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Who Started Clicker Training for Dogs?

A question was posed on the ClickerExpo Yahoo Group e-mail list recently: "Who started clicker training for dogs?" Here, Morgan Spector supplies the answer.

Karen started the whole ball rolling with Don't Shoot the Dog, but that's not a dog-training book. Rather, it is a popular presentation of the essentials of operant conditioning.

dog in tall grass

Karen and Gary Wilkes introduced operant ("clicker") training to dog trainers with a series of seminars in 1992 and 1993. Gary located the box clickers and both he and Karen distributed them at the first clicker training seminar, in San Francisco in May of 1992. I became a convert at their Anaheim seminar in March 1993. In 1994, Karen and Gary split up as a team due to essential philosophical differences, principally over Gary's willingness to use aversive techniques—his "bonker."

So, sometime around the middle of 1993 there was a very small group of people—Sue Garrett, Sue Ailsby, Corally Burmaster, Gary Wilkes, Debi Davis, Kathleen Weaver, Steve White, myself, and several others sprinkled here and there—participating in the first clicker training online discussion group, click-l, started by Kathleen Weaver, a Texas trainer. We were all more or less starting from scratch and talking about what we were doing, our mistakes, and our successes. We had all the fuzzy-headed discussions about behaviorist terminology, and more. Around the time that I was articulating how I was teaching signals, Karen wrote to me and said, "You are working on a book with this stuff, you know."

We were all more or less starting from scratch and talking about what we were doing, our mistakes, and our successes.

My book, Clicker Training for Obedience, was published in 1998, a month or so after Alexandra Kurland's first book, and together they were Sunshine Books' first formal entry into the world of clicker training for dogs and horses. Since then, of course, there have been myriad articles, books, videos, etc. I wouldn't even want to try to start to list all the publications and lists that have been founded in the intervening years. Bob and Mouse Bailey had a lot to do with it in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they started their chicken camps; we did several "chicken/dog" seminars during that time, including two or three at Terry Ryan's Legacy Camp. And speaking of Terry, Jean Donaldson, and others in that vein, while they were not clicker trainers as such, they promoted a positive philosophy of dog training and really did work with operant principles even though they didn't always articulate them that way. In that camp we also include trainers like Patty Ruzzo and Dawn Jecs.

So, "Who started clicker training for dogs?"

We all did. And we're all still doing it.

About the author
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Morgan Spector is the author of Clicker Training for Obedience and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

Karen Pryor's picture

Re: Origins of clicker training dogs

I believe Skinner himself was the first to say in print (in the 1940's) that the clicker would make a good conditioned reinforcer for dogs. Keller Breland and Marian Breland were graduate students of B.F. Skinner, and did a huge amount of early and innovative training with the clicker and other 'bridging' stimuli (bridging was Keller's term.) I date the beginning of the infectious spread of the clicker in the dog community to a scientific panel discussion at an Association for Behavior Analysis meeting, followed by a seminar hosted by Kathleen Chin in a San Francisco suburb, in May of 1992. Gary Wilkes and I had a bunch of the newly available box clickers printed up and distributed them to everyone at both meetings. Then, as Morgan wrote, more dog training seminars followed, the click reached the Internet, and things just took off from there.

Ah the memories!

Morgan, thanks for the trip down memory lane, with the early days of Click-L and our dizzying, exciting discussions!


Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA CPDT CAP2
Stacy's Wag'N'Train

Origins of clicker training dogs

In the interest of historical accuracy, I think it is important to realize that clicker training dogs goes way further than the 1990's. Keller Breland (together with Marian Breland) was training dogs with a clicker already in mid 1940's, but it took an additional 50 years for it to really catch on. See e.g. http://www.clickersolutions.com/interviews/bailey.htm.

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