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A Holiday Treat from Karen

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My gift to you

My next book, Reaching the Animal Mind, will be published by Scribner in the fall of 2008. Here's my Christmas present to you: a story from the book.

Timing really is everything—especially on air!

dog sleeping in ribbon

The rapidity with which dogs can convert from chronic reactive behavior to thoughtful attentive operant behavior continues to amaze me. It's as if you give them a new tool kit and they just chuck the old methods out the window. There are two keys to making this conversion happen: having many small pieces of an appetizing primary reinforcer, and getting clickable moments going at a very high rate, many clicks a minute.

The first time I really pulled off that high rate of reinforcement was on television. I was in Chicago at a scientific conference. Steve Dale, a well-known radio and TV personality, invited me to do some clicker training during his weekly section on pets on the noon news. What could I do in five or ten minutes that would show up clearly on TV? I asked him to arrange to have one of the shelters bring in a large and friendly, but out-of-control, dog, a dog less than two years old. (Shelters see a lot of these. When the dog was a little puppy, it was so adorable, bouncing into everyone's lap and licking them madly on the face, that such behavior was not only permitted, but thoroughly reinforced. It's not so cute when the dog weighs eighty pounds and knocks down elderly relatives. Indeed, Steve had no problem locating a candidate for the show.)

I came to the TV studio with a clicker and a half-pound of cut up roast chicken from a nearby deli. The dog arrived—a big, yellow, tail-wagging, leaping, face-licking, semi-Labrador—perfect! The cameras were running. The dog dragged the shelter volunteer onto the set and headed straight for me and my pieces of chicken. Click, treat. Ingesting roast chicken made him stand still for a moment; it may have been the first time in his life he tasted something that delicious. It may have been the first time that day he had actually stood still, too. I clicked and treated again.

The rapidity with which dogs can convert from chronic reactive behavior to thoughtful attentive operant behavior continues to amaze me.

I sent the shelter volunteer away, gave Steve the leash, and told him, "Follow the dog and keep the leash somewhat slack. You are just the emergency brake in case the dog decides to leave the building." I started walking slowly in a circle on the TV stage. When the dog jumped on me, nothing happened. When he made excursions away from me, nothing happened. When he jumped on Steve, nothing happened. Whenever he came near my left side, however, he got a click and a pea-sized piece of chicken. I kept walking, and the dog started staying with me more and more. I clicked and treated every two steps, and then every three. Soon the dog was walking quietly beside me for several steps. He began staring at my face; I timed my clicks to catch that attentiveness, too. Then I raised the bar a little, clicking every eight steps, and then every ten. Still the dog still kept pace with me, followed by Steve Dale who was grinning and keeping the leash slack as instructed.

What would happen if I stopped walking now? Would the dog leave me? I took that chance, and stopped. The dog not only stopped, it actually sat. Click! Big treat. Someone in his past had taught him that behavior, and now it not only surfaced, it paid off for him. See, dog? You can make people do what you want, but in a new way, not the way you've been trying all this time. I moved next to Steve. How about sitting for Steve? Steve spoke to the dog. Instead of jumping on him, the dog sat in front of him. Yippee! I clicked, and Steve gave the treat.

He was already more likely to get adopted, and the adoption was more likely to stick.

My co-star and my friend

In five minutes this now-model citizen and I walked off the set together, side by side, as if we'd been friends for years. The dog would need experience in other locations and with other people before being able to control himself at all times when walking on a leash. But already he had come a long way. He was learning to learn. He was calmer. He had a new interest in people. He was now looking at faces instead of only at hands and food. He was already more likely to get adopted, and the adoption was more likely to stick.

Adapted from: Karen Pryor, Reaching the Animal Mind (New York: Scribner, 2008).

Spirit of the season

This little demo has been duplicated by clicker trainers all over the world. Giving the restless, excited dog some active operant behavior to do, for reinforcement, is a wonderful alternative to trying to suppress over-the-top behavior with correction and physical restraint. Go down to your local shelter and spread holiday joy by trying it for yourself!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,

Karen Pryor

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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