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Karen Pryor and Clicker Training

This month I’m focusing on trainers who influence my work. Naturally I’m starting with Karen Pryor.

Karen Pryor first got the idea for clicker training dogs when working with dolphins. Unlike dog trainers at the time who relied heavily on choke chains and other aversive techniques, dolphin trainers could not employ punishment to teach the dolphins. Instead, these trainers used positive reinforcement to encourage learning. But in order for the learner to learn, you have to reinforce the behavior as it happens rather than long afterward, which presented a problem for the trainers--they couldn't be in the water with the dolphins as they worked! To solve this problem, the trainers used whistles to tell the animals that the behavior they just performed was the right one and that a tasty fish would be coming their way soon. As Pryor explains in her ground-breaking book, Don't Shoot the Dog, the principles of marking and reinforcing behavior work the same way for dolphins and dogs and cats and chickens and human teenagers. Instead of a whistle, Pryor used a simple mechanical clicker. And so clicker training was born.

Clicker--or marker--training depends on classical conditioning: for the marker to work you create a happy association between it and the reinforcer. Soon enough the marker will predict the reinforcement and can itself become reinforcing. Clickers work well for marking behavior because you can capture it with a quick, consistent sound every time. But you don't have to use a clicker; you can also use a word like yes. Having a word marker means you'll never leave it at home or have to juggle it with a leash and treats. Keeping the sound consistent, however, can be challenging.

There's a clear order to training with a marker: you say a cue (if you are using one), the dog performs the behavior, you mark it, and then you give him a treat or other reinforcer like a toy and some play. Timing of the click / marker word and the treat matters--you want to leave a little space between the marker and the reinforcer. If you do both at the same time, the marker won't take on a meaning of its own.

In 2007 Karen Pryor founded the Karen Pryor Academy and began offering courses for trainers. The KPA is now headed by Ken Ramirez who teaches at the Ranch, the Academy's home base. There, students learn to train goats, donkeys, alpacas, and a llama, demonstrating how positive reinforcement works across a wide range of species.

Karen Pryor paved the way for a new generation of trainers who wanted to use kinder methods to work with the animals in their care and she has had a profound influence on the dog training world.

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