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Clicker-Mad

A small army, about 100 strong, settles into rows of padded banquet seats to listen to Pryor talk about cleaning up cues. While a Whippet gnaws loudly on a rawhide in the aisle, Pryor describes the various ways we humans, with all our fidgeting, give dogs—who take body language literally—inadvertent cues. When you give a hand cue for “sit,” she says, you may unconsciously cock your head or throw out a hip. Maybe you toss back your hair. To the canine mind, these are all important signals. “Which one is the dog following?” Pryor says. “God only knows.”

The assembled are here as much to learn about cues as they are to sit at the feet of their inspirational leader. If they expected someone with buckets of charisma, à la Cesar Millan, they might be disappointed. Pryor has an unassuming presence, except for a smile so warm it’s almost beatific. At 74, she’s slender and keeps her hair a soft shade of strawberry blond. She has an easy, down-to-earth manner and isn’t afraid to make mistakes when working a dog in front of an audience. She is also not one for mystique. If anything, Pryor is the anti-whisperer—she’s taken the mystery out of dog training, showing that you don’t have to be a natural or have a special aura. You just need a bit of science, a bit of operant conditioning. “It’s not magic,” Pryor says. “It’s just easy. Anyone with an IQ can do it.”

At its core, operant conditioning is deceptively simple: Behavior is shaped by its consequences. At Harvard University, B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, demonstrated this through countless experiments with pigeons. He also found that positive reinforcement was far more effective than punishment at soliciting desired behaviors. As Pryor points out, operant conditioning isn’t hard to understand but is devilishly hard to apply, if only because it is so counterintuitive to humans, who are quick to use punishment as a teaching tool.

Pryor had her initial go at applying operant conditioning when her first husband drafted her to train the dolphins at his new marine facility, Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Pryor was far more interested in the park’s reef fish, but she was the only one handy with any training experience. She had worked with her Weimaraner, Gus, and then her Welsh ponies. However, nothing she had done with her dog or ponies really applied to the dolphins, especially given that she was on land and they were in a big tank of saltwater. She couldn’t use reins or a leash. If the dolphins didn’t want to work, they just swam off.

“A big ‘Aha!’ for me was discovering operant conditioning,” she says. Like other early dolphin trainers, she realized that a wholly new approach was needed, and found it in operant conditioning. The science not only made stunningly good sense to Pryor, but she quickly had proof of its effectiveness as she taught the wild-caught dolphins to flip on command. A crucial tool was the whistle, which, in operant-conditioning talk, is a bridge. The whistle tells the dolphin exactly when it has done the desired behavior and to come poolside for a reward of fish.

This was the crucial piece of the puzzle for dog trainers who had tried to use positive reinforcement, such as Burmaster. “The ability to communicate precisely what you wanted, that was the piece for me that was missing,” Burmaster says.

In her early talks to dog trainers, Pryor used her dolphin whistle to demonstrate how to use a bridge. Dog trainers got the idea, but didn’t go for the whistle. In 1991, Pryor teamed up with Gary Wilkes, then a shelter manager and now a well-known clicker trainer, to give talks. Wilkes proposed using a plastic noisemaker he’d found in a novelty store rather than a whistle. The twosome handed them out at a presentation, and clicker training was essentially born.

Burmaster, who had given up training because, as she says, “she got tired of jerking her dogs around,” attended a Pryor–Wilkes seminar that same year. She went home and in short order, taught her Airedale to hold a dumbbell and her quarter horse to quit whirling when it was released into the field. She returned to training and started the Clicker Journal. Likewise, Donaldson, after attending a seminar in 1992, went, as she says, “clicker mad.” “It blew my mind,” she says. “I went home and trained my dog for hours.”

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