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The Ethology of Clicker Training

The two sciences

Since the 1940s or so, there have arisen two completely different kinds of animal behavior science. One discipline focuses on what animals do in the natural environment: the innate behavior of the species. Innate behavior—hunting, foraging, reproduction, dominance hierarchies, sexual displays, and so on—is a product of evolution and is largely governed by genetics. The field is called ethology, or simply animal behavior. Its best-known founder was Konrad Lorenz. There are departments of animal behavior in universities all over the US and Europe. You'll find them in the biology buildings.

A Trainer and whale hug at Seaworld

Like food and play, touch is often used
by trainers as a primary reinforcer.

Backstage tour at SeaWorld; ClickerExpo
Orlando. Photo by Aaron Clayton.

The other group of scientists studies acquired behavior: how animals and people learn. The field is called behavior analysis, or simply behaviorism. Its best-known founder was B.F. Skinner. There are departments of behavior analysis in universities all over the US and also at universities in South America and Asia. You'll usually find them in the psychology building.

I have been interested in the natural behavior of animals all my life. I was one of those children who watches animals, keeps aquariums, collects butterflies and moths, and knows the name and habits of every bird, tree, and wildflower in her neighborhood: a naturalist. In college I discovered Konrad Lorenz's books and found a name for my natural bent: ethology. Watching animals to see what they do. Then, a few years later, I took a job as head dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park, the Hawaiian oceanarium complex pioneered by my husband Tap Pryor. That's when I discovered operant conditioning and the work of B.F. Skinner.

I was fascinated, not so much by the dolphins themselves as by these simple yet powerful laws of learning. I quickly found out that these new tools enabled me to understand dolphins—and sea birds and fish and wild pigs and anything else I decided to train—on a new level. I could learn a lot by watching my animals to see what they did when undisturbed. I could learn even more, however, from our reinforcement-based interactions, in which the animal and I were equal players. We communicated in both directions: I with my carefully timed reinforcers, the animal with species-specific signals and emotional responses directed specifically, and with intent, to me.

And they made themselves perfectly clear. Want an example? Guess what a dolphin does when you accidentally frustrate it by suddenly NOT reinforcing behavior you used to pay for, a mistake I sometimes made in my early training days. The dolphin gets mad, of course. Behaviorists have a name for it: extinction-induced aggression.

In that circumstance the dolphin sometimes breaches. Breaching is a whaling term for the behavior of leaping out of the water and coming down sideways, making a big noisy splash. Now if my frustrated dolphin breaches, and the splash from that breach happens to soak me from head to toe; and if that dolphin then pops its head out and looks at me with a glint in its eye as I'm wringing the sea water out of my hair, I have just learned something. Breaching can be a message about an emotional state, which a human might express as: "I am thoroughly fed up with you!"

In my view, if you look at just the innate behavior of animals you are looking at just a part of what animals (and people) do. And if you look just at the acquired behavior, you are looking at another part of what animals (and people) do. To really understand what's going on you need to be able to use both parts at once: to observe accurately, not with blinders on—that's the ethology part; and to use the principles of reinforcement, without aversives or coercion, to facilitate learning with confidence and joy—that's the behaviorism part.

Konrad Lorenz visited Sea Life Park and watched the dolphins and the training with interest. When I later wrote a book about my dolphin days, Lads Before the Wind, Konrad kindly contributed a foreword in which he perceived the ways in which the two behavioral sciences can interact: "Karen is the one ethologist who uses the whole arsenal of methods devised by the behaviorist school…not only to study the contingencies of reinforcement, but as a tool to gain knowledge about the animal as a whole." Exactly. But why should I be the only one?

Opposite ends of a bridge

In the years during and since my dolphin training days I have been a participant in both scientific fields. I belong to both societies (the Animal Behavior Society and the Association for Behavior Analysis). I publish scientific papers in both kinds of journals. It's not common; I personally know only three other people who belong to both ABS and ABA. Both branches of science have a lot to tell us; but the people engaged in them almost never mix.

I used to think of myself as standing perpetually on a bridge, with a foot in each camp. I used to expend a lot of time trying to talk psychologists into understanding or at least coming to watch what we were learning about the animals with their science. No luck. No luck in the other direction, either: the behavioral biologists were not much interested in training or reinforcement. I once participated in a Navy-sponsored conference on "dolphin cognition," consisting of about twenty hand-picked famous scientists and me. After we'd listened to one long story after another about how some dolphin had done some amazing thing that demonstrated "cognition" I finally spoke up and described how one trains that kind of behavior. The ability to problem-solve is an outcome of the reinforcement contingencies used in dolphin training, I pointed out. Instead of everyone saying, "Oh! Right! Of course! Now how can we use that," there was a long silence, and then a famous brain scientist said "That's Skinner stuff, that's so out of date, you'll never get a grant with that!" Of course I didn't need or want grants, so it was an ineffective threat; but I got the message: shut up, Karen.

"Both branches of science have a lot to tell us; but the people engaged in them almost never mix."


In any case, marine mammal trainers often speak about the work and the animals in ways that ruffle the feathers of academicians. Once at SeaWorld the head trainer and I were watching a junior trainer working with a killer whale. The killer whale was lolling sidewise some distance away, keeping one eye on the inexperienced trainer as he tried to make the whale jump. The head trainer laughed, and spoke for the whale: "You and what army?"

Putting words in an animal's mouth like this is often labeled anthropomorphism; it is not. The trainer is illustrating a behavioral event, often but not always in a training interaction, by using the language a human might use if the human were in that particular situation and emotional state. I call it trainer metaphor and to me it is an indication that the speaker is using both sciences.

The science that pervades the dog world these days is ethology: the genetic or biological approach to behavior. Applied animal behaviorists, trained in ethology, use this science therapeutically. One might correctly identify, let us say, submissive urination in a pet, and suggest ways the owner can behave to mitigate the fearfulness. Many dog trainers and instructors have incorporated concepts from ethology into their practices or writing. Pet owners often have at least a loose acquaintance with ethological terms such as "alpha animal," "dominance," "territory," and "aggression."

But a general awareness of animal behavior doesn't mean people read the animals accurately. I am amazed at how often people fail to recognize canine signals of simple fatigue, much less signs of real stress. Pet owners interpret threats as play and play as threats. Traditional trainers and dog sports competitors ignore that chronically worried expression—"Oh dear, now what am I supposed to do?"—that I call the "crossover look." Charismatic dog trainers on television borrow phrases such as "dominance theory" to justify terrorizing someone's yappy Yorkie into never barking again. As the cowed dog's expression of bewilderment turns rapidly into misery or even terror, its owners, the audience, and the TV producers who created the show unquestioningly accept the trainer's methods and explanations. And when some once-overly bouncy dog is now hiding under the furniture with its tail between its legs, that's seen as an improvement. Clicker trainers can't bear to watch.

Using both sciences

You don't need two Ph.D.s to utilize both sciences; that ability seems to be a natural outcome of the clicker experience. At our first ClickerExpo of this season, in Minneapolis in November, we introduced a new feature, Learning Labs. These were sessions in which people with dogs could try out what they had just learned in a lecture about some aspect of operant conditioning, and other people could watch. I taught two Learning Labs and visited several others. I was thrilled to see that many of the spectators were visibly relishing both the operant conditioning procedures they were watching, and the animal behavior they were seeing.

During an exercise on transferring a cue from the voice to an object, a trainer was timing her cues wrong, so they didn't make sense. The dog began to bark at her. In trainer's metaphor the dog was saying, "Tell me what you mean, darn it, I don't understand!" And several spectators smiled kindly. They were not frowning, thinking "That dog is barking, what a nuisance, it should not be allowed." They understood what generated the protest, and they were both sympathetic and amused.

In a shaping exercise, I chose three people and their dogs to develop a behavior involving a box. One dog leaped over its box; another quickly learned to step up with its front paws on the box. The third owner was shaping her golden retriever to put both front paws inside the box. Now the first two teams sat down. The room fell silent while we all watched the dog figure it out. There were gasps, laughter, and nods, not when the trainer made a smart move, but when the dog did. When the dog's tail started to swing ("Yeah, I think I've got it!"), applause pattered around the room—not for the finished behavior, but for the dog's awareness of progress. People were truly seeing what was going on with the dog. I was watching people exhibiting dual perceptual skills. Seeing the animal whole. Enjoying the view from the bridge.

I'm beginning to think the clicker training movement might, in coming years, make a real difference to both of the mother sciences. And I can tell you, my fellow trainers, it feels great not to be out on that bridge all alone! I can't WAIT to see what happens in my Learning Labs at the next two ClickerExpos.

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.

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