Influential People in the Development of Learning Theory Part 3

By Robert Forto

Breland and Bailey

Lead Dog RevengeIn 1938, Marian Kruse, a research assistant, was bitten by one of B. F. Skinner’s lab rats.  On her way to receive medical attention Kruse met Keller Breland, a brilliant and ambitious graduate student in psychology. A professional and personal relationship developed and they were married in 1941; the same year the United States was going to war.

B.F. Skinner was convinced that the science of operant conditioning could be used to effectively help the war effort.  Skinner’s prior experience with the behavior of pigeons was invaluable to Project Pelican.  Keller and Marian Breland trained pigeons to guide bombs for the Navy; fittingly these bombs were called “pelicans”.  Project Pelican was disbanded in 1943, but Marian Breland carried on by training animals for commercials and animal shows.

The Brelands published Applied Animal Psychology in 1951.  This paper described how operant conditioning could be used to teach animals. They are credited by many for ushering in the commercial application of the science of operant conditioning.

With stories in The Wall Street Journal, Time, and even Life; the Brelands were obviously quite popular.  With this popularity, Marine Studios in Florida noticed the Brelands and worked with them to develop a dolphin act.  The development of this same act led to the publication of the first procedural training manual for dolphin trainers. Operant conditioning and conditioned reinforcers played an enormous role in the training procedures of dolphins due to the distance that the trainer is removed from the subject.

The Brelands’ involvement with dolphins brought them, and their teaching methods, to the attention of the Navy yet again.  A zoologist from the University of California by the name of Bob Bailey headed up the Navy’s Dolphins at Sea program. In 1965 Bailey drew on the extensive experience of the Brelands in respect to the behavior of pigeons. In this with respect, in developing an ambush detection system for the Army.  In the same year Keller Breland passed away.  Bob Bailey and Marian Breland continued the work that the three of them had started. They were eventually married in 1976.

Bob Bailey also developed the concept of a bridging stimulus, which is a method of using a “bridge of time” between the subject animals’ correct response and the delivery of a primary reinforcer.

The value of the contribution that these individuals made to the advancement of learning theory is without measure and cannot be understated. Because of their redundant work the understanding of learning has made important advancements throughout the years.


Robert Forto is the host of The Dog Works Radio Show and is the training director of Alaska Dog Works. Robert Forto can be reached through his website at