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When Work Works, It Clicks: Reflections from ClickerExpo

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A great big howdy!
At the most recent ClickerExpo in Austin, Texas, 70% of the attendees were first-timers who had a lot of fun and a great experience. In fact, 98% of all attendees (new or repeat attendees who completed surveys), said that ClickerExpo met or exceeded their expectations, or gave the event our highest rating, “Wow.” The biggest single category of responses was “Wow.” We even received one extra-special rating of “Wowzie Wow wow!” (We can’t count that as an official response, but we get the idea!)

When you love what you do, work is reinforcing
It’s sage advice to love what you do, because then your work isn’t laborious, but joyous. Creating ClickerExpo is hard work, but it is gratifying to put a tremendous amount of effort into providing a top-notch experience for people, and then have the community of attendees respond with a “Texas Howdy” like this:

I knew ClickerExpo would be a great experience and that I'd learn many things, but I now know that is an understatement. ClickerExpo is a Unique, Incredible, Magical experience. I've been to many dog camps, seminars, workshops, etc. ClickerExpo, by far, is the best ‘dog event’ I've attended. To be around that much positive reinforcement (for the dogs and the humans) was beautiful. Thank You!”

Since I've been before, I already had high expectations, and I'm happy to say that I was NOT disappointed. I am always amazed by how genuine the faculty is, and how generous the faculty is with time. I think the whole Expo experience is just an awesome opportunity.”

(Read more attendee feedback here.)

Be our guest
When you are at ClickerExpo, you can see the reinforcing nature of work in action. Whether it’s a retriever retrieving a hot dog, or the faculty teaching a complex topic, you can tell they enjoy the action. My ten-gallon hat is off to the staff at the Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott, as well. They love what they do, and they are good at taking care of their guests. They reinforced our attendees right from the start by making special dog treats for all of the canine guests! Our attendees, in turn, took excellent care of the resort property. The cycle of reinforcement seemed to continue for the whole event. In fact, I think the mere presence of our good-natured, large group was reinforcing for the hotel staff. On Sunday evening, we gathered most of the faculty together for a closing dinner. One of the waitstaff said to us, “You have no idea how wonderful it is to have had you here. We are doing what we love to do—host, serve, and entertain. That’s what we do, and we haven’t had much chance to do it this season, so we're so glad you are here.” (At that point, I had a flashback to a well-known Disney candle.)

Good leaders have often recognized the importance of productive work. President Franklin Roosevelt understood that getting people back to work was not just an economic necessity, but a psychological one. Ernest Shackleton, the early 20th century explorer, saved most of his crew from certain death in the frigid Antarctic ice when he encouraged the crew to keep busy, keep in shape, and keep spirits up with soccer games on the ice flows. Why? Why is it that we love to do what we love to do? Can our work be the most important part of our survival, and under what conditions? When is activity reinforcing? And WHY is it reinforcing?  

The neuroscience of clicker training
Karen Pryor’s session, The Neuroscience of Clicker Training, was a highlight for many at ClickerExpo. It's the kind of talk you want to hear more than once, because there are gold nuggets of wisdom layered throughout it. One theme the talk explores is why clicker training appears to be so much fun for the animal. In tackling this question, Karen has to wade into the shark-infested waters of anthropomorphism (how do we know the animal is having fun, anyway?), and travel across the professional chasms that segment neurological study. Steadily, she comes to a rather astounding set of observations about the neurological power of the circuitry activated when cues, conditioned reinforcers, and primary reinforcers—the system of clicker training—are all working. Turns out that the “fun factor” is real in clicker training, and there is neurological circuitry behind it. And, it’s no different for us in our work and our play.

When we start down the path of something that for us has a history of being reinforcing, our neurological circuitry engages in specific ways not present in other activities. The path we've learned moves the brain circuitry that generates excitement. In fact, starting down the path is as exciting as reaching the end point. For the cat, the smell of the mouse may be even more neurologically exhilarating than catching it. For us, the pursuit of the brass ring can be at least as satisfying as its capture. All of this leads, as Karen points out, to a re-conceptualization of the power of cues in our training and teaching at a practical training level.

ClickerExpo circuits
I'm getting excited about our upcoming ClickerExpo in Providence, RI. As the cues from Expos past kick in and my circuits engage, I can feel the excitement of learning something new, making new friends, and visiting again with old ones. It's a process full of reinforcers—come and experience it! The next ClickerExpo takes place March 27-29, 2009, outside Providence, RI, and convenient to T.F. Green International Airport. To register or find out more, click here.

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.