From Skinner Box to Show Biz and Beyond

Written by William Van Nostran

When Marian Kruse entered the University of Minnesota in 1938, her ambition was to major in Latin and minor in Greek. Marian later wrote of “harboring the strange notion of becoming a Latin teacher in Alaska.” Before matriculating and heading to Alaska, however, even Latin majors were required to take a science course. Her Latin teacher offered a suggestion: “I’ve been much impressed by a young man from Harvard who’s teaching psychology… he’s teaching the only honors section in General Psychology… I think I can get you into this section.” And so, Marian Kruse began to study under the tutelage of a young B. F. Skinner. She found him “energetic, stimulating, and fun.” Within the year, Ms. Kruse switched to a double major in psychology and Latin with a double minor in child psychology and Greek. Dr. Skinner soon persuaded her to leave the Classics Department altogether to join the Psychology Department.1

Skinner was refining his stimulus-response experiments, exploring how specific variables influenced an animal’s behavior when placed in the operant conditioning chamber known as the Skinner Box. About the size of a footlocker, it contained a lever for a small animal to depress (or a key for birds to peck) and a mechanism to deliver food pellets or bird seed. A researcher places a lab rat the chamber. When the rat presses down on the lever, a food pellet drops onto the food tray, rewarding the behavior. This positive reinforcement conditions the rat to press the lever to “earn” a tasty morsel.

During this period of groundbreaking behavioral research, Marian Kruse became one of Professor Skinner’s lab assistants.1,2,3 One day, Marian prepared to conduct a Skinner Box experiment with a lab rat. The rat (kept hungry before the experiment) nibbled at Marian’s finger. Small, sharp rodent teeth drew blood. Sprinting down a stairwell, a bloodied handkerchief wrapped around her finger, Marian bumped into a tall graduate psychology student.1,2 In an unpublished memoir, Marian described the incident:

“Good Lord, what happened?” he asked with some alarm. “My rat bit me,” I replied
“What did you do to the rat?”

I guess it was a logical question, but at the time it upset me, and I replied somewhat indignantly, “All I did was try to pick it up to put it in an experimental cage.”

“Well, you need to learn how to pick up a rat.”

I had no idea there was more than one way to pick up a rat — one simply grabbed hold of its back and picked it up. “Here, Mouse,” Keller said, as he grabbed my uninjured hand, “let me help you.” And so he went with me over to First Aid, where I had my finger bandaged, and we went to lunch.

From that day on he called me “Mouse,” explaining to his friends, “I started to call her ‘Rat,’ but that didn’t sound quite right.” I did not mention to him at the time that my father had called me “Mouse” for as long as I can remember.1

That rat bite proved fortuitous, introducing Marian to one Keller Breland. Both were learning animal behaviorism from the man conducting the novel research that would expand the field of psychology.

In August of 1941, Marian became Mrs. Keller Breland.2 Thus began what evolved into a lifelong partnership devoted to training mammals, aquatic species, and birds of all sizes and shapes—from the familiar (pigs and rabbits) to the exotic (reindeer and albatross). How they left B. F. Skinner’s modest University of Minnesota laboratory to turn his operant conditioning techniques into a thriving commercial enterprise has roots in World War II.

The improbable pigeon in a pelican

Professor Skinner, like most Americans, wanted to support the war effort in some tangible way. One day while Marian was doing paperwork, Skinner entered to announce: “I’ve been thinking of training a dog to do something like carry explosives—you know, attack across the lines, attack tanks, something like that.”1

So, Skinner bought a dog. Skinner’s potential new tank attack recruit failed to impress Marian, who wrote:

Few dogs could be more unsuited to the task. A beautiful, totally undisciplined, almost grown Irish Setter and something else (maybe collie). He drooled constantly, so Skinner named him Pavlov.

Of course, Skinner taught Pavlov many bits of behavior, “tricks,” responses to commands that might prove useful in a “mission,” and so on, but something Skinner did not succeed in training Pavlov to do was to stay home.

Pavlov broke ropes, chains, jumped fences, and because Irish setters proverbially are afflicted with Wanderlust, ran for miles and miles… At any hour of the night or day Fred [Skinner] was apt to get a call from someone eight or ten miles away: “I have your dog. Can you come get him?’1

After assisting B. F. Skinner with his WWII Project Pigeon, Marian and Keller Breland determined to take operant conditioning out of the laboratory and demonstrate its validity for training a variety of animal species to perform in many different settings. Credit: Animal Behavior Enterprises, Archives of the History of American Psychology, The Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron

Skinner’s next thunderbolt for animals in combat proved more productive. Riding a passenger train shortly after Germany bombed Warsaw in 1939, Skinner gazed at a flock of birds in military formation. As they flew alongside, Skinner recounts the moment of inspiration: “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability. Could they not guide a missile?”3,4,5 Missile guidance systems of that period were primitive and subject to jamming by enemy radar.3,4,5

Skinner proposed the idea first to the National Inventors Council, which rejected it as unrelated to national defense. Undeterred, Skinner sought support from the National Defense Research Council. Once again, he got a polite but definitive “No.” So he let the matter drop.1

But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor it rekindled Skinner’s patriotic fervor.4 Marian recalled the period: “After a few false starts and a great deal of personal effort, he sold the United States Navy on the idea of trying the system, and sold a Minneapolis company, General Mills, Inc., on the notion of handling the contract.”1 In a secret laboratory at General Mills’ Gold Medal Flour milling complex, Skinner and a cadre of students began teaching pigeons placed in the nose cone of a missile (nicknamed the Pelican) to form visual discriminations of target stimuli and, by appropriate responses, guide the missile to its target.4,5,6,7

According to Skinner, however, they spent a good deal of time waiting for decisions from Washington. “One day we decided to teach a pigeon to bowl,” he wrote. “The pigeon was to send a wooden ball down a miniature alley toward a set of toy pins by swiping the ball with a sharp sideward movement of the beak.”6,7

They placed the ball on the floor of a box, ready to operate the food-magazine when the first swipe occurred. Nothing happened. “Though we had all the time in the world, we grew tired of waiting. We decided to reinforce any response which had the slightest resemblance to a swipe—perhaps at first, merely looking at the ball—and then to select responses which more closely approximated the final form. The result amazed us. In a few minutes, the ball was caroming off the walls of the box as if the pigeon had been a champion squash player. The spectacle so impressed Keller Breland that he gave up a promising career in psychology and went into the commercial production of behavior,” wrote Skinner.7

As a result of this ad hoc experiment initiated by boredom, Skinner and his students discovered the principle of “shaping” behavior in incremental steps, rewarding approximate behavior until achieving the desired result.7

Although initial experiments guiding missiles using the native skills of pigeons proved promising, the military never implemented Project Pigeon. After dropping PhD studies to assist Skinner, the Brelands became obsessed with the notion of creating a commercially viable animal training business based on operant conditioning.1,3

We were learning two principles that were to influence the rest of our lives: First, that the science of psychology as represented by Skinner’s operant conditioning was MUCH more powerful than anything that had come along to date, and was far more advanced than most psychologists of the time could imagine; secondly, that this science could be used to control in a practical manner the behavior of animals. We had no doubts at the time that these “laws” or principles of behavior could apply to all animals anywhere, in any conceivable fashion.”1,3

Seeking a viable business model

For 35 years, various animal acts attracted tourists to the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs, AR.  Keller Breland, Bob Bailey, and Marian Breland Bailey combined their deep understanding of operant conditioning with the theatrical flair of a Broadway show producer. In fact, it was Bob Bailey who devised and trained Bird Brain—the chicken who beat B. F. Skinner at tic-tac-toe. Credit: Animal Behavior Enterprises, Archives of the History of American Psychology, The Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron

To fully appreciate the audacity of Keller and Marian Breland’s dream of an animal training business based on operant conditioning, consider the obstacles they faced in light of today’s business environment. This was decades before the word “entrepreneur” entered the business lexicon. In post-war America, there were no venture capitalists to call on with a slick, motivational PowerPoint presentation. As Marian put it, “Our assets were a mortgaged farm (with no indoor plumbing), $800.00 in the bank, and one baby on the way.”1

The name chosen for the new company, Animal Behavior Enterprises, said it all: they planned to build a profitable business based upon the potential value of animals “behaving.” But behaving how? And for whom? Marian wrote about their search for a commercial niche:

People race horses and dogs. Is there a tie-in here? Can we improve horse training, dog training? Certainly. But can we afford to compete with the rule-of-thumb methods already in use? Dogs and horses had been trained for thousands of years: most trainers, and the users of their “products,” were pretty happy with what they had. It would be difficult to sell them… on what WE had, the work of two obscure animal psychologists (and who in the animal world knew what THAT was), and even harder to convince someone to pay us for it.1

In lieu of dogs and horses, the Brelands settled on training less domesticated animals and birds to perform “tricks” that might appeal to advertisers, especially in live promotions at trade shows, fairs, and similar public events.8 General Mills came through with a nine-month trial contract to “furnish units of trained chickens, consisting of the egg laying chicken, the piano playing chicken, and the dancing chicken…”9

The gimmick was to draw customers to open house celebrations at General Mills’ outlets for their Larro Feed product line. As Marian explained:

General Mills offered a logical place to start. We knew people in the company, and they knew what we were able to do with animals. We started out by selling sets of trained animals to them. We developed the behaviors, we developed the equipment for it, and we put the show on the road, so to speak. And they were shows.10

Animal training innovators

Marian and Keller Breland possessed a unique talent for inventing and staging remarkable animal acts combining entertainment with a touch of humor. For example, they taught a skunk to push a lever activating a giant perfume atomizer.11 Priscilla the Fastidious Pig turned on a radio, ate breakfast at a table, picked up dirty clothes and put them in a hamper, ran a vacuum cleaner, and chose Larro food in preference to the products of other companies. At one location (a town with a population of 4,000) more than 7,000 people came to gawk at Priscilla’s act.12

Their long-time employee, technical director Grant Evans, became a master at designing the performing animal displays including electrical and electronic control systems.11 Stages, costumes, props, and animal cages were constructed to ensure they could be shipped around the country, assembled at a trade show or fair, and perform reliably in the field. The animal performers arrived with instructions so untrained salespeople could set up and test equipment, care for the animals, and keep shows running without supervision (which the Brelands termed “handler transparency.”)8

During their early General Mills work, Keller Breland was interviewed on radio about the operant conditioning principles underlying their training: “Well they are promoting feed, but at the same time they are promoting the science of behavior,” he stated. “We’re convincing the American public that there is a true science of behavior—that the behavior of animals is controlled…that you can do things with animals that’s never been done before.”14

He stressed that this new science of behavior emphasized rewards, not punishment. “We use what’s called reinforcement, which in the vernacular is pretty much the same as reward. We don’t use any punishment whatsoever. None of our animals are ever punished in any way,” Keller said in the same radio interview.14

In 1948, the Wall Street Journal published an article touting this ingenious form of advertising. National publicity and appearances on radio and TV spurred the company’s growth. With expansion, Animal Behavior Enterprises often had 60 to 70 animal acts touring the country in the hands of feed salesman. Featured acts included “guitar-strumming ducks and piano-playing rabbits.”10 Up to 125 Casey-at-the-Bat chickens scattered across the country belting home runs with precision regularity.

IQ Zoo

In 1955 the Brelands sold the Minnesota farm, moving to a region more amenable to attracting tourists, opening the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs, Arkansas.3 In addition to the entertainment value, they sought to show the public the advances made in behavioral psychology and showcase some of Animal Behavior Enterprises’ successful training programs.

A variety of animal acts made the zoo a magnet for tourists. 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. Individual exhibits charged between 5 and 25 cents per play, although the Brelands occasionally opened the zoo for free to the public. Among the most popular exhibits was “Bird Brain,” a chicken who played tic-tac-toe against visitors. No one could defeat her—not even Professor Skinner.3,10

Sea mammals and a new colleague

With the arrival of aquatic theme parks in the early 1960s, the Brelands again broke new ground in the animal entertainment business. As Marian recounts, “We developed the first scientifically trained dolphin show at Marine Studios. We were also the first ones involved in training pilot whales, first for Marineland of the Pacific and then for Marineland, Florida.”10

The Brelands also employed the “train-the-trainer” model for these organizations.

We trained the behavioral technicians at Marineland to train the animals themselves. We instructed them in operant conditioning methods, and this was the first time that this had been done with marine mammals. At Marineland, we developed all these techniques for teaching laypeople, who had no college education or training, in the operant conditioning of behavior.10

About the same time, the U. S. Navy initiated a dolphin research program at Point Mugu, California. A young director of the Navy’s animal training program, Robert Bailey, conducted studies into fluid flow around dolphins, as well as dolphin communication. Bailey also researched and developed programs for fleet systems using dolphins, seals, and sea lions.16,17

Bob Bailey graduated from UCLA with a BA in zoology. In his senior year he served as a research assistant in both the UCLA School of Medicine and Department of Zoology where he captured, catalogued, and cared for animal and plant species.17,18 In the School of Medicine, he took part in a study on avian imprinting. As if this wasn’t enough, he also worked with California Fish and Game biologists studying fish.17,18

After graduation, Bailey noticed a Navy employment ad for a director of animal training. He threw his hat in the ring, and to this day Bailey maintains he has no idea why he got the job. He’d trained squid, octopi, fish, and Congo eels at UCLA—small fry compared to what the Navy had in mind.17,18 Traveling to bases with animal training programs, Bailey kept hearing the name “Breland” repeatedly popping up. He met with Keller in 1962, and hired the Brelands to consult on these military animal training projects.

Eventually Bob Bailey left the Navy to become research director at Animal Behavior Enterprises. That same year, returning home after a meeting in Washington, D.C., Keller Breland, then only 50, suffered a fatal heart attack.6 Following his death, Marian continued their work, taking control of the firm, making Bob Bailey executive VP and general manager.16,17 Together they explored new applications for operant conditioning, including government-sponsored marine mammal research studies. Eleven years after Keller Breland’s death, Marian married her newest partner in the business of training and displaying animals of all stripes.16,17

Together, they trained more than 140 different species, totaling well over 15,000 animals. As Bob Bailey put it, “After a while we just stopped counting.”17 The research and commercial applications of operant conditioning conducted at Animal Behavior Enterprises continue to influence animal trainers to this day. A small cadre of early dolphin trainers, for instance, adapted operant conditioning techniques to dog training.

The most prominent, Karen Pryor, explains how teaching dolphins to perform differs from training dogs and horses: “Dolphins lived in water, so it was difficult to come up with the usual aversive control that we use on other domestic animals. You can’t very well use a leash or a bit or a whip or even your fist on an animal that can just swim away.”18

Taking the clicker to the dogs

With her book Don’t Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor introduced a formal training regimen using “the power of Skinner’s wonderful little gem, the conditioned reinforcer tool.” For dolphin trainers, the tool is a whistle. “A lot of terrestrial trainers use a little clicker,” says Pryor. She refers to the clicker training method as “the badge for the Skinnerian trainer” (18).

Pryor credits her introduction to clicker training as “an application of behavior analysis that was initially invented and developed more than 30 years ago, by Keller Breland, Marian Breland Bailey, and Bob Bailey. It first reached widespread use in the training of marine mammals, which is where I learned it myself” (18). Today, clicker training is used worldwide with dogs, cats, horses, birds, zoo animals, and, increasingly, with humans in teaching athletic performances, through programmed instruction and in developing appropriate behavior in autistic children.

With Keller Breland and later Bob Bailey, the trio took B. F. Skinner’s early operant conditioning discoveries out into a world where the ultimate measure of success was the bottom line. Until her death in 2001, “Mouse” remained the throughline from the origins of Animal Behavior Enterprises to its closing in 1990. Even then, Bob and Marian Breland Bailey continued to consult on selected projects.

So what Keller and Marian Breland began after World War II is now passed along to new generations of animal trainers. Not bad for a venture started with a mortgaged farm, $800.00 in the bank, and one baby on the way.


  1. “The Animal Company,” Memoir of Marian Breland Bailey. [Box No. M4307, Folder No. 8, Animal Behavior Enterprises collection], Archives of the History of American Psychology, The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron.
  2. Cook-Hasley, B. L. & Wiebers, T. (1999) Marian Breland Bailey: A Pioneer in the History of Applied Animal Psychology. Senior thesis. Henderson State University.
  3. Joyce, N. and Baker, D. B. (2008) The IQ Zoo: Early psychologists used animals to educate and entertain. Monitor on Psychology 39:8, p. 24.
  4. Glines, C. V. (2005) Top Secret World War II Bat and Bird Bomber Program. Aviation History 15:5, pp.38-44.
  5. Vanderbilt, T. (2017) The CIA’s Most Highly Trained Spies. Accessed: April 11, 2017.
  6. Skinner, B.F. (1983) A Matter of Consequences. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
  7. Peterson, G.B. (2004) A Day of Great Illumination: B. F. Skinner’s Discovery of Shaping. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 82, pp.317-328.
  8. Bailey, R.E. and Gillaspy Jr., J.A. (2005) Operant Psychology Goes to the Fair: Marian and Keller Breland in the Popular Press, 1947-1966. The Behavior Analyst 28, 143-159.
  9. First contract between Animal Behavior Enterprises and General Mills. Accessed: August 7, 2017.
  10. Bihm E.M., Gillaspy Jr., A., Abbot, H.J., and Lammers, W.J. (2010) More Misbehavior of Organisms: A Psi Chi Lecture by Marian and Robert Bailey. The Psychological Record 60, pp.505-522.
  11. List of Training Accomplishments. [Box No. M4272, Folder No. 4, Animal Behavior Enterprises collection], Archives of the History of American Psychology, The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron.
  12. Hicks C.B. (1953) Who Says Animals are Dumb? Popular Mechanics 100:5 pp.81-85.
  13. Correspondence [Box No. M4270, Folder No. 1 Animal Behavior Enterprises collection], Archives of the History of American Psychology, The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron.
  14. Keller Breland radio interview. (Source unknown).
  15. 15. Breland K and Breland M. (1961) The Misbehavior of Organisms. American Psychologist 16, pp.681 – 684.
  16. IQ-Zoo website (2017) Bob Bailey biography. Accessed: March 21, 2017.
  17. Bailey, B. (2016) Award Speech at the Art & Science of Animal Training 8th Conference. Accessed: June 15, 2017.
  18. Pryor, K. (1992) If I could talk to the animals. Association of Behavior Analysis (ABA) Convention speech. Accessed: June 17, 2017.


Bill Van Nostran’s writing experience includes decades of corporate, medical communications, and educational projects. As a freelancer in the New York City market, his clients included pharmaceutical companies and medical marketing agencies such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Ortho, Epilepsy Foundation, and the National Cancer Institute. He scripted and produced educational and marketing videos for International Paper, Kraft General Foods, The Prudential, and Sony Corporation among other Fortune 500 corporations. Van Nostran has presented workshops and seminars on media writing throughout the country and authored The Media Writer’s Guide, published by Focal Press in 2000. A member of the American Medical Writers Association, he most recently served as medical writer for the Rebecca D. Considine Research Institute at Akron Children’s Hospital where he visits patients with his registered therapy dog, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. He also runs his duck toller in AKC agility trials.

Van Nostran thanks the staff at the University of Akron’s Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology for assistance navigating their extensive Animal Behavior Enterprises archival collection.