1. Tell us a little bit about your training background.
As long as I can remember, I have been interested in animals and what they did - behavior. My academic background is in both the physical (physics and chemistry) and biological sciences. My early training experiences were with cold-blooded vertebrates (reptiles, amphibians, fishes) and invertebrates (cephalopods, crustaceans). Until 1962, I was self-taught (read some of Skinner's stuff, plus the Brelands' FIELD OF APPLIED). In 1962, I was hired by the Navy as the Director of Training of the Marine Mammal Program. I was fortunate to have Keller and Marian Breland and Kent Burgess as my mentors (how could anyone go wrong having these three a teachers). My early work with dolphins included husbandry behaviors and open-ocean activities. I joined Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) in 1965, the same year Keller died. Marian and I married some years later. I became ABE's General Manager in 1969. I have trained over 140 different species and thousands of individual animals. Marian and I closed ABE's doors in 1990. I retired from active training in 1991. Marian and I began teaching trainers again in 1996. We taught until she past away on September 25, 2001. I promised her, on her deathbed, that I would continue teaching. I am keeping the 2002 teaching dates we promised last year. I have no further plans for teaching.
2. How did you get involved with teaching Operant Conditioning to dog trainers?
Teaching operant conditioning was always part of ABE's mission, even as far back as 1947. We produced animal shows and behavioral systems and we usually taught others to present the show or operate the system. Over the years, we worked with hundreds of animal trainers. Since dogs were only a small part of our business, we trained relatively few dog trainers until recently. When Marian and I came out of retirement, about 1996, dog training was the numerically largest segment of the animal training profession. Also, those with whom we had first contact when "unretired," Terry Ryan and Karen Pryor, were prominent in dog training. Our workshops have attracted zookeepers, veterinarians, bird trainers, dolphin trainers, psychological clinicians, and many others who are interested in and use behavior analytic technology. However, probably two-thirds of our students were dog trainers. Further, most of our students have been teachers themselves, operating dog training businesses.
3. You use chickens in your famous camps. Why?
The Brelands used chickens as teaching models in 1947. I have never found a better model for teaching the fundamental principles of animal training. Chickens are hardy, readily available, closely related genetically, and large enough to be seen from a distance. Chickens are behaviorally simple, they learn quickly, and lack most of the complicated social interactions of most mammals and other birds. They appear to have on their minds only: eating; not being eaten; making more chickens. All of this simplicity aids the teaching of the mechanics of changing behavior. Chickens move very fast, testing and developing the reactions of the trainer. Chickens live long enough (9 to 15 years) to teach many classes of students.
4. How do you define clicker training?
I don't. Karen Pryor does, in my book.
5. Do you consider yourself a clicker trainer? Why or why not?
I am not a clicker trainer. I have used a clicker, and quite successfully. Keller and Marian Breland were using clickers in 1943. In the modern use of the name CLICKER TRAINER, punishment, especially positive punishment, is "disallowed." I allow myself to use punishment if I believe it is necessary to accomplish the task and if the task merits the use of punishment. I rarely have need of punishment.
6. Do you believe it's possible to train a performance animal to competition-precision without using aversives?
I have never been in dog "competition." I have trained and utilized dogs, and other animals, under some pretty difficult, and even stressful environments. Our dogs, cats, ravens, vultures, dolphins, and other animals, had to perform complex tasks in novel and even hostile environments, sometimes over many hours. Only rarely did I resort to punishment, and then only to preserve life and limb (literally). I find it difficult to understand why punishment would be necessary to teach the relatively simple behaviors asked for in "competition."
7. Keller Breland introduced clicker training to dog trainers in the mid-1940s, but it didn't catch on until recently. Why?
A simple answer might be: for everything there is a time, and it was not time. Keller and Marian were far ahead of their time. Fred Skinner tried to convince the Brelands to stay in school. Skinner did not believe that the technology was ready for commercial exploitation. The Brelands thought it was. Well, they were both right, and both wrong. It was good enough for the Brelands to earn their living, but the technology was not good enough to convince others to try it. Also, the Brelands were not exactly charismatic; they were brilliant, dedicated, hard working, but not charismatic. Sometimes hard work and "truth and the American Way" are not enough.
8. Do you think dog trainers will continue to pursue clicker training or is it just a fad?
I am not a fan of the "ever-clicking" approach to training. The proper application of the clicker is that akin to using a scalpel to make fine cuts. However, the increasing use of reinforcement to get behavior is good, so I guess the prevalence of sloppy "clicking" is a price paid for trainers thinking more about reinforcement rather than punishment. Most pet owners seldom have need for a clicker, in my opinion; a clicker can easily get in the way of getting good behavior. After a pet owner learns the skill of delivering food, or petting, or a toy, and that owner really wants to do more, then add the clicker. I do think that sometime, down the road, most trainers will learn that the clicker is the most powerful single tool they have, and they will quit beating it to death and learn to exploit it to its highest potential.
9. If a trainer came to you and asked what he could do to become a better dog trainer, what would you tell him?
To him or her I would say :Learn the fundamentals; develop your mechanical skill; pay attention to TIMING, CRITERIA, RATE OF REINFORCEMENT; observe critically
10. Aside from the career aspects, has clicker training affected your life?
Animal training, and animal behavior, has consumed a large part of my life. I do think I try to reinforce the behavior I like in others, when I can. Clicker training has had little impact on what I did, or what I will do.
11. What has clicker training taught you?
Clicker training has not taught me a whole bunch, other than that people can get wrapped up in fads and catch phrases. Observing and changing behavior has taught me the value of not imposing my own view of the world on other organisms (including people). If I am busy interpreting behavior, I will often miss behavior that does not fit my interpretation. An observer should first of all observe. After duly recording what has gone on, then interpret, speculate, analyze, or do whatever, but, first, observe critically.
12. What was your favorite training moment?
Much like mountain
climbing or parachute jumping, it is that heading feeling of success
when an open-environment trained animal returns to run (or swim or fly)
again. The heady feeling, or "rush," is increased in direct
proportion to the duration, distance, and complexity of the trial. Every
time you release the animal, it could go somewhere else. In spite of
99.999% success, that next trial could result in an animal running,
flying, or swimming away; that is 100% failure. You are just as dead
if you fall while ascending or descending a mountain. It only counts
as a success if you get the animal out and back. If you have not climbed
a mountain, or jumped from a plane, or released and recovered a trained
wild animal, you cannot fully comprehend the feeling.
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List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @ clickersolutions.com