A Brief History of Dog Training - 70 years of Clicker Training - by Gail Fisher


In the beginning . . .
there was Col. Konrad Most - arguably the father of modern "traditional" dog training. Most trained military dogs in Germany at the turn of the 20th Century. His book, Training Dogs - A Manual, was published in German in 1910, but wasn't translated into English until 1954, the year of his death.

Most's training approach was widely adopted as the model for military training throughout the world, and is still used today for many military, police and service dog training programs. Although his techniques, which rely on collar corrections and punishment are considered and heavy-handed from today's perspective, Most's methods are based on the principles of operant learning that form the basis of clicker training.

Most's training techniques spread throughout the world as his students and disciples emigrated to other countries. Coming to the U.S. were Josef Weber (The Dog in Training, 1939) and Hans Tosutti (Companion Dog Training, 1948) who opened schools for training dogs in Philadelphia and Boston respectively. (In 1936, Tosutti founded the New England Dog Training Club in Boston - the oldest existing AKC member obedience training club in the country.)

One of Weber's students in the U.S. was Blanche Saunders (The Complete Book of Dog Obedience, 1954 and The Story of Dog Obedience, 1974). Saunders and Helene Whitehouse Walker are the originators of AKC Obedience trials, and traveled around the country spreading the concept of companion dog training to the public. Among Saunders' students and followers were many of the well-known trainers of the 1950's and 60's, including Winifred Strickland.

It's important to have this historical perspective to understand the global nature of so-called "traditional" training - based on the teachings of Konrad Most.

So what of clicker training? A video produced by Bob and Marion Bailey called "Patient Like the Chipmunks" offers an outstanding view of the history of operant conditioning of animals. Marion Bailey and her first husband, Keller Breland, were graduate students of B.F. Skinner. Leaving graduate school in the early '40's, they started Animal Behavior Enterprises - a business that trained and provided scores of animal species for commercial purposes.

Keller Breland was the first dog trainer to use a clicker - a tin cricket to, as he said, "bridge the time between the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer." (Quote from a conversation with Marion Breland Bailey). He used the sound to mark the desired behavior when training field dogs and herding dogs work in a field away from the handler. Breland called the click sound a "bridging stimulus."

It's possible that Breland's training approach using operant conditioning with a conditioned reinforcer might have spread beyond his own business were it not for World War II, which solidified the military model in pet dog training. Enter William Koehler, who, like Most was a military dog trainer. A Hollywood dog trainer, his book the Koehler Method of Dog Training was, and may still remain, the all-time best selling dog training book, forming the basis for virtually all dog training from the 1950's into the '70's.

Meanwhile, clicker training was being used by Keller Breland with other species. In the 1950's Marineland hired him to develop a training program for their marine mammals. In a matter of weeks, Keller devised the system of marine mammal training that is still in use today. The Brelands worked with many trainers and associates who worked in a variety of locations, including Sea Life Park, which was then owned by Karen Pryor and her husband.

Skip ahead a few years to 1984 when Karen Pryor wrote Don't Shoot the Dog, a guide to human interpersonal relations. Serendipitously, the book's title skyrocketed Pryor (well, perhaps 6 or 7 years isn't exactly a skyrocket) to the attention of dog trainers. Pryor met Gary Wilkes-a professional dog trainer and the first person since Keller Breland to use clicker training on a wide variety of dogs in a wide variety of applications. Gary and Karen hooked up to do seminars together and the die was cast for the word of clicker training to spread throughout the dog-training community.

It is through the wonders of the Internet that clicker training has spread as rapidly as it has-else what has happened in less than 10 years might have taken 25 or more.

Why is this history important? Well, history is important - and fascinating. And as this history demonstrates, clicker training is not just some touchy feely, New Age approach to training dogs. Keller Breland used clicker training with dogs over 70 years ago -a decade before marine mammals. But it's taken nearly all this time for the dog training community to catch up. And thank goodness we have. Dogs are the better for it!

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