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Fifty Years of Positive Change: An Interview with Karen Pryor

Editor's note: Karen Pryor first learned about training with positive reinforcement almost 50 years ago, in 1963, when she began her animal training career as head dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. She became fascinated by all that could be communicated between humans and animals using positive training. Karen applied what she had learned training dolphins to other animals (and humans!) and began teaching others the same pioneering techniques. In 1984, Karen captured the world's attention with the release of her first book about operant conditioning, Don't Shoot the Dog. Close to thirty years later, readers have learned more than we could imagine about the minds of animals, and about the possibilities for communicating and interacting with them, from her most recent book, Reaching the Animal Mind. On the book's third anniversary, and just past Karen's own 80th birthday, we talked with Karen to find out what is new in the world of animal training, and what she is up to now.

Why did you write Reaching the Animal Mind?

When I wrote Don't Shoot the Dog in 1984, it was a methods book. I wrote Reaching the Animal Mind to share the many fascinating stories that illustrate the great aspects of training. The book is "Dr. Doolittle in a box." Whatever you give, animals give back to you. I wanted to share that; I wanted to make that clear without having to teach you, in a didactic way, how to clicker train. I wanted to share that training and communicating with animals is an amazing experience.

Karen Pryor posing with a wolf on cue

There were many wonderful adventures that I had that were interesting from the standpoint of being a woman in science. I really wanted to share the feelings side, the fun side, the animal stories, and the people side of those adventures.

At the same time, I wanted to underpin what we now know about operant conditioning. Some people just know it works and don't need to know the black box stuff. Well, maybe they don't need to know, but I did, and others did, too. We wanted to know that operant conditioning is not just another training method that is better than other methods for various reasons. This method of training is completely different—it actually goes to different places in the brain; the chemicals are different. So I set out to create a book that was an autobiography, and lace it with the science and the animal training.

Are you happy with the book's success?

One of these days, Reaching the Animal Mind will be a classic and it will go on forever, like my previous books, Don't Shoot the Dog and Nursing Your Baby. It has a long life ahead.

When it was published three years ago, there were a lot of successful books about dogs, so the publishers latched onto that and marketed it as a dog book. However, it is not a book about dogs. It's about reaching the animal mind. And it's about science. So it did not sell a million copies to dog lovers.

Yet, I'm happy with whom it has resonated. It's resonating with scientists, it's resonating with people in academics, and it's resonating with animal trainers. The people I want to be reading it are reading it, and they are nuts about it. One of these days, Reaching the Animal Mind will be a classic and it will go on forever, like my previous books, Don't Shoot the Dog and Nursing Your Baby. It has a long life ahead.

With all of the great research about and practical applications for clicker training—the science is solid and it has been proven to be successful—why do you think there are trainers who still haven't jumped on the clicker training bandwagon?

Clicker training is a technology that is not only counterintuitive ("Don't punish. Don't scold."), but counter-traditional. It is the opposite of what people have been taught, and many people don't like to change. For every one of us who likes to go to the end of the diving board and find a new way to go in the water, there are 30 people who don't want to go on a diving board at all!

This makes it difficult to teach clicker training. It's like trying to teach music without ever hearing any music. When you are learning how to dance, you have to get up and actually do the dance to get the feeling for dancing. A lot of what we do at Karen Pryor Clickertraining, including ClickerExpo, Karen Pryor Academy course offerings, and educational articles published through our website, is all done with the goal of communicating the ideas about and behind clicker training, and I think we are doing remarkably well.

Clicker trainers talk about their first "Aha!" moment, the moment when it all clicks. When was your first "Aha!" moment?

Karen Pryor cueing a dolphin at Sea Life Park in Hawaii.

Karen cueing a dolphin at Sea Life Park in Hawaii.

My first "Aha!" moment was when I was a dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii and was given the 25-page typed script on operant conditioning. Having trained one dog through the first level of obedience with great success, and one horse from colt to show horse myself, I had used a lot of reinforcement enjoyably. So when I sat down to read that manuscript I thought, "Oh… Aha! I've got to try this."

I had many "Aha!" moments while working with the dolphins. They taught me things, like the time that I confused an animal accidentally and it breached in the air, soaking me from head to foot. I learned from those training mistakes. There were also many times when the animals surprised me. Asking an animal to "show me what you can do" often produced wonderful things I didn't know it could do. These surprises happen with dogs and cats, too.

My "Aha!" moments are not quite the same as the light bulb moment when the animal gets it. I've experienced that a million times!

The growth of Karen Pryor Academy, ClickerExpo, and the clickertraining.com website are examples of the expansion of clicker training. Can you talk about this expansion?

Where we used to hear from people who didn't understand clicker training or were doing it wrong, we now hear from many more people who are doing it right. We're really reaching a lot of people now.

At first, we watched clicker training expand badly. Many clicker training books were out of date, and old concepts, like charging the clicker, still lingered. People would say that clicker training was not good because "you can't do this or that" with it.

However, that is beginning to change. There are more references to clicker training on the web. Clicker training is mentioned in articles and on television shows. And these references keep increasing. Where we used to hear from people who didn't understand clicker training or were doing it wrong, we now hear from many more people who are doing it right. We're really reaching a lot of people now—not just Certified Training Partners (CTPs) and trainers. It's wonderful.

And now we know that these same training methods work with people. Tell us more about that.

I've always known that it works with people. I've known from the moment that I first heard of a disease called autism, standing in a training facility back in Hawaii. Someone explained autism to me, that there was this problem with children. I said, "Oh my, children who don't talk. We have an answer to that. We can communicate without words, very specifically. Wouldn't that be nice?"

So while my background is not in special education, we developed a way of teaching people, and autism was the first specific application that I was involved in. We called the training TAGteach to differentiate it from clicker training and to frame it in a way that parents would accept. The fact that we needed to differentiate TAGteach and clicker training was a good thing—it became one more way for people to hear of clicker training and to get the word out.

It's a slow process. We have to overcome a heavy load of tradition plus a heavy load of intuition. "What do you mean I can't yell at my kids?" But, we are on the verge of breaking into many areas. TAGteach is now being used by a school system in Arkansas, and you'll also see it in settings where you can shape physical skills, such as sports. It's a way of teaching, and it works! Many years ago, that is why I wrote Don't Shoot the Dog—to convey this message. Everyone thinks Don't Shoot the Dog is a book about dogs, but it's really a book about people.

What would it look like if the whole world understood the concepts of TAGteach?

My aim is to have all parents on the planet Earth not yell at their kids. There are other ways. I'm hoping that as TAGteach takes the reins more, it will be the beginning of this change.

B.F. Skinner and other behavior analysts often wondered about that. It would be easier; I think we'd all have a lot less stress if we all knew how to play this game. I'd like to hope that it would eliminate war, for example. On the other hand, greed, love of power, and conflict over insufficient resources are never going away. So we can't really fix everything.

My aim is to have all parents on the planet Earth not yell at their kids. There are other ways. I'm hoping that as TAGteach takes the reins more, it will be the beginning of this change. Many more medical people are coming to TAGteach seminars. They say "We need this. We aren't teaching this way and we are not getting our points across to our students, to our patients, to our employees." Their involvement may turn out to be a tipping point.

With nearly 50 years of change and a recently celebrated milestone birthday behind you, what is ahead for you?

There's the other half of the book, the woman in science part. I have these stories already written and I'd like to start getting them out there. With the publication of Reaching the Animal Mind behind me, I now have more time to travel and speak with groups in the scientific community. For example, this year I'll be a part of the Interdisciplinary Forum for Applied Animal Behavior (IFAAB), a private invitation-only group that was formed by veterinarians to learn from other people's backgrounds. And there's another forum on animal behavior that I haven't been able to attend in the last three years, but finally this year I'll be able to. The invitations that I'm getting now are from a much higher level. Invitations are not just from obedience clubs, but from scientific groups and university groups, such as the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. A lot of researchers and veterinarians know who I am because of these invitations and gatherings. With every invitation I receive, I consider who the event will reach, and how it will help our community and our message.

Tell us about creating the KPA Dog Trainer Program.

We had already been doing ClickerExpo, which was mainly attended by the same people, and taught by faculty members who saw training the same way. We were in sync. We used the same techniques. We had a common body of knowledge. After ClickerExpo conferences, attendees who came for this knowledge wanted to go out and teach, and we wanted to encourage that.

Karen Pryor with KPA faculty and staff at the New England Aquarium.

Karen with KPA faculty and staff
at the New England Aquarium.

However, we were also hearing concerns. People were troubled by the many "pretenders" out there. There were traditional trainers claiming to use clicker training. We heard of one trainer who claimed the button on a shock collar was the click! There were also well-intentioned people teaching clicker training but not really understanding the core practices, the principles, and the science. Some people used clicker training—but only for difficult dogs! All of this was confusing, and potentially harmful to the reputation of clicker training.

At the same time that this murkiness was emerging around the definition of clicker training, Karen Pryor Clickertraining President Aaron Clayton had been conducting trainer surveys. He discovered just how hard it was for trainers to make a living, in part because it was so difficult for trainers to differentiate themselves. There was a concern that people who were making a professional investment in education were not receiving a clear return.

Finally, when we looked at exactly what was taught in many pet classes and how it was taught (even in clicker training classes), we were dismayed. We had the very clear impression that many of these classes were outmoded and outdated. Luckily, we had ideas about how it all could be improved!

We started to talk and e-mail with ClickerExpo faculty members about the concerns and if we could do something about them. Ken Ramirez offered to host a meeting at the Shedd Aquarium—a "summit" of like-minded people. Aaron laid out the issues and we discussed them in depth. Remarkably, we came up with a very clear set of goals and a mission statement. That mission statement is still the mission statement of Karen Pryor Academy today. It begins with "Our mission is to create excellent trainers and teachers" and it ends with the goal of creating greater economic opportunity for those same trainers and teachers.

These CTPs are influencing (positively) more pet owners and professionals in the animal world than we ever could have by ourselves. They are a fantastic group!

We suggested creating an association to make all of this happen, but, surprising to us, that idea was not embraced by the group. The group was concerned about the bureaucratic wrangling that can go on in an association and about how long it can take to make decisions. It was the group's decision that the organization be founded and coordinated by Karen Pryor Clickertraining and named Karen Pryor Academy. Our first course offering was the Dog Trainer Program. And off we went!

Only a few years later we are closing in on a total of 500 Dog Trainer Program graduates who are KPA Certified Training Partners (CTPs). These CTPs are influencing (positively) more pet owners and professionals in the animal world than we ever could have by ourselves. They are a fantastic group!

Karen Pryor Academy recently introduced a Dog Trainer Foundations course. Why offer this course, and how is it different from the Dog Trainer Program?

We started the Dog Trainer Foundations course because we were turning away candidates who did not have enough training experience for the Dog Trainer Program. The Dog Trainer Foundations course is designed to help those people. It is the ideal entry point for anyone considering a career in dog training, or for anyone looking to broaden his or her dog-training skills and knowledge. The Foundations course is an introduction to clicker training that students can do step-by-step.

Thank you, Karen, for discussing and describing so much of the past, present, and future that you share with clicker training. We look forward to more of your stories, and to the new ways that positive reinforcement is changing the world each day.

About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.

My next golden

Thank you for writing such a nice book.  I am still rehabbing my dogs.  Well the clicker is for rewards. 

Then we take away the food over a period of time.  A reactive dog is not a good thing. 

Some people don't understand.  :-)  People of the analyzing types make very poor teachers.  

I have lots of certifications and no one belives me :-(  Thank you again.  Army Vet!!

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