For many years, my family and I have had the good fortune of traveling to the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. It is a glorious part of the world-as close to paradise as you can imagine-and we pray that time passes quickly from the end of one trip to the start of next.
Life changes refreshingly little in these islands, but on our arrival several years ago, we heard about something new and exciting that was going on up at Baker's Bay, a 40-minute boat ride from where we were staying: a group of behavioral scientists had set up a dolphin training center and the public was welcome to come and watch them work. Not only that, there were times of the day when you could swim with the dolphins in their in-ocean netted enclosure. That's all we had to hear. We were up and on our way well before eight o'clock the next morning. It turned out to be one of the most electrifying days of our lives.
We knew that dolphins are among the most intelligent of animals, but until you swim side by side with one, you can't fully appreciate its gentle yet immense power, its sensitivity, its grace. Our youngsters, who had been timid at first, cried when they had to come out of the wondrous pool. But there were more thrills ahead.
The scientists now began a training session. I didn't quite understand the technique at the time, but the sequence was always the same: the trainer gave a verbal or hand signal; the dolphin responded; the trainer immediately tooted on a whistle and tossed the dolphin a treat (a fish or two). Some animals progressed more quickly than others, of course, but all of them were excellent "students." I was absolutely fascinated and moved by this beautifully effective, positive training method.
After the swimming and the training "show" and a perfect picnic lunch, I wandered back to the training area to see what more I could learn. The young trainers were delighted to talk about the dolphins, the idyllic lifestyle that they themselves enjoyed living and working in the Bahamas, and their hopes for ever-broader applications for the method they were using. They explained that this kind of training was formally known as operant conditioning, that they were "shaping" the animals' behavior. And they told me that without question the greatest practitioner of the process my family and I had witnessed that morning was someone named Karen Pryor, who had done most of her original work in Hawaii. They spoke with an unmistakable reverence for Karen, and told me that two books she had written, Lads Before the Wind and Don't Shoot the Dog! were must-reads.
How right they were! Within a week, I had read both books and become completely absorbed with the Pryor approach to training. When we returned from our trip, I immediately began what she calls clicker training with our somewhat stubborn (but loveable) Labrador retriever, Ben. To my delight and amazement, Ben caught on almost immediately. After only a few lessons, a dog that had previously gone into a heeling position only when it struck his fancy was now marching along consistently and smartly, in lockstep with me. In the past, Ben had come when called sluggishly, sometimes almost resentfully, but after just a few days of this training he sped to me as though I had a T-bone in each hand. I had, in effect, helped shape a new and better Ben, and it was thanks to Karen Pryor.
A couple of years later I made a career change, moving from a major magazine company to join the Publishing Division of the American Kennel Club. The monthly AKC Gazette, the organization's flagship publication, is a mainstay in the world of purebred dog fanciers nationwide. It has been in continuous publication since 1889, and, as such, is the oldest sporting journal in this country. The Gazette survives-and, indeed, thrives-because of its strict adherence to presenting accurate information in a quality format. We don't compromise.
As the new man in charge, I was mightily impressed with the lineup of regular contributors to the magazine, an all-star array of photographers, illustrators and authors. And-certainly you've guessed it by now-at the top of the list was Karen Pryor who, delightfully for me, continues to write a regular column for us.
Karen's home base is Watertown, Massachusetts, but she travels a great deal, making appearances, leading seminars, and conducting workshops-"spreading the word of clicker training," as she puts it. I've now met with her a couple of times here in our AKC offices in New York. She is a small, attractive woman who brims with enthusiasm, especially when she ever so gently describes her work and her hopes for its future. She is truly one of a kind: a scientist-trainer-author-visionary. I am proud to play some small role in provided a forum for her.
We give readers of the AKC Gazette a new world of opportunities through Karen Pryor's writing. Now, with this collection, that world opens to you, too.
Publisher, The American Kennel Club