It was Karen Pryor who popularized the term and the practice of clicker training. Her 1985 book, Don't Shoot the Dog, captured the public's interest, and its appearance inadvertently led to a widespread assumption that clicker training was new. In fact, as Pryor herself explained in the introduction to her book, clicker training is based on the science and technology of operant conditioning and has been used since the 1940s.
Harvard psychologist, B. F. (Fred) Skinner and his colleague, Fred Keller, began discussing how to change everyday behavior in the late 1920s. Skinner published his landmark book Behavior of Organisms in 1938, wherein he described, in excruciating detail, how rats respond to environmental change under very controlled conditions. Skinner's work was not simple, and in fact, the book was boring. For a decade or so, few outside the field knew anything about the science of behaviorism.
But meanwhile, two of Skinner's students, Keller and Marian Breland, began applying operant conditioning as a practical training method in 1943. They made their own clickers and trained many animals, from cockroaches to parakeets to dogs. By 1948, they had a growing business. Within ten years, they had spread the use of applied operant conditioning to cats, dolphins, parrots, sheep, cattle, raccoons, and dozens of other species.
Perhaps more importantly, the Brelands were teaching people the new technology. If you've seen animal shows at Marineland, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Six Flags, or dozens of other places, you've seen the Brelands' handiwork. The Brelands taught the trainers who trained the animals for the first shows at most of these places. These trainers, in turn, have passed the technology on to others. I was in that first wave of Breland students. I believe I learned my lessons well. I applied what I learned.
Some might point out, correctly, that Skinner had other students who also entered the animal training field. These students, however, had only a limited impact on animal trainers. Why? Because they missed a key message: simplicity. The Brelands knew how to make the technology work, and they knew how to teach others to make the technology work. They taught that behavior was naturally complicated, and that the trainer's job was to break apart behavior and make it simple. The Brelands were the first applied animal psychologists. They were also what are now called behavior analysts.
The Brelands were consultants to the US Navy Marine Mammal Program at Pt. Mugu, California. I was the program's first director of training. By 1965, I had left the Navy program and joined the Brelands. Several years after Keller died, Marian and I married. Marian died in September of 2001, but the simple, clear, and useful technology of operant conditioning, or clicker training, lives on through the successful efforts of others, including Melissa Alexander.
There are many books available purporting to describe clicker training, or some variant. Few of these books combine simplicity, readability, accuracy, and usefulness. Melissa has done well on all counts. Melissa describes basic principles, but eschews the many "rules" set forth by some other authors. (Marian and I always had trouble with these so-called "rules" because we violated most of them on a daily basis.)
I will admit to pleasure in reading Melissa's clear restatement of what Marian and I taught in our workshops and what we wrote on various internet forums. I particularly appreciated Melissa's reference to our mantra, "Training is a mechanical skill." Furthermore, if you read carefully, you will learn about the aspects of reinforcement we called "timing, criteria, rate." Finally, and most wonderfully, she describes and discusses fluency, including the requirement of rate or performance speed.
The majority of trainers Marian and I have observed do not teach the concept of fluency or understand its role in training. We always used fluency to build response strength, or rate of response; only sometimes did we add the power of variable reinforcement schedules to build even greater response strength. We found that training to the point of fluency provides responses sufficiently strong for any but the most extreme of behaviors and circumstances.
A few words about writing style: Melissa is refreshingly detailed in her definitions and descriptions of procedures. In my personal opinion, technical and "how-to" descriptions should leave little to the reader's imagination, but some modern writers and editors have pushed succinctness to the point where prose becomes cryptic, leaving much too much to interpretation. Students and practitioners seeking information on definitions or procedures need more information, not less.
This book is written from the perspective of a dog trainer. However, using only a little imagination, a trainer can easily apply the technology described here to work with virtually any animal. Click for Joy! Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and their Dogs will be a good resource for anyone applying operant technology to change the behavior of animals. I recommend it not only to dog trainers, but also to trainers in zoos and aquaria and to animal trainers doing stage or theater work.
In 1998, I stumbled onto clicker training during a Web search. I had long been interested in dog training, and this science-based method appealed to the intellect in me. The more I read, the more interested I became. To test it out, I dragged my eight-year-old Great Pyrenees out of retirement. Satch had been traditionally trained as a puppy but hadn't seemed to enjoy it, so we had settled for polite house manners.
I began by using the clicker to teach him to touch the end of a target stick with his nose, a behavior unlike anything he had ever done before. Touch, click, treat. Touch, click, treat. After a few repetitions a light went on in his eyes. He got it—and he loved it. Everything he learned through clicker training he did enthusiastically and quickly. But if I asked for a behavior he had learned as a puppy, the light would go out of his eyes and he would revert to the slow, deliberate movement characteristic of a "giant breed." I finally understood what the term "shut down" really means.
I was sold. At that time, books and videos on clicker training were scarce. I bought what I could, but most of my education came from online mailing lists. I got to brainstorm with experienced trainers and newbies alike—and I learned from both. As time passed, I learned that not all of the experienced trainers I had been emulating practiced what they preached. Many seemed to believe in the technology only to a certain point, at which they abandoned their positive message in favor of corrections. Fortunately, at that time I joined the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and was privileged to meet some of the most respected trainers in the world—people like Karen Pryor, Ian Dunbar, Deb Jones, and most importantly, Bob and Marian Bailey.
I am, without apology, a Bailey devotee. Over the course of 45 years, the Baileys and their staff at Animal Behavior Enterprises, which Marian and her first husband, Keller Breland, founded, trained fifteen thousand animals of a hundred and forty different species, including dogs. Scientists-turned-businesspeople, the Baileys needed the most efficient and effective method of training they could find. In some of their projects, such as training trip-wire detection dogs in Vietnam, human lives quite literally depended on the reliability of their training. The method they chose was the very same one I discuss in this book. Although they call themselves operant conditioning trainers rather than clicker trainers, they used primarily positive reinforcement, extinction, and (to a far lesser degree) negative punishment to achieve their goals. They resorted to positive punishment only a dozen times in four and a half decades. In my mind, the Baileys and their staff had proven over and over what operant conditioning and clicker training could accomplish. If they could do it, I—or anyone else—could do it too.
In June of 1999, I made another life-changing decision. I had become increasingly disenchanted with the prevalent discussion and recommendation of physical corrections and other punishment-based solutions found on the internet mailing lists I was on. When Debbie Otero, a then-beginning clicker trainer and pet owner from Florida, asked me to start a new list, I was initially reluctant to put in that much time and effort. However, when she promised to help—and when I realized that without a new list people new to clicker training would believe that corrections were an accepted or necessary part of training—I agreed, and ClickerSolutions was born.
I was told more than once that no one would want to restrict himself or herself to positive solutions—that this list was doomed to fail. But ClickerSolutions grew, and as of June 2002 it has over 2600 members. I receive notes from members on a regular basis, thanking me for providing such a safe, positive forum. What those people don't realize is that I've gotten at least as much from ClickerSolutions as they have. I have learned from and been inspired by the members, beginners and experienced alike, and I've made many friends.
It doesn't take too long readings postings on a mailing list to realize the same questions are asked again and again. It also doesn't take long to realize that the answers to those questions frequently conflict, even those posted by experienced trainers. Ironically, even seemingly contradictory answers are frequently each "right"—they just aren't complete. Techniques that give desirable short-term results can sometimes have undesirable long-term consequences. The more I learned, the more I wanted to make sure people got more complete answers to common questions, so they could make educated choices. So I decided to compile those questions and write answers based on the cumulative experience of many trainers. My friend Doug Johnson, who knows more about applying operant conditioning principles to dog training than anyone I've ever met, offered to be my technical reader. Karen Pryor and the lovely people at Sunshine Books offered to publish the book.
Click for Joy! Questions and Answers from Clicker Trainers and their Dogs is the result. This is not a step-by-step manual, nor is it an exhaustive source of information on any particular aspect of training. It is intended as a reference guide to put the answers to your questions at your fingertips. I've included cross-references and an index to help you find your way around, a glossary of behavioral terms, and a list of other resources that I recommend. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.