In the 1940s, animal learning was a topic of considerable interest to psychologists, but most of the research took place in the laboratory, out of public view. That changed when husband and wife psychologists Keller and Marian "Mouse" Breland decided to bring animal learning to the people.
The couple--two of B.F. Skinner's first students--studied operant conditioning at the University of Minnesota. Both had taken part in "Project Pigeon," the wartime effort to test the feasibility of a pigeon-guided missile. Although the military never implemented this strategy, the experience convinced the Brelands that animal training based on operant principles could be commercially successful. The Brelands began using a secondary reinforcement technique called bridging, which pairs a clicker sound with food. The success of these techniques led them to believe that greater results were possible.
In 1943, the two formed Animal Behavior Enterprises to create opportunities for the public to see what researchers could do with trained animals. The Brelands began by training animals to perform acts to sell farm feed for General Mills. Early examples included trained chickens Popgun Pete and Largo Larry. Popgun Pete could pull a string to fire a cannon, and Largo Larry drove a miniature truck. The Brelands also pioneered the use of trained animals for television advertisements. From these humble beginnings, ABE would train more than 140 different animal species.
In 1955, the couple opened the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs, Ark. The zoo became a well-known tourist attraction that featured a variety of animal acts. One rabbit rode a fire engine and put out a fire. Another exhibit allowed patrons to insert a coin into a vending machine and a chicken would dispense a souvenir. Raccoons played basketball. One of the most famous exhibits was "Bird Brain," which allowed patrons to play tic-tac-toe against a chicken. The chicken never lost, not even to Skinner himself.
When Keller died after a heart attack in 1965, Marian continued the work. She married Bob Bailey, a former naval dolphin trainer, zoologist and chemist, in 1976. Together they found new applications for operant conditioning, including government-sponsored marine mammal work.
From 1972 to 1981, Marian and Bob operated Animal Wonderland in Hot Springs, a facility that educated and entertained the public about animal behavior and training. Marian also expanded outside the animal realm, developing programs for teaching self-care skills to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Until she died in 2001, Marian advocated for the humane treatment and training of animals. She never used punishment in training and showed just how effective positive reinforcement could be. The legacy of Marian and her two husbands lives on in the animal training programs that continue today. Whether it's Eddie, the Jack Russell terrier on "Frasier," or a whale and dolphin show at Sea World, our understanding of animal behavior owes a debt of thanks to their pioneering psychological work.
Nick Joyce and David Baker, PhD, are with the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.