Current Student Projects

First Name Surname Degree Start Date Attendance Supervisor Title
Amanda Warren-Smith PhD July 2002 Part-time Paul McGreevy Applied learning theory in horses
Lara Batt PhD March 2004 Full-time Paul McGreevy Behavioural/welfare canine
Hannah Salvin PhD March 2007 Full-time Paul McGreevy Natural History of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction - Canine Sand Maze Validation
Lisa Tomkins PhD March 2007 Full-time Paul McGreevy The functional significance of motor laterlity in dogs
Tamara Keeley PhD July 2006 Full-time Paul McGreevy Development of assisted reproductive technology for the Tasmanian Devil

Maintaining the Genetic Diversity of the Tasmanian Devil: Development of Assisted Reproductive Technology

Tamara Keeley
Professor Paul McGreevy
Dr Justine O'Brien

The Tasmanian devil is currently experiencing a rapid population decline in the wild, due to the fatal Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The rapid decline of the Tasmanian devil necessitates the urgent development of effective in situ conservation efforts in addition to those occurring ex situ. Too often, species decline to extremely low numbers before the value of ART is realized, making it more difficult to develop these technologies and deploy them in the long-term conservation of the species.
This three year research study is using behavioural and theriogenological studies to develop basic assisted reproductive technology (ART). This approach will ensure the implementation of a genome resource bank that will provide alternatives to animal transport and natural breeding of animals with unknown or disease status.

The Natural History of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Hannah Salvin (BAnVetBioSci Hons)
Professor Paul McGreevy
Dr Michael Valenzuela (BSc (Psych) Hons, PhD, MBBS Hons, UNSW)

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is a dementing disease which affects aged dogs. CCD has many behavioural, pathological and pharmacological similarities to Alzheimer’s disease in humans and as such, is being developed as a useful model for research into this area. Despite preliminary investigations into CCD, a validated diagnostic tool has yet to be developed. This research aims to develop an owner-based questionnaire to accurately diagnose and rate CCD in dogs. The questionnaire will then be validated using 50 Labradors in a longitudinal study over a three year period. Cognitive tests that assess short term spatial memory, olfactory discrimination and executive function will be used to measure mental decline in the test cohort. This information will then be correlated to the behavioural score obtained on the diagnostic questionnaire. A validated diagnostic tool will not only allow better identification and treatment of the disease in dogs but will also facilitate therapeutic trials for potential Alzheimer’s treatments.

Identifying Predictors of Success in the Guide Dog Program

Lisa Tomkins (B.Sc.Agr Hons.I)

Success in the guide dog training program has previously been predicted using a combination of temperament and lateralisation tests. This study aims to expand upon these results using both temperament and lateralisation tests, as well as assessing other potential predictors of dogs suitable for guiding such as kennel behaviours, salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA) concentrations, and hair whorl characteristics. The relationships between these additional variables will also be assessed in an endeavour to establish the suitability of dogs for guide work at the earliest possible age.

During the first year of this study, work has largely focused on developing a methodology for assessing hair whorls in dogs. This is a fascinating new area of study. Brain and hair development occur simultaneously in the foetus, and because of this, a relationship between lateralisation and hair whorls may exist. In humans, a correlation between hand preference and hair whorl direction has been reported, and studies in cattle and horses have revealed relationships between whorl position and temperament. No known studies have investigated whorl characteristics in dogs. The relationship between hair whorls and lateralisation or temperament is of interest as a potential predictor of guide dog success. By identifying early predictors of success and failure, unsuitable animals can be removed from training, and time and resources can be utilised more efficiently on dogs that have greater potential.

Summaries of Completed Projects

The Role of Reinforcement in Equitation

Amanda Warren-Smith
Professor Paul McGreevy

Millions of horses worldwide are subjected to various training and management routines by people of various levels of ability. Such interventions can have detrimental impacts on the welfare of these horses. By applying the principles of learning theory to training, the training and management of horses can be improved.

The role of reinforcement in equitation was examined through the following studies:

  1. The use of positive and negative reinforcement concurrently.
  2. The optimal timing of reinforcement when training foals to lead.
  3. A survey of all registered equestrian coaches within Australia to determine their knowledge of learning theory.
  4. The development of a low-cost sensor and ambulatory recording system (worn on the horse) that can be used in everyday training to measure the tensions in the reins.
  5. The measurement of rein tensions required for horses to elicit specific equitation movements.
  6. The benefits, relating to calmness and subsequent trainability, of ensuring that desirable responses are under stimulus control.

Our studies of the use of positive and negative reinforcement concurrently in horse training showed that, while there was no improvement in the latency to achieve a halt response, there was a decrease in the undesirable response of head-nodding.

When using negative reinforcement to train foals to lead, reinforcing immediately at the onset of the correct response prompted rapid response acquisition, while reinforcing at the completion of the desired response ultimately resulted in a higher proportion of correct responses.

A survey of coaches registered with the National Coaches Accreditation Scheme in Australia showed that many lack a correct understanding of reinforcement as they occur in horse training. Even though a significant majority of coaches considered positive reinforcement to be very useful, very few correctly explained its use in horse training, and most indicated that release of the aid (negative reinforcement) was the most effective reward for use with horses.

A range of rein tensions was shown to be required to elicit specific movements from horses. Light contact could be maintained when not actively applying a specific stimulus to a horse.

While head lowering in horses was found to influence a number of behavioural responses, it did not influence cardiac measures. Also, contrary to popular belief, there was no association with licking-and-chewing with head lowering, nor with these behaviours and response acquisition.

The findings from these studies may have a positive influence on the welfare of horses in training, but are only part of the emerging and exciting field of research that is equitation science.

There are currently no vacancies for projects with Prof Paul McGreevy; if you have a specific interest in research in this area, please contact Paul with your ideas/proposals.