who they think will be able to stretch the audience’s mind and give the audience new insights about animal and human behavior.

Past keynote speakers have included Bob Bailey, Dr. Robert Epstein, Dr. Joe Layng, Dr. Paul Andronis, Dr. Susan Schneider, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, and Dr. Stanley Weiss. The keynote speaker at this year’s conference will be Dr. Iver Iversen. He’ll be giving us a deeper look into the process of shaping.

Steve White lecturing at the ORCA conference at UNTFollowing the keynote speaker, presentations are given by each of the wicked minds and by several invited guest speakers. Presentation topics have included everything from the history of animal training, to the use of errorless learning to improve shaping, to training dogs to find sea turtle eggs after hurricane Katrina. There are many opportunities throughout the event for participants to ask questions and engage in discussion with the speakers and with each other.

The ORCA students are also given the opportunity to share research posters that feature their most recent research projects and work. Conference participants enjoy getting to see what new studies are in progress, and the ORCA students receive valuable questions and feedback about their work.

Finally, the conference includes a day of private meetings that is limited to the speakers and the ORCA graduate students. This meeting facilitates even more in-depth conversations and the exchange of ideas. ORCA students share their current research projects with the speakers for feedback and suggestions. The speakers also present their latest projects and ideas. This leads to much talking, lots of debate, and plenty of new ideas and questions.

The speakers, ORCA students, and conference participants all leave the weekend with new ideas that they can take home to play with and incorporate into their training. Many times, the ideas that come out of the conference are developed and refined by the speakers into brand new training strategies and procedures, which often become presentation topics at our conference in future years.

We hope this post helps you understand more about The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference and about our non-profit organization, The Art and Science of Animal Training.

We look forward to seeing you at our future conferences and other events!

The 2016 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference in Dallas, Texas

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2 thoughts on “Something wicked this way comes: A brief history of the “Wicked Minds” Conference

  1. Finally, the conference includes a day of private meetings that is limited to the speakers and the ORCA graduate students.
    There may be a fund-raising opportunity here. Have you considered raffling off a chance to attend this evening to the general attendees? The winner(s) would be able to be present as observers.

    • Thank you for your comment. This private day is a wonderful opportunity for our student volunteers, as it allows them to really get to know our speakers. The speakers also enjoy it too! New ideas emerge for research projects and training projects, and these ideas sometimes end up being presentations at next year’s conference. At this time, we just limit this day to the speakers and the students.

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