(Adapted from Don't Shoot the Dog, Bantam Books, 2000.)
Understanding reinforcement training can't repair physical or neurological deficits, and it won't replace the help that only skilled professionals can give, but it can make life easier for everyone. Parents are learning to shape appropriate behavior instead of accidentally reinforcing inappropriate behavior: to reinforce silence not noise, play, not tantrums. It is not that they are "treating their children like animals", an ever popular prejudiced attack; clicker training is not about animals or people. It is about better ways of teaching and learning. Best of all, you don't need a PH.D to be an effective shaper. Recently I was driving home from an outing with my daughter and her family when her fourteen-month-old began to yell. He wasn't crying-yet, anyway- he was just making a very loud noise to protest the length of the drive and his incarceration in his car seat: and we were still twenty minutes from home. My seven-year-old grandson Wylie, in the backseat with his little brother, calmly got rid of the yelling by reinforcing longer and longer periods of silence. The marker? Wylie's grin. The reinforcer? One lick of Wylie's lollipop.
When I recently taught a course in shaping and reinforcement to about fifty educators, I asked them to do a shaping project. Sharon Ames, a speech and language pathologist, chose her three-and-a-half-year-old twins. Her shaping challenge was this: Though eight P.M. was the twins' supposed bedtime, it was taking three hours or more to get the little darlings to sleep every night.
Sharon introduced pennies, dropped in jars, as the reinforcer. In the morning each twin would be able to cash in the pennies for prizes. The first night the kids got a click-and a penny-for each stage of the go-to-bed process. Click for getting in the bath. Click for getting out, click for getting into pajamas, and so on. Then, when the lights went out, they got a click (and a penny, of course) if they were on their beds-not in them, just on them-every time Sharon came back in the room.
The first night she came back in once a minute for the first half hour-that's thirty clicks-and then once every five minutes for another hour, by which time the children were asleep. The second night, she thinned the reinforcement schedule to every ten minutes, and within an hour, they were asleep.
The third night the twins went to sleep right away. In three days the time it took to get the twins to bed and to sleep went from three hours a night to about twenty minutes, a comfort level, and there it stayed. The twins endorsed the clicker. "Can we play the clicker game some more?" The reinforcer for Sharon and her husband was, of course, a real jackpot: a full night's sleep.
The Ames family then incorporated clicker training into their daily life. (Sharon told me they found it more effective to click very occasionally, but with bigger reinforcers.) Sharon's mother sometimes baby sits for them, and Sharon showed her mother how to use the clicker with the twins. Then Sharon's mother adopted a dog. She complained about some behavior problems with her new pet.
"Why don't you use the clicker?" Sharon said.
Her mother looked dubious. "Well, of course, it's wonderful for children, but do you really think it would work with dogs?"
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