Karen Pryor: Positive Training Icon

An interview with Karen Pryor, who literally wrote the book that revolutionized training and continues to advance the art and science of dog-friendly training.


In 1985, upon publication of Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training, written by the now-famous proponent of canine clicker training, Karen Pryor, some people were confused. Was it actually a dog training book? Because it talked an awful lot about changing the behavior of humans!

Karen Pryor’s books describe why and how positive reinforcement works so well to improve the behavior of any animal species. Her experiences with marine and land mammals, as well as fish, birds, and even crustaceans, are engaging and legion.

Today, Don’t Shoot the Dog! is considered a ground-breaking text. The book helped revolutionize dog training, influenced untold numbers of dog owners and trainers to change their training methods, and helped its author develop a stellar reputation in the dog world. Not bad for a book that wasn’t written solely about dog training!

“This book is about how to train anyone – human or animal, young or old, oneself or others – to do anything that can and should be done.” That is the first sentence of the book’s Foreword. Pryor wrote Don’t Shoot the Dog! in order to share what she had learned about using operant conditioning to effectively, gently, and respectfully alter the behavior of those we share our lives with, whether they are human or nonhuman animals. The book contains many tactics for  training dogs, but Pryor also explains how the techniques described in the book can be used to make bosses more courteous, children better-behaved, cats less destructive, horses more compliant, and mothers-in-law more pleasant – all through the use of well-timed positive reinforcement.

The first chapter alone succinctly and clearly explains what positive reinforcement is (and is not), and how it differs from negative reinforcement. Pryor describes how reinforcement (of both kinds) alters the behavior of people and other animals in a variety of common situations, and how every living animal can be influenced – in a force-free way – to voluntarily change its behavior. She explains both how to increase behaviors that you enjoy and appreciate, and how to eliminate behaviors that you don’t like – without shooting the dog, or other negative fallout.

Pryor didn’t originate the principles of operant conditioning and learning theory, but she has certainly thought deeply about them and put them to good and effective use, and she’s particularly gifted at explaining them in an engaging, relatable way. Her background and education have a lot do with that.

Personal History
Pryor was born in 1932. Her mother was an antiques dealer; her father was a prolific writer, authoring fiction (mostly science fiction), screenplays, syndicated newspaper columns, and more. In 1954, Karen graduated from Cornell University (where she majored in English but dabbled in biology, ornithology, botany, and entomology) and married Taylor “Tap” Pryor. Tap also graduated Cornell that year, and immediately joined the U.S. Marines; he served his final months in the military in Hawaii, and was discharged as a Captain in 1957.

The family stayed on Oahu, and Tap took graduate courses in marine biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. When she wasn’t taking care of their three young children, Karen also took graduate courses at the University. She followed in her father’s footsteps as an author, publishing her first book, Nursing Your Baby, in 1963. (Its fourth edition, still in print and highly praised, was revised and co-authored in 1985 with her daughter, Gale Pryor.)

1963 was also the year that Tap, by then a founding partner in Sea Life Park, an oceanarium and research facility on Oahu, asked for his wife’s help with a project at work that had gotten unexpectedly difficult: training dolphins for a dolphin show.

Years before, the scientific advisor at Sea Life Park had studied a bottlenose dolphin for early research on sonar, hiring a psychology graduate student to train the dolphin. The student, a fan of Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, trained the dolphin using Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning. Sea Life Park’s advisor asked the same student to write a manual on using operant conditioning to train dolphins for the Park, and the resulting manual was given to the Park’s new employees.

Karen Pryor works with her dog, Twitchett, using a target stick, clicker, and treats, of course! The happy, engaged expressions both trainer and trainee wear are both a goal and a side effect of training with positive reinforcement.

The problem was, the Park employees, hired to put the manual into effect with several species of wild dolphins caught in the waters just off Oahu, found the manual (as Karen describes in her 2009 book, Reaching the Animal Mind) “pretty impenetrable.” She writes, “Three months before the park was to open, there were 10 dolphins, two prospective show arenas, and no shows.” Karen, at least, had trained the family dog and a Welsh pony for her kids, then three, six, and seven. Plus, as the boss’s wife, she wouldn’t cost the as-yet-unopened business anything.

Pryor was quickly fascinated with the manual, operant conditioning, and the dolphins. She employed the techniques and her own good judgment to immediate positive effect with the dolphins, and (to make a fascinating story short) the dolphin shows opened on schedule.

Karen and her daughter Gale in a Sea life Park pool with Haole, a spinner dolphin.

Over the next nine years, Karen continued to work part-time with the trainers and marine mammals at Sea Life Park, as well as kids, ponies, and dogs at home. She also used random opportunities at the park to work any other animal she happened to come across in the research center – such as a tiny octopus and a damselfish – just to see if she could train these species with positive reinforcement, too (she could).

The Pryors divorced in 1972, and Karen left Sea Life Park. She wrote a book, Lads Before the Wind (the title was borrowed from Herman Melville, describing dolphins) recounting her incredible encounters and work with marine mammals (both at the park and those she had in the open ocean while working with marine biologists). The book also explained everything she had learned about training, and Pryor hoped that others would do as she had done: extrapolate how animal training methods could be used to positively influence the behavior of any animal, nonhuman or human – “No more choke chains or yelling at kids,” as she told an interviewer. The book was published in 1975, but was only modestly received, and generally regarded as an animal adventure story of some kind.

Pryor kept thinking about the potential for using operant conditioning in everyday life. She began to organize her thoughts into another book, which was published in 1985 as Don’t Shoot the Dog! It was a watershed event, because the book succinctly clarified the basic tenets of animal behavior and made the prospect of animal training seem not only possible, but also simple.

Versatile theories
After publication of Don’t Shoot the Dog!, Pryor began getting speaking requests from the three disparate groups who were most interested in training and animal behavior: dog trainers, marine mammal scientists, and corporate trainers. Pryor’s interest in behavior and connections with all three communities have provided her with a variety of jobs, public service, and continuing education ever since.

For example, Pryor has conducted research for the tuna industry, to learn how best to prevent incidental dolphin kills while tuna fishing. In the 1980s, she served on the Marine Mammal Commission. In 2004, she was elected to the Board of Directors of the B.F. Skinner Foundation, which publishes significant literary and scientific works in behavior analysis. She is a popular speaker (her speaking requests have increased since the publication of her latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind, in 2009); for instance, she gave the keynote address to the Southwestern Psychological Association in 2010, the same year she gave a seminar at Harvard’s Brain Research Institute.

But perhaps most significant to WDJ’s readers are her many contributions to the evolution of dog training.

Pryor founded Sunshine Books, Inc., in 1998, focusing on publishing and selling books and videos on operant conditioning and positive reinforcement; in 2002, the company was rebranded as Karen Pryor Clickertraining (KPCT). In 2003, KPCT launched ClickerExpo, a training conference presented twice a year, featuring some of the most progressive trainers in the country. Faculty members include carefully chosen, well educated trainers who possess deep experience with operant conditioning, such as Kathy Sdao, Ken Ramirez, Emma Parsons, Kay Laurence, Cecilie Koste, Michele Pouliot, and many more.

2007 saw the launch of the Karen Pryor Academy, “committed to educating, certifying, and promoting the next generation of dog trainers.” Graduates of the Academy are called “KPA Certified Training Partners (KPA CTPs)” – and to date, there are more than 500 of these graduates.

But Pryor has not abandoned her interest in using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement for “training” humans. In 2004, Pryor helped found TAGteach International, LLC, to develop and promote a clicker training-based teaching system (TAGteach™) for humans. (TAG stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.) TAGteach has been used successfully to teach competitive gymnasts, competitive dancers, and Special Olympians; “TAGteachers” have used the TAG protocols to teach everything from physical rehabilitation to team sports.

Karen Pryor gives the opening talk at ClickerExpo, a twice-annual training conference (now in its tenth year).

Click On
In January, I had the privilege of interviewing Pryor at the most recent ClickerExpo, now in its 10th year. Pryor plans and hosts the ClickerExpo events and addresses the attendees on the event’s opening morning and in teaching sessions. At 80 years of age, one might expect Pryor to rest on her laurels, simply enjoying the development of the training methods she has promoted for so long. But as I learned, Pryor is still working very hard, collaborating with friends and colleagues all over the world, and continuing to monitor and study the work of other like-minded behavior analysts.

WDJ: I have to ask you to address the criticism that I hear the most about positive reinforcement-based training: “It’s all right for tricks, but what about real world training problems?”

Pryor: By which they mean that they wish you would address more things that they can’t figure out how to interrupt or stop. Real world training includes teaching my dog to do anything that is possible to teach. But most of the time, people who are hung up on this question really just mean stopping or interrupting unwanted behaviors.

WDJ: I often wonder if they don’t actually mean, “Please give me justification for the time I came unglued and hit my dog! Please tell me that this is okay!”

Pryor: Of course! And I’m full of sympathy for them. I said this morning in my talk, that I used to get impatient with my dog, too, when he was reluctant to get in the car and was taking forever to decide whether to get in. Sometimes I’d get impatient and bam, I’d just toss him in. Not to punish him, just to get going – but for him, it was very aversive. More importantly, it didn’t improve anything!

You do have to stop behavior sometimes. But that’s not a teaching moment for the animal – although it could be one for you. Is there some other way? How can you prevent the same situation in the future? People need to keep in mind that punishment rarely makes a bit of difference; what the animal learns is just that they ought to stay away for you! It’s bad for the relationship.

Fortunately, there are many other techniques to overcome all those things that you don’t want to happen, from eyeing the cheese on the coffee table to terrible aggression in the street.

Pryor and one of her pupils at Sea Life Park in the 1960s.

WDJ: Our Training Editor, Pat Miller, was a very early adopter of dog-friendly methods, and she has helped guide WDJ toward the most effective, progressive dog-friendly training. But not all dog owners are fans of these techniques. Do you get exposed to much opposition or criticism of clicker training?

Pryor: There was a little of that, maybe 10 years ago. There were people who said, “Gee whiz, I can’t give up the tools I’ve already got, so I’m going to use both” – what people called “balanced training.” But what we see now is, in general, awareness on a level that we never expected. More and more we see an amazing level of understanding of and commitment to dog-friendly training in the general public.

In general, we don’t suggest that our trainers get into arguments over training. There are plenty of people who want to use these techniques, so why would you waste your time on people who don’t want to change?

And usually, when we see people who say, “That stuff didn’t work for me,” it’s because they didn’t know how to do it right or where to begin. So we continue to work hard to find the best ways to teach owners how to make good, fast, efficient, and easy use of conditioned reinforcers to get the behavior they want with their puppies and dogs – bing, bing, bing.

Historically, perhaps there has been too much explanation. We have learned to start teaching people the little mechanical skills that will make a big difference to their success, such as carefully watching their dogs (in order to identify rewardable behaviors), and keeping their treat hands still. You have to teach people a new skill bit by bit; you can’t expect them to be ballet dancers from the start. We’ve learned to break down the process more and more, just as we do for the dogs. So we now have more effective ways of getting people into it. Very often they got stuck because they knew just a little bit, or some of what they learned was wrong.

The good news is that positive reinforcement or “clicker training” has become exponentially better understood and accepted. And I think ClickerExpo and the Karen Pryor Academy have helped, by training people to teach with the same technology, and to have them out there teaching all over the world.

WDJ: That’s so great. Do you consider this as the culmination of your life’s work? To pass the torch to so many trainers?

Pryor: Well, it is great. But I have to say that the dogs are just one part of what I do. I was really aiming at parents, and society, when I first wrote Don’t Shoot the Dog! It’s not about dogs at all – though dogs have been a gateway animal (laughs). I’m happy with the progress in this area, but I’m not through yet. We haven’t gotten yet to the school systems, or the prisons, the medical profession, the researchers in the labs. . . .

It’s not just about being nice to other beings; it’s about how to be more efficient in getting the behavior you want, whatever that might be. We are often so inefficient – and inadvertently unkind. The school system, as just one example, is full of built-in unpleasant things for the children, making things punitive rather than reinforcing what they are trying to learn. . . .

WDJ: What percentage of your time these days is spent with dog training and how much with your other work?

Pryor: I don’t do much hands-on teaching anymore. I am more interested in seeing the community grow, especially the portion of the community that works with humans, such as TAGteach.

The comparable work with teaching humans, I’d say,  is about 10 years behind the dog training – though it’s spreading. I spend a lot of time interacting with behavior analysts – people from the branch of psychology that is interested in this kind of learning.

WDJ: How many children and grandchildren do you have? Are any of them involved in this kind of work?

Pryor: I have three children and seven grandchildren. And none of them are directly involved in a career with behavior. One son is a builder and an artist. His wife is a special needs teacher, though, and she and I enjoy spending time talking about this stuff. I recently visited them; they have an 11-year-old who is good at training their family dogs, so we had some fun with that.

My daughter is a writer and an editor, married to an architect, and she does a lot of work with nonprofits; right now it’s a hospital in Uganda. She is quite a good trainer, though! My oldest son is a banker, and he and his wife run an executive placement company. I would say he’s the least infected (laughs). So, no, none of my kids are in this line of work exactly, but they are all great parents, really thoughtful, kind, attentive, and realistic, and I think it comes from being exposed to this.

Still communicating with and learning from animals in 2013.

WDJ: My son was five when I got this job, and he’s almost 21 now. I feel like WDJ and he grew up together; what I learned about dog training dove-tailed with how I wanted to raise and educate him. He’s always had to model for the magazine, and learned a lot about dog training in the process, he’s a terrific dog trainer! And now he’s working with kids in a part-time job; he’s a junior in college. But when I observed him at his job as a camp counselor last summer, I was amused to hear him speaking to one child like a dog trainer might: “Sam, sit! Sam, stay here.” He defended the tactic, though; he told me that he learned with that kid that if he used too many words, the kid couldn’t really hear him!

Pryor: That’s wonderful! In TAGteach, they have learned that you have to keep it down to five words or less! It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or an animal. If you are using more than five words to make the “TAG point,” you lose the student.

WDJ: You seem to have a lot of great people carrying the flag of this work, both with animals and humans.

Clicking with someone everywhere she goes!

Pryor: Thanks! I do have a great staff. That’s not an accident and that’s not easy. My business partner, Aaron Clayton, has done a great job, and between us we’ve tried hard to find the right people. And the people who are coming into the dog trainer professional course – they are amazing! They are already professionals, they are trainers, they are psychologists; we’ve got PhDs going through the course! They usually have a dog-related reason to take it, and they are wonderful, creative, intelligent, professional people. And it’s a positive company, so everybody gets along well.

WDJ: That’s important to maintain. I often hear people allege that some so-called positive trainers can be very negative. . . .

Pryor: That’s a sign that someone hasn’t fully gotten the message, because learning to use positive reinforcement with a goldfish or a horse or a kid in your class is one thing, but failing to generalize it to your life means you haven’t yet gotten that far! If you’re still grumpy and complaining and suffering and yelling and whining about your life and everything in it, you haven’t learned enough yet.

WDJ: While reading your books, it strikes me again and again how these methods are so very respectful . . . .

Pryor: Yes. That’s a beautiful word.

WDJ: It’s clear how much respect that you have for the intelligence of every species you work with, and lovely to see how you don’t presume anything – you don’t seem to have expectations of the animal ahead of time, but just seem to start working with the goal of communicating with the animal.

Pryor: I think you used a very important word: expectations. We don’t have them. Instead, let’s see what happens.

I have a friend who is a psychologist/behavior analyst who works with special needs kids, and is married to a dolphin trainer. He told me once that it took him a while to realize that the overwhelming difference between them was that when his wife steps up to the dolphin pool, she has no expectations. If she gets the behavior, great. If she doesn’t get the behavior, she changes strategy. Whereas with kids, there is that perpetual leaning on them, which doesn’t help. It’s freeing to enter into a conversation with another being without expectations, and it helps in relationships, too. It helps you see the difference between what is really happening and what you thought ought to be happening.

WDJ: Speaking of relationships, why do think people seem to expect their dogs to understand what is said to them?

Pryor: I think it’s all what we call superstitious behavior; if the dog acts like he understands sometimes, then he’s expected to behave as if he understood all the time. Also, many people are completely ignorant of natural dog behavior.

WDJ: It just seems to me that people try so much more with a dog than they would ever do with another species. Why are people so comfortable physically manipulating them? I mean, no one would walk up to a zebra or an elephant and try to push its bottom onto the ground or yell “Sit! Sit! Sit!”

Pryor: (Laughing) Actually, they do! There is conventional elephant training, too, where the elephants are hit if they don’t “obey!” Well, I know what you mean. Dogs are so extremely domesticated, they put up with an awful lot from us. They tolerate almost anything we do to them, more than almost any other animals.

WDJ: The most common justifications I hear are, “If we don’t get through to this dog, he’s going to be put to sleep! And this positive stuff takes too long!”

Pryor: Again, that’s because they really don’t know how to do it. Training with positive reinforcement is actually a lot faster. It’s simple but it’s not easy. If someone doesn’t have the tools, they tend to fall back on punishment when their poorly executed positive reinforcement doesn’t work. And when you fall back on corrections, you lose the animal’s cooperation; he becomes merely compliant. An animal who gets punished will stop trying to learn, and will just try to stay out of trouble; that slows things down to zero. And that can be the reason why people complain that these methods are too slow.

WDJ: More than anything, I love the moment when a dog suddenly understands the training game and realizes that he knows how to figure out what will earn him a reward. The dog often looks so engaged and happy, as if he’s thinking, “At last! A human who makes sense!”

Pryor: I agree. For many dogs, the human world is a completely confusing, arbitrary place, but then suddenly they can control something. It’s a great moment for them, and obviously very gratifying.

WDJ: How long do you want to keep doing this? Do you anticipate retiring at some point? Is the work fulfilling enough to just keep going and going?

Celebrating her 80th birthday at ClickerExpo in May 2012.

Pryor: Well, I’m an artist and a scientist. And this is my art and my science. So why would I stop? I have already stepped back from teaching, from the company’s day-to-day operations. I think I have another book to write. I just accepted an invitation to go to China for a month in 2014. I travel a lot with my family.

It’s not a question of slowing down, but of rearranging my priorities. I’ve been getting a lot more attention from the scientific community than I’ve had for a long time, thanks to the 2009 book, Reaching the Animal Mind. That brings me speaking invitations I like to follow up on, though I can set my own pace. I don’t plan to stop, but I might change the emphasis a little bit. There is still a lot of work to do.

Nancy Kerns is WDJ’s Editor.