Bob Bailey and Animal Training

I’m nearing the end of a series of posts on the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. This post is some of my thoughts on the presentation by the second speaker, and one of my favorites, Bob Bailey. Bob Bailey is well known through out the dog training world for his infamous chicken camps–in which he uses chickens to teach trainers the mechanics, timing and finer points of training. Chickens move fast–so you have to click at EXACTLY the right time!

Bob Bailey is more than just a chicken trainer, though. He was Director of Training of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in the early 1960s and later partnered with Marian Breland to run Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), after the death of Keller Breland. ABE was an anomaly in the 1950s and 1960s, using operant conditioning and positive methods to train a wide range of species for animal shows, TV commercials, the government, and even travelling salesmen.

Much of the first part of Bob Bailey’s talk was about the history of animal training and clicker training. I find this subject fascinating–in part because there are so many misconceptions about the history of training. My favorite (and one that I hear most often) is that clicker training was developed by dolphin trainers. Not true.

The principles of operant conditioning originated out of lab work done by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s with rats and pigeons. He was aided by graduate students, including Marian Breland and Keller Breland. The Brelands realized the potential of applying what they had learned in the lab to commercial animal training.

Most training in the 50s and 60s was pretty aversive. Punishment, negative reinforcement, the do it or else! style of training. Even dolphin training in the 60s was largely based on punishment and aversives. (Hmm. There goes the myth that clicker training was developed for dolphins because dolphins can’t be trained with punishment!)

The Brelands produced and marketed a dog training kit in the mid-50s, the Master Mind Dog Training Kit. The kit was based on positive reinforcement and included instructions and a clicker. It failed miserably. The dog training community just wasn’t ready for positive training.

Many people think of clicker training with dogs and horses as a “new” phenomenon. And on the larger scale, it is. Clicker training didn’t really catch on with the broader community until after the publication of Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog in the 1980s.

However, what continually gets me is that much of the work Bob Bailey and the Brelands were doing in the 1960s far surpasses much of the training I see around me today. Bird shows and dolphin shows, trained chickens, pigs and cows for travelling feed salesmen, birds and dogs for government work, the odd rabbit, raccoon, ferret or pony for a TV commercial or animal show, they trained them all.

They understood how to get behavior and the science behind what they were doing. They also did a lot of training, with a lot of different species, in a lot of different conditions. That’s a lot of a lots! But, there’s something to be learned from this. Lots and lots of practice, as well as a willingness to experiment and try new things is what will make each of us a better trainer. Animal training is much more a learned skill than a natural talent. This also ties back to the concept of broadening, which Dr. Robert Epstein talked about. By trying and learning new things, we can expand our potential and creativity as trainers.

Bob Bailey’s talk also included a great discussion on reinforcers, but I’ll save my thoughts on that for a later post. I’ll leave you with a lovely video from one of Bob Bailey’s students at a chicken camp. The chicken is trained to go in circles around red cones and figure eights around yellow cones. It’s an interesting discrimination problem where the objects themselves serve as cues for the two different behaviors.

Watch this clip on youtube.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy the rest of my notes from the 2010 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference or my notes from the 2009 conference. Better yet, bookmark the ORCA website and come to the 2011 conference next spring! Sign up for e-mail updates to make sure you don’t miss any of the great posts from

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