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Clicker-Mad
Karen Pryor took tools and insights refined with dolphins and applied them to dogs, and training has never been the same… thank goodness!
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In 1974, Karen Pryor zipped off her wet suit and hung up her dolphin-training whistle—for good, she thought. She left Hawaii and eventually moved to New York City with her teenage daughter, where she set up shop as a freelance writer. Pryor already had two books under her belt, and now embarked on her third: an easy-to-read manual on using the science of operant conditioning in everyday life, whether it be with pet Poodles or grouchy bus drivers. She hoped, as she says, that the book would also stop parents from yelling at their kids. Taking a line from Pryor’s manuscript, her editor dubbed the book Don’t Shoot the Dog. Pryor hated the title.

The slim volume was published in 1984. It didn’t stop people from screaming at their kids as Pryor had hoped. It was, however, embraced by dog trainers, and in short order, Pryor was invited to speak at their gatherings. She accepted nervously—she knew dolphins far better than she knew dogs. “I was completely surprised,” Pryor says. “It was only because of the title that I had objected to.”

Twenty-some years later, Pryor’s book is still in print. The author has become a well-known training authority, and clicker training, the method her book inspired and she fostered, has made noticeable inroads. Exactly how many people are using clicker training is unclear. Estimates vary from 10 to 50 percent of professional dog trainers. The training method certainly has a very real presence on the web: 150 chat lists exist on Yahoo alone. In the past year, visits to Pryor’s company’s website, clickertraining.com, have increased 72 percent. Hits have come from around the globe, including Kenya, China, even Iran.

Not only has clicker training grown exponentially in the past dozen years, but its emphasis on using positive reinforcement has turned dog training on its head. “It’s night and day now,” says Jean Donaldson, director of the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy of Dog Trainers and author of The Culture Clash.

Before clicker training, the Koehler method, relying on correction and punishment, was the overwhelmingly predominant style. The only choice, Donaldson says, was what kind of collar to use—pinch or prong. Traditional dog training is all about telling a dog he’s made a mistake by jerking his leash or pinching his ear. Clicker training took a glass-half-full approach.

“We never taught the dog what to do,” says Corally Burmaster, a longtime trainer who runs the Clicker Training Center in Leeds, Virginia. “We taught them what not to do. The emphasis now is finding positive ways to communicate to our dogs what we want them to do. The emphasis has shifted dramatically.”

Pryor, in large part, is responsible for this shift. Though not the first to use positive reinforcement with dogs, she was the first to explain how it could be used effectively with them, not to mention with other species. Though dog trainers have worked out the finer points of clicker training, Pryor provided the philosophical underpinnings and scientific ideas behind it. As Ken Ramirez, head of training at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, puts it, “Her book was a guiding light.” Leave it to a dolphin trainer to revolutionize the world of dog training.

This morning in Newport, Rhode Island, Pryor’s influence can be seen and heard. Nearly 400 trainers, mostly women in fleece pullovers with clickers dangling from their necks like lockets, have flocked to a seaside hotel for a weekend of seminars put on by Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Their vans and wagons, with bumper stickers that read “I Click with My Dog,” cram the parking lot. They wander the hotel’s halls with Border Collies and Australian Shepherds by their side. The dogs can’t resist a bark or two at the sight of Panda, a clicker-trained seeing-eye horse, who parts the crowd like a visiting monarch wherever she goes. A slightly high, tinny sound, like people snapping their fingers, echoes through the hotel. This crisp beat, a percussive rendition of the word “yes,” has an uncanny cheeriness to it.

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