Bob Bailey

Bob Bailey, ScD: In the Right Place at the Right Time

Bob Bailey was in the right place at the right time to influence discovery and innovation in the world of animal behavior, and indeed, human behavior.  As he was working in his laboratory job at UCLA, Bob came upon a job posting for a director of the U.S. Navy’s Dolphin Training Program. This was a new position, as the Navy had not trained dolphins before – neither had Bob.  However, Bob had a rich history in collecting wild reptiles and small mammals for researchers at the university. His trips into the wild, weekends spent observing animals of the local desert so he could figure out the best ways to catch them alive and healthy, allowed him to learn what animals did, how they did it, and what motivated them.  On his trips, he designed experiments in behavior. He learned to predict where animals would go based on his observations. He created a system of flag markers to direct coyotes to selected alfalfa fields where rabbits foraged. He observed the coyotes’ behavior until he could predict where they would hunt and then began to mark the fields they would visit.  When the coyotes found rabbits in the areas Bob had marked, they were sure to respond to those flags on later hunting trips. He trained captive lizards to perform tasks by using positive reinforcement in the form of a smaller lizard to catch and eat. Bob learned that this was all very simple to do, if one gathered the relevant facts about the animals’ behavior.  It was simple, but not easy in terms of the planning and self-discipline required.  

As the Navy’s first Dolphin Training Director, Bob applied what he had learned in the field to modifying the behavior of the dolphins.  The dolphins would ultimately swim in the open ocean, untethered and free, for up to 12 miles. They would complete a task and return home to Point Mugu Navy Air Station.  The Navy consulted with Keller and Marian Breland, who were already working in their own animal training company to train dolphins and other marine mammals for marine parks among the dozens of species of animals they trained for entertainment purposes.  Bob would later join their company and this team would make history together.

The Brelands helped Bob develop a plan, the blueprint for the process of using behavior science to train the Navy’s dolphins.  The Brelands had been graduate students of Dr. B.F. Skinner, who discovered operant conditioning and wrote of how animals (including humans) learn in his seminal book, Behavior of Organisms.  The Brelands worked with Dr. Skinner to develop a technology, a set of procedures for using behavior science to train animals in a humane and efficient manner.  Positive reinforcement is the basis for this technology. Training a variety of animal subjects in many different tasks showed the process could be successfully repeated by different people with different animals.  

The basic principles of learning and behavior are the same for all species.  The same technology Dr. Skinner and the Brelands used to train pigeons to guide a missile in the Pelican Project during World War II was used to train the Navy dolphins to swim freely in the open ocean and return home after doing their jobs.  The animals were given food for the behaviors they did to perform the tasks. It began with bits of food after each very small bit of behavior and developed into long periods of performance with larger amounts of food afterward. Simple, but comprised of specific plans and applications of reinforcement to achieve the desired result. 

Once Bob had achieved his goal of training the open-ocean dolphins, he wanted more.  The Brelands invited him to work with them at Animal Behavior Enterprises, and he eagerly began developing training and operation plans for the dozens of species of animals they used in shows and coin-operated exhibits throughout the world over the next 50 years.  From this business also came valuable work with ravens, pigeons, cats, and dogs for military and intelligence work throughout the Cold War, programs for teaching developmentally disabled people to care for themselves to help them become more independent, and mind-bending Operant Conditioning Workshops to help animal trainers gain masterful skills.  

Government contracts had Animal Behavior Enterprises training spy ravens to take pictures through windows and spy cats to listen in on the conversations of those plotting against the U.S.  Who knows how many spy activities were thwarted during the Cold War because of information gathered by ravens and cats? Dogs were trained for military operative work of all kinds, including scent detection, being directed to pick up and deliver items, and standard work in capturing bad guys.  Pigeons were trained to detect the approach of unfriendly troops. They even trained gulls to search for floating victims of overturned boats. 

Marian Breland Bailey worked extensively with institutions for the mentally retarded, which in the 1950’s were not equipped for teaching the mentally disabled to improve themselves, but only to maintain them.  Her work contributed to institutionalized people learning to perform basic hygiene, and sometimes even move into group housing or work at simple jobs to support themselves.

The Operant Conditioning Workshops Marian and Bob led from the late 1990’s until 2015 expanded behavior science into the worlds of dog and horse training, zoo and marine park animal training, and more.  Trainers learned to develop their mechanical skills in applying positive reinforcement to training chickens as they learned the basic principles of behavior science. The technology of behavior science changed many of their lives and resulted in the development of world-famous teachers of behavior science based training.  

Dr. Bob Bailey achieved the degree of Doctor of Science in Behavior from University of Central Arkansas in 2013 to bring together his decades of work in the field.  Though retired, he never slows down. Our film will introduce you to some of his work in his own words and those of some of his students who have made great achievements on their own.  You will have the opportunity to understand how animals learn like never before and to form your own plans for shaping the behavior of your own pets and those humans you interact with on a regular basis.

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