How does a sightless person teach a guide dog to help locate a wall switch or crosswalk button or find an empty chair to sit in? Those were just three of the fascinating training puzzles worked through at ClickerExpo this year.
Michele Pouliot led the "insightful" session that addressed these puzzles. Michele's fulltime job is to develop new programs and techniques that help the students and dogs who are partnered through the nonprofit organization Guide Dogs for the Blind. One of the innovations she has brought to the organization is an emphasis on using clicker training and TAGteach extensively.
I know I understand clicker training, but there is no doubt that when you're teaching sightless people to mark behavior that they can't see, the creative and problem solving parts of your brain need to be on overdrive, working together—Michele's brain clearly is doing both!
OK, so back to the wall switch. Wall switches are not at a uniform height, so the dog's job is to recognize where the light switch is and line up her handler—close to the wall and directly facing the switch so that the handler can reach out and up and find the wall switch quickly. How do you teach the dog to do this reliably? Think of the challenges—recognizing the wall switch, positioning the handler at the right distance and angle, and so forth.
Well, first the dogs become clicker savvy in their training. They understand that the click means "right" and they know how to "earn" their clicks. But then, and this is what fascinates me, the handler clicks the dog when the handler finds the switch! It is the successful execution by the person that is marked! The click tells the dog that he/she was in the right position to make it happen. The lack of a click tells the dog that he she must adjust position in order to adjust the handler's position. With repetition, the dog learns quickly what the objective is and how to earn the reinforcement efficiently. Bingo! Enter room, line handler up, find wall switch. Well done!
This is a really cool example of the power of clicker training to bring out the remarkable intelligence of dogs. And, by the way, an equally cool example of a creative trainer in action.
Michele Pouliot is a freestyle champion, guide dog trainer and, happily, one of the many outstanding faculty teaching at ClickerExpo this year. The remaining 2008 ClickerExpo will take place March 28-30 in Lexington, KY. There are limited remaining spots. To register, visit www.clickerexpo.com or call 800-472-5425.