Training the Animal is the Easy Part

Bob Bailey (Keynote Speaker): Training the Animal is the Easy Part: Animal Trainer’s Search for a Behavioral Touchstone

Bob Bailey was the keynote speaker for our 2009 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the conference.
However, he sent this letter which was read at the conference.


To my Applied Behavior Colleagues and other ORCA Conference attendees:

Good Morning, and welcome to this ORCA Conference. My deepest thanks to Dr. Rosales-Ruiz for the invitation to speak here. I am most honored to included in this program. Jesús and ORCA should be congratulated for their efforts to bring together this incredible group of behavioral practitioners. It is inspiring consider how many decades of animal training experience is assembled before you.

In case you haven’t noticed by now, this is not Bob Bailey presenting; I wish it were, but it’s not. If I could be there I would be. After all, I am still a student of behavior and, like you; I want to learn from this talented group of speakers. But, last week, I underwent quadruple coronary bypass surgery. Everything went well. The cardiac surgeon’s behavior was impeccable, though I must admit that I had little to do with arranging the consequences of his behavior. I am on the road to recovery. I am sitting at the computer right now with my newly redesigned heart. I am thinking of what I would have said if I were there with you. What can I say in a few minutes.

I know I would have said animal training is both a technology and a craft. It is a technology based on a science of behavior. It is a craft that employs physical skills. Animal training is a mechanical skill. Applied animal behavior, or animal training, can be passed from teacher to student. We can learn to change our own behavior. We can teach others to change their behavior. We can advance the field of animal behavior.

Ancient animal trainers were skilled at their craft. In many ways they were very effective animal trainers. However, there was little understanding of how behavior changed. There was very little objectivity. There was an almost universal search for a “touchstone” or magical methodology for changing behavior. The search for mysterious behavioral mechanisms restricted the horizons of early animal trainers. Then came science and the application of the scientific method. Biology, psychology, and other sciences added to our understanding of the “why” and “how” of behavior.

In spite of the rise of science and the scientific method there still seems to be some human “need” to provide over-simplified or poorly understood explanations for why we do what we do. As trainers we are sometimes prone to accept glib and unproven explanations. We sometimes fail to ask the question – “is this true?” We sometimes fail to test our hypotheses. A new training fad comes down the pike and we accept it because others say that it works. I suggest that animal trainers should keep an open mind, but be willing to accept a healthy skepticism of what appears to be obvious. I suggest that animal trainers should try new methods; but, not to prove that the new method works, but to establish “does the new method work.”

I believe the “touchstone” of science should be the careful application of the scientific method. I believe the touchstone of modern, scientific animal training should be the same – application of the scientific method. We may have our “pet” training method that we think works best. We teach others that our method is best. How do we know this method is best? Where is the data? Are we willing to admit when our method doesn’t work best? Are we simply marketing a methodology? Are we selling something? Is this an ego trip? Are we willing to teach “the real thing” rather than some glitzy fad? These are questions that each of you, as teachers and animal trainers, should ask yourself. I commend each of you for giving your time and your hard earned dollars to attend this ORCA conference to hear the words of those who have spent much of their lives applying and teaching the technology and craft of animal training.

If I represent animal training’s past, those of you listening to this are animal training’s future. Animal training has been kind to me. Animal training has provided food for my table and been a source of intellectual stimulation for half a century. I have tried to pass on to others what I have learned. I have tried to pass on this information with a minimum of distortion.

Before signing off, let me say that I was most touched by the enormous outpouring of emails, cards, letters, flowers, and even foodstuffs over the last week. The offering by some to come to Hot Springs to attend me left me speechless. All I can say is that I am the most fortunate of men. My deepest thanks for your kind attention.

Bob Bailey

Click here to return to the 2009 Conference Program