If I could talk to the animals:
Karen Pryor’s 1992 ABA Convention speech

Recipient of the 2017 Anderson Award - Karen PryorAt our 2017 annual conference, ASAT was thrilled to honor Karen Pryor as the second recipient of the Edward L. Anderson Jr. Award. Karen Pryor has been a pioneer in the field of animal training over the past decades and has been instrumental in educating animal trainers, scientists, and the general public about clicker training and positive reinforcement training methods.

While presenting the award to Karen Pryor, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz shared several short video clips from a speech that Karen had given in 1992.

The speech, which was titled “If I Could Talk to the Animals: Reinforcement Interactions as Communication” was given at the annual convention for the Association of Behavior Analysis (now called the Association of Behavior Analysis International). Karen Pryor had been invited by ABA president, Dr. Edward Morris, to give the annual President’s Invited Scholar’s Address.

With permission from Karen Pryor, we are happy to be able to share the entire lecture with you for free on our site.

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Historical background

Who is Karen Pryor? Many people know of Karen Pryor because of her 1985 book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and the company she founded, Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). KPCT, which was founded in 2001, manages both the Karen Pryor Academy for Dog Trainers and the popular ClickerExpo conferences.

However, Karen was first introduced to positive reinforcement animal training in the 1960s when she worked as a dolphin trainer at SeaLife Park in Hawaii. The idea of training dolphins was still relatively new at this point, so Karen and her fellow trainers had to be pretty creative and innovative as they figured out how to apply positive reinforcement principles from the lab to dolphins. Karen’s first training book, Lads Before the Wind (1975) details her experiences and insights during this period.

Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog was published in 1985, and Karen began giving some lectures to both dog trainers and businesses. However, things really took off in 1992, when Karen and several other animal trainers were invited to present at the Association for Behavior Analysis annual convention in San Fransisco, California.

Karen was asked to give the President’s Invited Scholar’s Address at the convention. Also as part of the convention, a group of four trainers presented a panel discussion on operant conditioning and animal training. This included Karen Pryor, Gary Wilkes, Gary Priest, and Ingrid Kang Shallenberger.

Just after the 1992 ABA conference, Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes put on the first Don’t Shoot the Dog! clicker training seminar. Approximately 250 dog trainers participated from the Bay Area. This was the first of many seminars that Karen and Gary did together in the 1990s. It was these seminars that really helped clicker training take off in the dog training world and later in the training of horses, cats, and other domestic animals.

Interestingly, even though these trainers in the early 1990s used clickers, the label “clicker training” still hadn’t caught on. In the video, you will notice that Karen refers repeatedly to trainers who use positive reinforcement as “Skinnerian trainers.” She never once uses the label “clicker training.”

We hope you will take the time to watch Karen’s 1992 lecture. In the lecture, she discusses that traditional trainers often aim for a product or an outcome. What makes positive reinforcement trainers different is that they strive to set up a system of communication with the animal.

When this happens, the animal starts communicating back to you! Sometimes the animal is happy. Sometimes it may be frustrated or annoyed. Sometimes the animal wants or needs something. In all cases, the animal is able to use his behavior to communicate back to the trainer.

This was a powerful idea in 1992, and we think it is still such a powerful idea today. Clicker training and positive reinforcement training gives us the tools to develop genuine two-way communication with our animals. It gives us a way to talk to the animals.

Links and resources

The Association for Behavior Analysis International. Since 1974, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) has been the primary membership organization for those interested in the philosophy, science, application, and teaching of behavior analysis.

Karen Pryor Clicker Training, the company that Karen Pryor founded in 2001.

Historical perspectives: Karen Pryor. From the 2014 Aquatic Mammals Journal

Obituary of Kenneth Norris from the New York Times

An oral history biography of Ken Norris by Randall Jarrell and Irene Reti