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History of Clicker Training I

Karen Pryor's Acceptance Speech:
Annual Award for Excellence in the Media
Association for Behavior Analysis
Chicago, May 23, 1997

Note: Behavior analysis is the science that underlies the technology of reinforcement training. Applications of behavior analysis include performance management, in industry and business; precision teaching, in schools; behavior modification, in clinical practice; and clicker training.

Clicker Training: A Grass Roots Revolution in Behavioral Technology

Thank you very much, Dr. Foxx, for your introduction. I am enormously honored and grateful to ABA and to the behavior analysis community for this award. I am especially honored to be one of such an incredibly distinguished group as (the other award winners) Dr. Baer, Dr. Sato, and Aubrey Daniels.

What the dog trainers are calling clicker training is an application of behavior analysis that was initially invented and developed more than thirty years ago, by Keller Breland, Marian Breland Bailey, and Bob Bailey. It first reached widespread use in the training of marine mammals, which is where I learned it myself. Although the marine mammal trainers use a whistle, not a clicker, their training relied on the same principles and is really exactly the same as what people are now calling clicker training.

Somehow, however, the technology did not transfer from marine mammal trainers to the general public: perhaps because of the focus of the trainers themselves, and perhaps simply because not very many people need to train dolphins.

In 1992, Phil Hineline invited me to speak to this gathering, at that year's annual meeting in San Francisco. I also organized a panel presentation by operant conditioning animal trainers: myself, Gary Wilkes, Gary Priest, and Ingrid Kang Shallenberger. After the conference Gary Wilkes and I put on the first Don't Shoot the Dog! clicker training seminar, for a group of 250 dog trainers in the Bay Area. That's when things really began to pop.

Five years ago, I could not have named a single clicker trainer in the dog-owning community. Not one. Now, I am personally aware of over ten thousand adherents to clicker training. Our company, Sunshine Books, has a website offering a catalog of clicker training books, videos, and gear, as well as news, downloadable teaching materials, articles, and so on. Last month alone (April, 1997), our website had 20,000 hits.

Harper/Collins Basic Books recently published a book by a philosopher, Aaron Lynch, called Thought Contagion, in which he puts forth the premise that ideas spread through the human population like genes, or like viruses. Whether or not one buys the concept, it's a nice metaphor: and clicker training is certainly a splendid example. Thanks to the internet, we can see this happening repeatedly. We get an order from, say, Finland. Then there are two or three orders from Finland; then a dozen. There is a little pocket of infection there, and it is spreading. We can identify these loci of infection not just in the US, Canada, and the UK, but in Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Holland…this is a planetary phenomenon.

Clicker training differs in a number of ways from standard or traditional dog training, and from lab training as well. First, although we often use food as a primary reinforcer, we use no deprivation. It is simply not necessary. Second, we use no punishment within the shaping. While reprimands might still occur during daily life, we omit punishment and avoid negative reinforcement as much as possible as an instructional tool. Third, the sessions are very brief, perhaps just a few minutes: no drill, no long repetitions; make progress, and move on. Also, we incorporate a LOT of variety: variations in the training, in the tasks, in the reinforcements used, and so on.

One result is that we are seeing very clearly in our dogs the phenomenon of accelerated learning. On our website we maintain an honor roll of clicker trained dogs. We are receiving and posting many observations of behaviors that, with standard training, take months, even YEARS, to establish with any degree of reliability. Now, with clicker training, standard behaviors and repertoires are being accomplished in six weeks. Three weeks. Four days. A big difference.

The biggest difference, however, is the clicker. Not just this mechanical talisman, but what it actually does. The clicker is not just a conditioned reinforcer, a substitute for food. Yes, it is that, and it's also a bridging stimulus, meaning "Food is coming, but later." And it's a termination signal: "Job's done, come collect your treat." And, as Ogden Lindsley has dubbed it, it is an event marker. But it is more specific than that, and much more powerful. I was fortunate to have been able to discuss this question, the functional role of the clicker, with the late Ellie Reese. And with her…how shall I put this…connivance…I've dubbed it an Operant Topography Identifier. I apologize, this is a clumsy term; but then that hasn't stopped us in the past, has it.

The OTI allows you to communicate some very specific concepts to an animal; and it allows the animal to communicate back. Let me give you an example. A beautiful Arabian show horse, a mare, had been brought to a clicker trainer for some remedial training. Show horses are trained to pose with their feet just so, the neck arched, and the ears pricked forward so they look pretty. The standard horse-training way to get the ears up is to swish a whip around the horse's head, which makes the horse look very attentive indeed. This mare, however, had gone past that. When the whip was swished she'd taken to pinning her ears, that is, laying her ears back flat on her neck, and baring her teeth. NOT pretty at all. And of course escalating the swishing just escalated the ugly face.

The new trainer had begun clicking the mare for pricked ears, and my husband, Jon Lindbergh, captured the next event on video. The mare had learned that clicks mean carrots; and that she could make clicks happen. And she had also become aware that the operant had something to do with ears. But what? So she's doing this: flopping her ears this way and that, backwards and forwards, one ear up and one ear down, rotating each individually and then together—quite a show.

Continue reading with the History of Clicker Training II.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

What comes next?

So, I am curious. I have training hundreds of horses during my life, and I am wondering if you clicker train a horse and sell it, do you have to clicker train the buyer too?

Patriot53106's picture


WOW!!! I love reading about the history of things and I've tried for a long time to find a good article about the history of clicker training! Great article!

Proud mom of Daybreaks In God We Trust~Patriot

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