Animal Training: Simple, But Not Easy

This past week in ORCA (our graduate student animal training lab at UNT) we watched Bob Bailey’s newest DVD. The DVD is called Operant Conditioning with Bob Bailey and if you haven’t seen it, you should! (Dogwise sells it on their website HERE). Here’s the trailer for the DVD, for anyone who’s interested. Below I’ll share a few of my thoughts about the DVD.

DVD Trailer: Operant Conditioning with Bob Bailey

Bob Bailey is one of the fathers of modern animal training practices. First a student of biology and zoology, Bob Bailey began training dolphins for the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s. In the mid-1960s, he went to work for Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), an animal training company founded by Keller Breland and Marian Breland, two students of B.F. Skinner. I’ll write a longer post about ABE later this summer, but it was a fantastic company and one of the driving forcing that brought the science of behavior out of the lab and applied this science of behavior to training pets, livestock and even exotic animals. (Much of the research and training ABE did in the 1960s and 1970s is still much more advanced than most of the training people are doing today.)

During the past couple of decades, Bob Bailey has spent much time teaching animal trainers how to be better trainers. One of his favorite ways to teach people to be better animal trainers is by making them train chickens. Why chickens? Chickens are fast moving and offer quite a bit of behavior. They are also actually pretty smart. So, if you can learn how to have the timing and mechanical skills to train a chicken, you should be prepared to train almost anything!

Much of the DVD is footage from Bob Bailey’s chicken training workshops. You’ll see people working on exercises to improve their timing and food delivery, as well as teaching (seemingly) simple behaviors, such as having a chicken peck a round circle. The DVD also has some neat footage and explanations of more difficult behaviors, including Bob’s cone discrimination. (When the two cones are yellow, the bird must make a figure-8 between them. When they are replaced by red cones, the bird must merely circle around the two cones. There is a short video of this task at the end of this previous blog post.) The DVD also shows how the same principles and ideas apply equally well to many other species, including dogs, horses, and a couple of polar bears.

One of my favorite things about the DVD is that it discusses many concepts and tips that are needed to get top level performance. For instance, one training task shown in the video is how to get a chicken to peck only at a red square, never at a yellow or blue square. However, Bob Bailey has his students train this behavior to such a high level that if the bird is presented with only the yellow and blue square, it will completely ignore both of them and not peck either of them (for at least 20 seconds). Now that’s what we call great stimulus control. He does this by breaking down the task into many parts, so that the bird is almost always correct. He gradually has his students make the task more complex, until the birds can do the final behavior with a very high degree of accuracy.

Why the title of this post? Bob Bailey likes to say that animal training is “simple, but not easy.” Meaning, most everything about great training can be summed up in a handful of simple ideas and principles. Many of Bob’s favorite principles are presented during the DVD. However, many of these simple skills, such as timing, food delivery, knowing when to raise criteria, and so on, can take a lifetime to perfect.

So, if you have a chance, I’d definitely recommend watching this DVD, Operant Conditioning with Bob Bailey. If anyone else has had a chance to watch it, I’d love to hear your review!

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