Clicker Training History

Clicker training was started or pioneered by Burrhus Frederic “B.F.” Skinner. He made several scientific claims and wrote several books about human behaviors concerning operant conditioning. According to the dictionary, operant conditioning is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of behavior. This means that when the subject either an animal or a human does an action it will be reinforced negatively or positively.

In most instances, this mechanism can be broken down into positive and negative conditioning wherein the first happens when a positive behavior or attitude is rewarded. For example, a horse is now able to perform one trick. The latter happens when a bad behavior is punished.

Furthermore, it was actually Marian Kruse and Keller Breland, B.F. Skinner’s two undergrads, who were the first to utilize operant conditioning (commonly referred to as clicker training) with animals. They played a major role in developing scientifically-validated and humane animal training methods. These two individuals promoted the widespread use of their methods.

During World War II, they assisted Skinner on a task termed as ‘Project Pigeon.’ In this particular endeavor, they actually trained pigeons to guide bombs. This is hard to believe but it’s really true. They also found out how effective operant conditioning methods were in training animals efficiently to perform more complex behaviors or tasks. (Indeed, the said pigeon-guided missile system worked but was never used.) By then, they were already convinced that they could make their living using operant psychology to train animals.

Later on, they left B.F. Skinner’s school (prior to completing their degrees) and started their first commercial application of operant conditioning known as the Animal Behavior Enterprise (ABE). Their first contracts were with General Mills and they were then tasked to train animals for farm feed promotions. They were able to train the first free-flying bird shows and became the hosts of commercial animal exhibits. They also trained other animals like chickens to play tick-tack-toe, raccoons to play basketball, and even ducks that played pianos or drums.

Altogether, they continued and built the I.Q. Zoo, a tourist attraction in Hot Springs (Garland Country) that trained radio-carrying cats under a contract with the CIA. Dolphins, ravens and other birds were later used in training at least 140 other species including the common house dog. Popular acts in the zoo included chickens that walked tightropes, dispensed souvenirs and fortune cards, danced to the music from jukeboxes, played baseball and even ran the bases. There were also rabbits that kissed their (plastic) girlfriends, rode fire trucks and sounded sirens, and were able to roll the ‘wheel of fortune.’ With their outpouring popularity, the History Channel even rated the IQ Zoo as one of the most popular roadside tourist attractions of the twentieth century.