1. Tell us a little about your training background and the history of Don't Shoot the Dog.
My life in training occurred entirely by accident. My first husband started SeaLife Park in Hawaii in the 1960s. I wasn't involved intially -- I was busy raising my children. I was a writer with an academic background in field biology, with a little background in psychology. I had trained a Shetland pony foal and a Weimeraner puppy. I took the pup to a traditional class. Had a great time -- we did well in competition obedience.
Anyway, SeaLife Park was about to open, and they had decided to have dignified dolphin shows. One of our advisors had come across a new way of training, very scientific and accessible. We created a manual based on instructions from one of BF Skinner's labs, and three months before the park opened, dolphins had trained trainers to give them fish for nothing. Since I was the only one with *any* training experience -- remember the dog and the foal? -- the park trainers recommended I take over. I was reluctant -- I had small children and would be working for my husband. But I read the manual and was fascinated. I could see where I had made mistakes in training the dog and couldn't wait to try it with the dolphins. At this point no one else was training dolphins -- the Brelands were just beginning their dolphin work with the Navy in a different part of the country -- so there was no established tradition of dolphin training and lots of opportunity to experiment.
In the first three months, I and three helpers trained 14 or 15 dolphins. We opened with two different shows (performed four or five times a day). We had great fun planning and performing those shows. You can read all about them in my book Lads Before the Wind. We continued the dolphin shows for several years, then branched into other animals -- birds, pigs, dogs, fish -- and other applications, such as open water work and work for the Navy.
I left SeaLife Park in 1972 and hadn't planned to continue working with animals or training. I wrote Lads Before the Wind in 1975, got a job in an ad agency, and planned to be a writer. I thought Lads Before the Wind would tell everyone everything about training -- no more choke chains or yelling at kids -- but I found people didn't make the extrapolation. I began to think I needed to write another book so people would know how to apply the information. So I wrote a proposal for Don't Shoot the Dog. After it was published, I began getting requests from both dog people and corporate people about how to teach training, so I began lecturing.
In 1992 I got back into training personally. I was nervous in early conferences because I didn't consider myself a dog trainer and didn't know how to talk about it. It turned out to be easy. I did seminars with Gary Wilkes. Gary found the box clickers -- thought they would be a great souvenier. We made videos. Then came more seminars. I began teaching informal and formal workshops and seminars on my own. After three or four years, knew a lot more about clicking dogs. This last decade has had a lot of hands-on work. My job is to teach the person though.
2. Were you surprised when clicker training began to catch on with dog trainers?
No. I just wondered what took so long. I'm still surprised at how hard it is to get dog trainers to think about it and how hard it is to get them to shift. Why is dog training such a mystique? This is so easy. It shouldn't even be an issue!
3. How do you define clicker training?
The technology was originally called Operant Conditioning -- and it's still called that in the zoos. In the dog world, once we got the mailing lists going, the term OC became the subject of debate.
Although OC includes punishment, when training exotics, punishment is rarely used. Trainers of exotics, when discussing OC, are speaking of positive reinforcement training. In the dog world, however, punishment was a common part of training. So we began using the term clicker training to mean "Operant Conditioning using positive reinforcement and the marker signal."
But as clicker training has grown, it has begun to mean more. The technology is evolving way past the above definition. There are a lot of aspects about it that have nothing to do with conditioning. Sometimes it's more like a causitive event, which is outside the definition -- but not outside the practice. For example, on my Web site, I have a post about tracking. In that post the writer describes and event that cannot be described as simply training but as just communicating. A conversation. No conditioning here. It's cognitive learning. Dolphin trainers jokingly refer to it as writing it on the blackboard and hanging it in the tank.
4. You coined the term "clicker training" and popularized the technique among the general public. How do you feel when people add a clicker to an otherwise traditional program and call it clicker training?
I think we all call that "clicker using." I find it mildly annoying that they consider it clicker training, and it's inconvenient because the pet-owning public doesn't know the difference. I consider it an example of someone who just isn't completely educated yet.
5. Do you consider clicker training a fad?
No, of course not. It's a nickname for a new technology I think is here to stay. I think we're getting to the point where we can't go back -- where it's becoming part of the culture. It's developing in so many ways and places. It's become accepted technology that people understand.
6. What makes clicker training different?
It's based on reinforcement. Based on observation of what is actually happening istead of what didn't happen and trying to figure out why. It's a different world view. It's about much more than training a behaivor. It's a global way of interacting.
7. What advice would you give to new clicker trainers?
Go to ClickerSolutions. Then do it. The way to learn it is to do it. The point is not to teach people to do it, but to teach people what it is so they can do it themselves.
8. What are you doing now to popularize and promote clicker training?
I'm running Sunshine Books! We have a line of products, we have trainers out teaching it, we have a big marketing push to get clickers into the shelter community and into veterinary clinics, and we have developed the clicker fun cards (1-10 on the back of a card, the least amount of infomration a person needs to be able to do it).
My goal is to have a clicker in the hands of every parent on the planet. I want them thinking forward -- how to get behavior instead of how to stop it. I want to write another book. I think I'm bringing the voices of the clicker community onto a bigger stage.
9. What's your vision for the future of clicker training?
I want this to become part of the culture -- that we think in terms of reinforcement when dealing with each other. That's why I started the Pryor Foundation. It's dedicated to finding ways to use the eye-opening, lightbulb experience that your behavior has an effect on the world and you can control it. For example, we've taken the technology into abusive family situations. It shifts the family dynamic in a dramatic way. We're collecting data on this now, and we'll be publishing about it.
10. Aside from the career aspects, has clicker training affected your life?
I stopped yelling at my kids. I'm a "cross-over," and I do resort to verbal leash pops now and then, but when faced with a confrontation, my first thought is always to think of it from a clicker standpoint, not a personal standpoint.
11. What has clicker training taught you?
Oh gosh. Lots of things. The most useful is what I wrote in "Being a Changemaker" -- people wouldn't be so angry if they hadn't recognized some truth in what you're saying.
12. What was your favorite clicker training moment?
Whichever one I just had. When writing the cat book, I had to negotiate peace between a kitten and a cat-killing terrier. I also had to train six or eight photographable tricks, and I learned so much about cat behavior while doing that -- things that aren't in the cat ethology. Clicker training has brought me back to the field biology I started with.
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List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @ clickersolutions.com