equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Animal Behavior: A book by Keller Breland and Marian Breland

I’ve just finished reading the book, Animal Behavior, by Keller and Marian Breland. The book was originally published in 1966 and was written as a “supplemental text to promote closer understanding and cooperation between those in the fields of psychology and biology, especially college and high school teachers.” The book was well received in some circles and an updated version was planned, but when the revisions were lost in a fire, the project got put aside. Then, a few years ago, Bob Bailey and Nancy Kelly decided to republish the original book, with a new introduction written by Bob. The new version was released in 2018 and is available through major booksellers.

The book provides a glimpse into what was known about animal behavior at that time, how the Brelands approached animal training, and what it was like in the early days at Animal Behavior Enterprises. I have to confess that I found the beginning of the book to be a little slow going. When trainers talk about learning about your species and its natural behavior, I’m not sure they usually go as far back as the beginning of evolution and the differences between internal processes (breathing, digestion) vs. more active behaviors (walking, climbing, etc.). But that’s where the book starts. The point, I think, was to lay the foundation for the idea that not all behaviors are equal in both the degree to which they are “hard wired” into the animal and how easily they can be modified by the environment.

The book then goes on to describe and discuss the differences between classical and operant learning and how both processes shape behavior. One of the recurring points in this section (and the previous one) was about the importance of “sequences of behavior” and why trainers need to understand them. This caught my eye because understanding sequences was one of the themes at the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference this year. In the book, they pointed out how behavior should be viewed in context and how trainers should recognize and make use of the desire of animals to finish sequences. Trainers need to understand both the priority of different sequences (older more primitive ones have higher priority) and how interruptions (in sequences) affect behavior. For example, on page 63, they write “To elaborate on the problem of drive: the condition known as drive, or motivation, occurs in an organism when a sequence is interrupted.” Later, on the same page, they write about how interruptions that produce avoidance or escape sequences are secondary processes, and can be used as negative reinforcers if the animal learns that their removal will allow the individual to continue a more basic process such as eating, drinking, mating, etc.

The next part of the book is titled “Observational Data on Animal Species” and describes what they had learned (as of 1966) about the different species they had trained. I have only trained horses, dogs, cats, and guinea pigs so it was interesting to read about the challenges they faced with different species and how this led to their paper “The Misbehavior of Organisms.” The whole section was a good reminder that in order to be effective trainers, we need to understand the species we want to train. Yes, the principles of operant conditioning are universal, but if you don’t know the natural behavior of the animal you want to train, you are likely to run into problems. As part of this discussion, they wrote about how specific reinforcers can increase the likelihood of behaviors that are naturally associated with those behaviors. For example, if you give food to a chicken with the intention of reinforcing “standing still,” you will run into difficulties maintaining that behavior because the chicken will eventually start to scratch at the ground. The scratching behavior occurs because it’s the natural response of a chicken in the presence of food. As they discovered, you are much better off if you use food to teach a chicken to “dance,” taking advantage of the scratching behavior instead of trying to work against it.

The middle of the book contains historic photographs and some more information on the work at ABE, including how they got started training animals for advertising and shows. The last part of the book has a few articles on topics that they considered to be important. It includes articles on classical conditioning (from “Conditioned Reflexes” by I. P. Pavlov), operant vs. classical condition (Keller and Schoenfeld),  natural history (“The Taming of the Shrew” by Konrad Lorenz and “The Pine Processionary” by J. H. Fabre), and the work of Harry Harlow who studied maternal attachment in Monkeys. I was familiar with some of this information, but I had not read the original articles, so it was interesting to learn more details about how the work was done and the results of the various experiments. Except for the articles on classical and operant conditioning, I’m not sure the selected readings necessarily translated into practical information, but it’s always interesting to read about how scientists observe and approach learning more about behavior.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of ABE, Bob Bailey, or the Brelands, I’ve recently come across a few podcasts that are on the same or related topics. Bob Bailey was a guest on Nick Benger’s podcast (Dog Talk with Nick Benger #34) where he talked about the history of animal training. Nancy Kelly was a guest on Equiosity (Alexandra Kurland and Dominique Day) and talked about the book on episode #23.

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1 reply

  1. I would LOVE this book!! The dog trainer for whom I worked actually worked with the Brelands and was a good friend of Marion’s. The cost, however, is beyond my means.


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