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Behavior Matters: 3 Insights from 15 years

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Pathways of Power

Clicker training works. What I learned at ClickerExpo was how it works, and that was oddly reassuring. I don’t know how my phone takes a picture, sends it across the air, and makes it reappear— perfectly reassembled—on both of my kids’ phones. That doesn’t really bother me. But understanding the biological basis for the observation that reinforcement-based learning is fundamentally, biologically different than memorizing the 50 state capitals: that has been revelatory!

My “aha moment” began when Karen Pryor told the backstory of Reaching the Animal Mind. In 2009, she presented this history in a piece titled The Neurophysiology of Clicker Training. Summarizing it, here’s what I wrote:

“The click follows deep physiological, non-cognitive pathways involving the amygdala. Combine this with the "seeker circuit" physiology, and you have a big part of what makes the clicker training process so powerful—it's permanent and impossible to resist… a person's reinforcement history is not retained in the same way that cognitive knowledge is retained. Unlike cognition, reinforcement history is associated with powerful physiological responses. And when success is reinforced, learning improves and is reflected and enabled in changes at the neuron level in the brain.”

So that’s it. We’re wired to learn this way. Training is the voltage we send down the wire. Clicker training is what makes ClickerExpo electric.

Real news vs. fake news

In 2005, I wrote an article called Getting to the Core: Separating Training Fact from Training Fiction about an “aha moment” I had that year.

[I made an intentional misquote early in my article:] “How many of us caught the intentional misquote, above, of the phrase ‘Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?’ The problem is that what Ralph Waldo Emerson actually wrote was ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ Now that's an important difference, isn't it? It changes entirely the nature of the ‘rule.’”

Today we might call this problem separating fake news from real news. I don’t know if there is more or less fake training news than in 2005, but fake and real news both travel faster and further than ever. Bits of training and behavior advice make their way through the Internet and become best practice before they’re practiced. Poorly designed studies make it as great science. Pass it on. We can be “our own best enemy,” because the distinct and many branches of training practices and scientific disciplines that touch training have distinct lexicons.

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ClickerExpo has helped me separate out what’s real, what’s fake, what’s original, and what’s just re-packaging. It has also educated me about the process of digestion—I am a better consumer of information, a skeptic of new acronyms, and open to new ideas while still being persistent in my pursuit of clarification. A significant place where this “digestion education” occurs is at Expo’s panel discussion. The panel discussion is a core, but unscripted, feature of ClickerExpo. For me, the value of the panel discussion really hit home in 2005.

An attendee asked “Is the rule that we should we treat after very click?” What came out of that question, and the replies to it, was the importance of understanding the difference between “shorthand” and “longhand” phrases. In the discussion, faculty members dissected like surgeons the question and the answers. They clarified that “treat” used as a verb was shorthand for reinforce. That clarification led to discussion about whether reinforce implied a primary reinforcer, and did that mean food, and so on. We also discussed “rules” in general and their application in context.

Through the years, these intense discussions have continued. Another Expo panel discussion clarified the often-used phrase “the click ends the behavior” as well as another phrase “click for behavior, reinforce for position,” and so on. For more clarification in 2018, I’m looking forward to both the panel discussion during dinner on Saturday and to Ken Ramirez’s new Session Say What? The Terminology Challenge.

These moments of insight stick.

“Light was brought to bear on the core training issues, on the importance of finding out what people really said and what they really meant, and on the importance of understanding how one can best apply core training principles to one's environment.”

I wrote that in 2005. It’s still true, and it’s real news. Pass it on!

The problem with generalization—in general

ClickerExpo has shown me how important the science, principles, and practices of clicker training—the laws of behavior and training—are to a better world (and a better me). But the importance of clicker training is not easy to see for many people. “Dog-training principles are the same as the principles for a better society? Yeah, right.”

15 years of ClickerExpo has allowed me to connect lots of dots into a pattern that otherwise might be disconnected.
Generalization is a challenge for all species, humans included. Most of us don’t transfer easily how training a dog can be used to train a goat or a crab, let alone a child or an employee. For me, 15 years of ClickerExpo has allowed me to connect lots of dots into a pattern that otherwise might be disconnected. And these are not just the dots of training animals! Societal challenges are complex, but isn’t it all about behavior in the end? A key to better parenting, more effective organizations, enriching education, safer streets, a cleaner environment, harmonious family, social and work relationships, personal resilience, health, and more is the art of teaching and training without “shooting the dog” so to speak. Each year at ClickerExpo I connect more dots, see all that we do, and see even greater potential.

For example, in 2010 I bridged a small gap. I connected sport coaching with dog training, specifically on the topic of responding to mistakes and errors by my players. I concluded:

“Error demonstrates that the skill is not sufficiently internalized. In other words, how we respond in the first minutes after failure is important. Use those moments to prepare the player to internalize the right skill later; it’s not the time to attempt to dictate the right skill then and there.”

Just last year, Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh presented a Session on the procedure and process to use right after a dog makes a mistake. They told me:

“It’s all right in the article you wrote in 2010!”

“You mean the article on coaching kids?” I asked.

“Exactly,” they responded.

Everything is connected. Want more? In 2018, we’ll be addressing these connections between behavior and the world more explicitly than ever. Have a look at Susan Friedman’s Session The Hunger Games that links behavioral change and weight loss.

Let’s get connected. See you at ClickerExpo!

About the author
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Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.