By Dr. Sophia Yin
If you ask someone who they think is or was the best animal trainer in history you’ll get many different answers. Some may pick a dog trainer they have seen on T.V. or a lion or horse trainer they have seen at a show. Others may pick a trainer who gives lectures and workshops around the world and whom they have followed and learned from for years. The reality of it is, whether we’re talking about dolphins, pigs, and parrots for shows, dogs, crows, or albatross for military missions, or lions, giraffes, or elephants for husbandry procedures in zoos, trainers who know the history of animal training agree that by far the best trainers who ever lived were Marian and Keller Breland—who for 47 years ran the most successful animal training business that ever existed. After Marian’s first husband, Keller died, Marian carried on the business. She eventually married Bob Bailey and they continued successfully training animals.
Where did they come from?
Marian and her first husband, Keller Breland, started out as graduate students working for B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning. When Skinner closed his lab temporarily to work on a military project during WW II, Marian and Keller dropped out of their programs to help him. During their two years helping to train pigeons to guide Pelican missiles, they learned more than they had learned in the whole time they were in class. They became skilled at shaping—a process you start by rewarding a behavior you can get and then systematically reinforce behaviors that are closer and closer to the goal behavior by using the secondary reinforcer or bridging stimulus, such as a unique tone from a clicker or whistle. When the secondary reinforcer is paired enough with food, it could be used to tell the animal exactly when it had done something right and that a food reward was on the way. These were concepts that were new in the 1940’s.
The two realized how powerful these non-force techniques could be and decided that as soon as the war was over, they would get into some kind of business where they would use the operant technology to help solve problems for animals and later humans. They founded Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) whose mission was to demonstrate a better, scientific way of training animals in a humane manner using positive reinforcement.
For 47 years, ABE mass produced trained animals for its own theme park, the IQ Zoo, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, as well as for shows across the country. At the height of their training business, the Brelands were training 1,000 animals at any given time for companies such as General Mills who used them in commercials and at sales conferences. They also worked on animal behavior and training projects for groups such as the U.S. Navy and Purina, as well as for Marineland of Florida and Parrot Jungle, where they developed the first of the now traditional dolphin and parrot shows.
In 1965, Bob Bailey, the former director of training for the U.S. Navy and who had been training with the Brelands for several years, was hired as a trainer at ABE and as the assistant technical director and head of government programs. That same year, Keller Breland passed away. Bob later became the research director and then the executive VP and General Manager. He and Marian married in 1976 and Marian took the position of President of ABE.
Bob and Marian retired and closed ABE in 1990 after 47 years of business. In that time they had trained 140 species of animals and a total of, at least, 15,000 or 16,000 animals. By transferring the training, data collection and analysis methods to animals in the field, Keller and Marian had developed the field of applied behavior analysis (which Bob sometimes calls operant technology). This technology is what allowed ABE to improve and train animals so quickly and reliably. No one has even come close to this level and breadth of training, yet only the most dedicated trainers remember this history. In the next two blogs, readers will have the opportunity to become acquainted with the world’s best trainers by hearing from the trainers themselves.
I interviewed Marian and Bob in 2000 when I was participating in the intermediate and advanced operant conditioning (chicken training) camps they taught in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Q) Marian, how did you first become interested in working with animals?
Marian: As a child, I was terrifically interested in animals. I was also, although I didn't know it at the time, interested in the humane treatment of animals. I read Black Beauty when I was five or six years old and I was on a strict diet of animal stories throughout my childhood. I tried to persuade my father to move to a farm so we could have some animals. My mother allowed only cats in the house. But my father couldn't see moving to a farm, so we didn't. But I was interested in [animals].
Q) How did you become interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology? Back in the 1940's very few women were attending colleges, let alone earning advanced degrees in the sciences.
Marian: I went to college as a Latin major with a Greek minor and I had to take a science, which I did protestingly. I took psychology. I thought it was the least painful science. I got in this special class with B.F. Skinner (pictured right). He was taking a few known good students and since I happened to have straight A's, I got into his psychology class. He converted everyone. I know at least six students from that class who went onto great prominence [in the field of psychology]. He was very persuasive and he had something exciting to work on because it was new. There of course he taught the whole class on the basis of his new operant system. And so I was closely acquainted with that during my early years in college. I went on to become an undergraduate [research] assistant in the psychology department and then Skinner's graduate student after I graduated. I had added to my major so I had a major in psychology and a minor in child psychology. I was also dating my first husband, Keller Breland. He became one of Skinner's graduate students, too.
Q) Tell me about the pigeon missile guidance project that interrupted your graduate studies during World War II.
Marian: Dr. Skinner came up with the idea because he wanted to do something for the war effort. We all left the department and went with him to this project and became research assistants on the project. We were training pigeons to essentially peck at a ground glass screen in front of them and on the screen the targets were projected. Now the targets varied from railroad tracks to airfields, things of that sort that were local bombing objectives. At the start of this, the Navy — they were the sponsoring agency of the government— did not have a guidable bomb. So we worked away at the pigeons.
Q) Was the project successful?
Marian: Yes. There was a demonstration in Washington finally when the Navy said they were ready. And Dr. Skinner took six pigeons to Washington with the apparatus in which they had been trained, which for all intents and purposes would be the same as a nose cone for a guided bomb. And the demonstration went successfully. The pigeons knew what they had to do. They were good performers. The three pigeons in a cone was only a fail-safe situation. None of the birds failed.
Q) So if one got sick or was full, the others would still do the job?
Marian: Yes, that would be the final result. Now if all three of them suddenly had headaches then it wouldn't work.
Q) Did the Navy ever use this pigeon system to guide missiles in the war?
Marian: The Navy turned [the project] down for two or three reasons. First, the judges who were looking at it — they were all Admirals — knew the atomic bomb was nearing completion. They also knew that when that was finished there would no longer be a need for pinpoint bombing, at least in this war. Also, they looked inside to look at the guidance system. They opened the pigeon chamber and saw three pigeons pecking away. This caused them several minutes of disbelief, I'd say. But there was no question that the pigeons were making it work, and we could have large numbers of pigeons. The set-up had already been set up so that 25 to 40 pigeons could be trained at a time, so there would be no problem supplying lots of birds.
Q) How did you and Keller go from training pigeons to starting your own animal business?
Marian: During the time we were working with pigeons, what Skinner showed us in the way of shaping (which was never done in graduate school; he was running experiments then) was individual shaping of a response. We realized then how powerful the techniques were and decided right then and there, as soon as we could after the war, we'd go get into some kind of a business that used these techniques.. We decided that we weren't quite ready to tackle human problems and we realized we weren't going to go on to finish our Ph.D.s. So then we began to think of animals. What could we do? They mentioned in several classes that they thought we should get into dog training. We bought a bunch of dogs. We knew there were so many dogs in the country and people always wanted to get them trained. So we thought this would be a cinch. We'd tell people about this new, humane way of training and they'd be talking to us by the thousands. Nobody listened to us. The dog food companies, etc., didn't think it was all that new. People had been training dogs for thousands of years. That's the kind of greeting we got.
For more information on operant conditioning, read How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves.
To learn more about how operant conditioning has revolutionized training, attend
Q) When the dog idea failed, what did you do?
Marian: We kept our dogs, but we abandoned the idea. We really cast around. We tried all kinds of animals. Well, maybe [other] pets. Hamsters and parakeets were coming in. We made a little hamster kit that had equipment the hamsters could play on and a little tiny clicker feeder that the hamster could get pellets from or small pieces of food from and the same for a parakeet. We always used a bridging stimulus. We started using clickers with our first dogs.
Q) What was your first big break?
Marian: Our first big break was when we went to General Mills. Now they had sponsored our army (Navy?) project during the war. They didn't have regular research grant systems then. The Navy contracted with civilian companies; in this case they contracted with General Mills on this project and any products that might have come out of it. So after the war, we knew some people in General Mills and we knew they were in the farm feed business. So Keller dreamed up this little show — this chicken show — and went there for a demonstration. [General Mills] latched onto it as something they could use in their fairs to draw attention to their booths and in what they called dealer open houses. These are events where a dealer would open up a store to the surrounding countryside. We started out in the northern part of the Midwest and spread on down South. We shipped these acts around the country, meanwhile adding more animals and new behaviors. We didn't have to go along with any of them. We trained the salesmen. The public loved it.
Q) How long were you working with General Mills?
Marian: We were under contract with General Mills for ten years.
Q) What other projects did ABE work on?
Marian: We began branching out in all directions even before our contract with General Mills was up. We couldn't advertise for any other feed companies, but we did a lot of behavior work for other convention goers and for all sorts of business conventions that had begun to become big business then and still is. Attention-getters. A lot of miscellaneous companies were into the animal act for attention-getters. P.A. Refinery Company, Mobil OIL, and just a large number of companies wanted acts for their conventions. We also did research work for Quaker Oats on taste preference and also some identification. They had gotten a challenge in court that cats couldn't tell one flavor cat food from another. But, boy, they sure can. They not only can tell one flavor of cat food from another, but they can tell different batches of the same flavor from each other. The cans were all stamped with when that batch was turned out and where. And they could tell the difference between two batches turned out in separate weeks from the same cannery.
Q) When did you get into dolphin training?
Marian: We started the very first of the scientifically trained dolphin shows. It was called Marine Studios at that time and became Marineland of Florida. In 1955 we went down there. They did have 1.5 trained dolphins prior to that. They had one dolphin that did the show and one partly trained replacement. Their trainer was an old sea lion trainer. He worked for two years training his first dolphin. The other he'd been working with 18 months and wasn't making much progress. He trained them the old-fashioned way, but no punishment. If you did that with a sea lion, it would roll you over and take you into the tank and drown you! He trained for fish. He didn't know anything about shaping. He taught a dolphin to turn and do a dance. The dolphin would come halfway out of the water and turn. That's how it finally looked in a show–not like a waltz. His way to get the animal to do this was to stand on the side of the pool, hold a fish over his head, spin in a circle and say, “Turn.” Bob was the one who actually saw the training happening.
Bob: Originally animal training was considered black magic because they thought that if you could control animals, you could control the human spirit. Adolph Frome was one of the European animal trainers and no one was allowed to watch him train. He was one of the old guild systems where secrets were passed on from father to son. Only the senior animal trainers could watch him train; the regular trainers couldn't. They didn't want to spread these secrets around. I was Navy, I wasn't commercial; therefore, I was permitted to be there and watch him train. I had watched this turn training and was dying, trying to squelch a laugh inside. I watched this very nice gentleman say, “Tuuuuurn,” with a beautiful Teutonic inflection as he held this fish over his own head and he turned around. This was what he was teaching his students. That was part of his secret. I watched a number of sessions of him teaching like that. It was even funnier watching him teaching a dolphin how to bowl. He'd put the ball on his own nose and toss it.
Frome was in his very late 60's, early 70’s, and getting close to retirement. I felt privileged to talk to him because he was one of the old trainers. He was part of history. He was the first person to really train a dolphin in performance in the U.S., so he was a pioneer in his own way. But I never did anything other than the Breland way.
The Brelands got into dolphin training when Frome quit and a dolphin died. The one trained dolphin died and Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida, hired Keller to train the young dolphin. Adolph spent two hard years training one dolphin to do a few things. Keller went down and in six weeks had two dolphins doing all the behaviors that Adolph Frome had spent two years getting the dolphins to do.
Q) Marian, you and Keller published several well-known scientific articles based on the data collected at ABE. What were they and how did the scientific community receive them?
Marian: The initial article about what we had accomplished was in 1951 in the business. Back in 1961 is when we published the “Misbehavior of Organisms.” That was when my first husband was still alive. The first one didn't cause much of a splash. People, I think most of the people in the field, read it and we did get some enthusiastic queries from some young people in psychology mostly to the effect of, “Can I come work with you?”
Q) Your paper, “Misbehavior of Organisms,” covered a number of cases with different species where strong species-specific behaviors interfered with the learning process and caused delays in performance and delays in reinforcements. What was the response to this paper?
Marian: The reaction was dramatic. It spread not only to the behavior analysts but also to the biologists, anthropologists, and all sorts of people seized on that one. They had been very turned off by modern psychology and the idea that it seemed so mechanical to them. They hadn't been acquainted with Skinner's work, of course. So we got two kinds of reactions. One from the psychologists who had been waiting for people to find species differences because that, at one time, had been a great thing in this country. We had a comparative psychology area but it had been completely lost. The rats and the pigeons were the only things they were using. And so the psychologists at that time didn't know anything about species differences. A number psychologists and biologists who were waiting for this development really seized on it. The behavior analysts, a lot of them, took it the wrong way. I think my first husband, he was very outspoken and probably said some things some people took the wrong way. It didn't mean we were abandoning operant conditioning or behavior analysis at all; it just meant people needed to look at these other animals and see what they're doing because they had forgotten how to do that. But anyway, so we got this very positive reaction from other psychologists, biologists and anthropologists, and other groups like that who were interested in species differences and general biological differences. And so that part was very gratifying. And then we got all this criticism from behavior analysts who thought we were abandoning behavior analysis. But we kept earning our living. Skinner took it that way himself at first. But we made up with him.
Q) How has your work helped human programs?
Marian: Oh, well, actually I didn't do much of this. I was involved in developing training of ward attendants at institutions for the severely mentally handicapped or the developmentally disabled (mentally retarded as they were known as in those days) [children]. They had just been warehoused prior to that program. They weren't toilet trained. They couldn't feed themselves. They couldn't dress themselves or undress themselves. They were just piled in a big room and drove the ward attendants crazy all day. And that was essentially what it was. So my husband and I and Ken Burgess developed a training program so the ward attendants could develop operant techniques to use on these children and they worked beautifully. In fact, they're the standard techniques used in the institutions now. Now I didn't start all of that. There were three or four of us in different places at about the same time who were working with [mentally handicapped] children and teaching methods for teaching them. So it's been a great move for the children and the ward attendants. They still use these techniques in the institution there. It's taken the children out of the wards. Some of them are adults now and have been put in cottages. It's really a terrific change.
Q) Did you finally get your Ph.D.?
Marian: After many years, we realized while my first husband was alive that one of us needed to get a Ph.D. to get back into the sanction of the academic world. My husband as much as told me that I was going to be the one to do it. “It's not going to be me!” he said. He didn't agree with the academic world a lot. But I didn't do anything about it for a long time because I was just too plain busy and I had three kids by then. That put a few strains on my time. It was 1967 that I started back at the University of Arkansas, 200 miles away. What I did was go down there two to three days a week and took classes. And I had to review everything I was so rusty. I found they'd changed quite a bit so I had to get re-acquainted with the field. Because I was only part time, I dragged on and I didn't get my Ph.D. until 1978 (11 years from start to finish). That was kind of a record from the time I left my Ph.D. work in 1942 (36 years from leaving the first time). They were getting a little sick of me, I think.
To find out more, stay tuned for part 2.
For more information on operant conditioning, read How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves.
To learn more about how operant conditioning has revolutionized training, attend