Seeker. Explorer. Observer. Naturalist. Those words describe Karen Pryor. Her desire to explore and observe are deeply rooted. Even as a child, Karen had an insatiable curiosity about the world around her. She spent her days in the gardens and fields, armed with a magnifying glass, butterfly net, and a jar for studying her natural treasures. “I was the child who was mucking around in the pond, examining what I found, picking up rocks, looking at leaves,” she has said. “I was the child who watched animals, kept aquariums, collected butterflies and moths, and knew the name and habitats of every bird, tree, and wildflower in my neighborhood.”
In 2017, when Karen retired from her management role at Karen Pryor Clicker Training, we asked her what she was looking forward to most in her next chapter. She said she was looking forward to the opportunity to get back to her naturalist roots.
I'm finally getting a chance to play again.
“I’m finally getting a chance to play again. Oh, it’s wonderful.” At the age of 84, Karen rediscovered play. She moved from the quiet suburbs of Boston to the city. She immersed herself in the joy of music and ballroom dancing, taking Ubers to attend her weekly dance lessons and choral rehearsals. The city was her playground, until the pandemic hit.
As for so many of us, COVID abruptly halted Karen’s many activities and interactions. With the loss of her social life, she began to show signs of dementia. Karen’s three children, Ted, Mike, and Gale, became concerned that the city was no longer a safe place for her. “So, we put her out to pasture,” jokes Gale, “literally.” Karen and her cat Leo joined Mike, his wife Eileen, and their elderly dog, cats, and chickens on their small ranch in the California Sierras. A carpenter by trade, Mike built a beautiful little cottage for Karen in the pasture where his daughter’s horses once grazed. It was there, surrounded by nature and the mountains, that Karen rediscovered her naturalist roots. “If dementia brings you to your core, in Karen’s case, her love of animals and nature is her core,” says Gale. “They are still a huge draw for her and, not surprisingly, they are still drawn to her.”
Karen now spends her days as she did when she was a child. She observes and comments on the birds that flock to the many feeders surrounding her cottage. She marvels at the grandeur of the mountains on the horizon and makes keen observations about the world around her. Her children wonder at the beauty of what they call their mother’s “dementia poetry.” “Look,” Karen tells her son with her gaze fixed upward, “the clouds are inventing themselves.” Even the earth has become a source of joy and exploration. Karen has again become an avid collector of rocks, as she was in her childhood, and thoughtfully arranges the stones in her little garden. She enjoys taking walks, solving jigsaw puzzles, going out to lunch with her companions, and even dancing whenever music plays. As always, Karen loves a good party.
The essence of Karen is still there. She looks for the positive in everything.
“The essence of Karen is still there,” says Gale. “She looks for the positive in everything. And that’s unusual in dementia, when people so often become anxious or angry. She’s not. She’s happy and peaceful. Karen is proof that clicker training is good for your soul as well as for your dog. It teaches you to focus on the positive in behavior
and in life. And it’s the essence of who Karen has been all her life.”
Gale continues, “Dementia has caused Karen’s memory to fade. She is losing track of the past. And yet, she is very much the same person she always has been. Only now, she appreciates what’s in front of her today, in this moment. And she has never stopped being curious.”
When we observe life through the lens of a positive trainer, we never stop seeking, discovering, learning, and marveling at all that is good in this world.
It’s her deeply rooted curiosity and keen observation skills that prompted Karen to spread the seeds of change. She changed the way we communicate with animals—and with one another. She taught us that in order to be good trainers, we must first be good listeners and observers. She taught us that we can overcome challenges by finding something to reinforce, however small, and build from there. And now, as she sits in her garden in the Sierras appreciating the beauty around her, she reminds us that when we observe life through the lens of a positive trainer, we never stop seeking, discovering, learning, and wondering at all that is good in this world. We’ll find it in the fields, the mountains, the trees, and clouds. It’s lying beneath stones and at the bottom of murky ponds. We’ll even find it within one another. It’s right in front of us, always.
“I’m not done yet,” Karen declared on her last day at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. It seems she meant it; she is not done teaching us. We are so grateful, Karen. Happy 90 birthday!