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Assessing the Clicker Skills of Individual Trainers

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Last month my daughter Gale Pryor and I went to England to participate in a Clicker Conference and a Clicker Challenge. The event was organized by Kay Laurence, editor and publisher of Teaching Dogs magazine. I gave a talk and judged the Clicker Challenge. Gale led a workshop (see below) and participated in the Challenge with two of Kay's dogs. (Gale's team did not win, but they didn't come in last, either, and judging by the laughter coming from that practice area, if there'd been a prize for having fun, they'd have won that.)

We love the Cotswolds, the part of England where these events take place. We stayed once again in the medieval town of Chipping Camden, with its beautiful arching main street lined with 1500's houses built of honey-colored stone. We saw many friends from previous visits. We enjoyed lots of training talk, great pub meals, and hill topping walks on the 1000-year-old footpaths that go from village to village across the farmland.

Last year we came home with a puppy on order. This year we came home with some tremendous new ideas.

Just how good are you, anyway?

Good idea number one: Kay has developed a way of assessing the clicker skills of individual trainers. The program tests the trainer's abilities, not the dog's performance. The test is valuable not so much as a measure of achievement but as a clear-cut way of finding out what you know and what you still need to find out, a very difficult thing to judge for yourself.. The program will be refined as it develops but here is a working description of the current version for the Competency Assessment Program.

After the Saturday conference and workshops I watched about twenty people taking the Foundation Level assessment test with their dogs. The assessors and their stewards were patient, friendly, and competent. The scores ranged from Pass-the minimum, with 12 points-through Merit to Distinction, a maximum of 39 possible points. Some people who considered themselves expert trainers scored 12, and at least one very anxious trainer, who had been working entirely on his own, scored a brilliant 38.

What made those low and high scorers different? I had noticed, watching people in workshops earlier in the day, some very confident trainers who were still using quite a lot of coercion (surreptitiously grabbing the collar harshly, for example.) Now, in the assessment situation with the dog off-lead, they often had trouble keeping their dog's attention. In fact some of them had trouble keeping their dog in the ring.

Several of these mixed-method trainers could easily pass the first of several tests-repeating the same behavior on cue six times-but could not pass the last test, teaching the dog to interact with a traffic cone six feet away, while sitting motionless in a chair.

On the other hand the high-scorers, men and women both, aced all the tests, especially the final free-shaping test. Typically they just threw themselves in the chair, put their clicker hand out of sight, flicked treats out on the floor after each click, and had their dogs bouncing all over the prop in next to no time. Roger Reed and his young border collie Tillie (litter mate to Gale's Phoebe) built a nice little behavior consisting of Tillie pressing her nose to the top of the traffic cone and circling it clockwise with her body. In about twenty seconds. Click! This was the foundation-level test. Gale and I will both take it with our own dogs back here in the States on one of Kay's next visits.

I have to say, I was very excited about the possibilities of this assessment program. I KNOW some of my weaknesses as a trainer…but do I know them all? How about rating others, such as one's own students? Watching the assessments, I agreed, intuitively, with all the placements; yep, this person has it right, that person doesn't. But intuition and data are two different things. It was thrilling to have a clear set of criteria reinforcing my unscientific gut feel about what clicker training really is and who does it well.

Games People Play

Good idea number two: a table game that Kay developed to help people learn more about teaching and using cues.

You probably know the Training Game, played on your feet and in groups, that I describe in DSTD and on the website. That game does a good job of teaching us how to reinforce in a timely way, how to shape behavior, and how it feels to be the dog learning a behavior. However, while it CAN be used to teach cues and cueing, it's cumbersome and slow for that purpose.

In contrast, the Click a Cue© Game, (a working title we have given it) CAN be used to teach shaping, but it's much more efficient at teaching you how to think about and use cues. It is a totally non-verbal table game for two people and observers, involving a multitude of small objects, cards, coins, and a clicker. You don't need to have ANY training experience to start playing and start learning.

Gale Pryor had learned this game last summer, so she led a workshop on the game during the British clicker conference. (Gale had to develop some new ways to conduct a workshop in a place where it was too noisy to give verbal instructions!) All went well. The game is fun and addictive. People were lining up to take turns at the tables, and observers were clapping and bursting into laughter at high points in the game. And everyone learned. Among other things, people remarked that now they know it feels to be the dog learning to understand CUES.

We will be having some practice sessions with Click a Cue at the ClickerExpo conferences. Prototype game sets will be on sale on our website, probably in January, and we will all be looking for feedback from you as the game is very much still in development.

The i-Clickâ„¢

Our new i-Click clickers will be arriving in bulk at the end of November and again at the end of December. Thank you for the tremendous feedback. These are quiet, convenient, easy to click with your hand, foot, or elbow, useful in a million ways. Dogs understand the new click right away. They're great for people with disabilities. They don't attract attention in public or scare the sound-sensitive pet. They cost about the same as regular clickers. We tested these out at APDT and with many of our trainer friends. The only people who didn't love them were the gymnastics coaches-with thirty or more kids jumping noisily around in one gymnasium they WANT the conventional loud ringing click! But for most of us, the i-Click is a blessing. And you can get them in quantity with your own imprint. Details Merry Christmas! We're now taking orders on the website. You can order the i-Click now and you card won't be charged 'till we ship

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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