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How to Train People While You're Training Dogs

Click your people, too

Essentially, TAGteaching is clicker training for humans. It has numerous applications, and is popular among athletic coaches, educators working with learning-disabled individuals, pilot instruction schools, and, yes, clicker classes!

Seam 4

Thanks to Casey's student, Nicole
Stankiewicz, and to Casey's dog,
Mokie, for posing!

Most dog trainers will assert that their two-legged clients are generally far more challenging “trainees” than their four-legged clients. As an instructor, perhaps you’ve found yourself in one or both of the situations outlined below. Each situation merits a closer look at the values of TAGteaching.

Situation A: You repeat yourself, saying the same thing over and over (and over) again to a certain student.

“Stop clicking near your dog’s ears. I said stop clicking near your dog’s ears! Won’t you stop clicking near your dog’s ears? Please stop clicking near your dog’s ears. Pretty please? Seriously, stop clicking near your dog’s ears.”

Situation B: Your list of rules, your “do’s and don’ts” is longer than your list of clients.

It’s easy to fall into a trap of nagging and not training. The trap is frustrating for all members of the training team—the trainer, the student, and the dog. TAGteaching provides a way to avoid the nagging and focus on what good training is all about—shaping behaviors by breaking them down into their smallest components, and identifying unwanted behaviors while training alternative, incompatible, and desirable behaviors in their stead.

Formalizing the process

We’ve always used positive reinforcement training with canine and human learners at Clicking With Canines. In the past, we have had an assortment of loose change and a wide variety of candies that could be used to reward our clients for their training achievements. However, I find that dieting clients don’t want lots of chocolate (actually, they do, and it’s a powerful reinforcer, but one that they deny themselves). And, some clients really don’t care about a nickel. The crux of any successful training is finding out what your learner is willing to work for.

In our initial implementation of positive reinforcement teaching protocols, the training instructors were the only ones in the classroom TAGging the students. Our newest method involves the students on an additional level—not only do they get TAGged, but they TAG each other, too!

Not only do the students get TAGged, but they TAG each other, too!

Modeling ClickerExpo

ClickerExpo 2009 in Providence, along with a discussion with friend and fellow clicker trainer Tammy Sickles, led to a revolution in the TAGteaching program in our classroom, a revolution that has resulted in increased revenue, client retention, and client satisfaction.

Those of you lucky enough to have attended ClickerExpo may be familiar with the popular TAGteaching system in place at the conference. It involves the distribution of raffle tickets; each attendee is handed approximately ten sets of double-roll raffle tickets, for a total of twenty tickets. On each of the twenty tickets the attendee writes his or her name, and then distributes, or awards, the tickets to other polite and helpful ClickerExpo attendees. The individual being TAGged (receiving the ticket) records his or her name on the ticket, too. All tickets used in the TAGging game are entered into a raffle. The TAGger and the TAGgee whose names are on the tickets drawn as winners receive great prizes!

When Tammy suggested implementing a similar program in the classroom, I was inspired. I went to a local party supply store and purchased three rolls of raffle tickets.

The next step was creating a list of suggested TAGpoints, based on the previous “rules list.” Instead of having a rule about “not arriving late to class,” we TAG students who arrive on time! Instead of nagging students who forget to give their dogs enough potty breaks, we TAG them for recognizing indicator behaviors and for taking their dogs out for breaks. Instead of yelling at students for popping the leash, we TAG them for practicing loose-leash walking (LLW).

I printed the TAGpoints list and distributed the list and the tickets at orientation. I also offered TAGs to students who could suggest additional TAG points I had forgotten. Now I have students who TAG each other for taking breaks for belly scratches, clicking for calm behavior/quiet, clicking to and from the classroom in the parking lot, sharing treats, toys, or poop bags with a student in need, picking up unclaimed dog poop in the parking lot, cleaning up after their dogs, or helping bring cleaning supplies to another student whose dog has had an accident.

The TAG system encourages teamwork among the students as well as an attitude of friendliness.

The TAG system encourages teamwork among the students as well as an attitude of friendliness. I’ve had a number of students tell me that they wish they could hand out tickets when people do nice things for them in “real life,” like holding a door open or telling someone their zipper is down.

TAGpoints and the smallest components

TAGteaching is also very valuable to trainers, providing an effective way to break skills down into their smallest components and to shape success. Have you ever tried to teach loose-leash walking to a student who approaches the exercise white-knuckled, with the leash wrapped around her hand fifty or more times, leaving approximately 3” of leash between her leash hand and the dog’s collar or harness? Students with dogs that have well-established histories of pulling are often overwhelmed by their dog’s behavior and struggle with the entire loose-leash walking training process, from holding the leash correctly to delivering the reinforcement effectively—and everything in between. Like some dogs, some students need more detailed steps in the shaping plan.

There are three criterions to keep in mind when developing effective TAGpoints. They are:

  • Start by saying “The TAGpoint is…”
    • This phrase will be your student’s cue for learning. Consistent cueing is important in training success.
  • The TAGpoint must be phrased in the positive. (“Do this” instead of “Don’t do this”)
  • The TAGpoint must be measurable and based on only one criterion. Did the learner meet the criterion or not?

Generally, I do not deliver the reinforcer after each click. I prefer to observe a student, clicking throughout, and setting aside a ticket for each correct response. I deliver a bunch of tickets at the end of the training session. Sometimes interrupting the student after each repetition disrupts learning for the person and the dog, so it is best to observe, click, and jackpot at the end of the session before moving on to the next student.

It is best to observe, click, and jackpot at the end of the session before moving on to the next student.

For the student who likes to click too near her dog’s ears, the TAGpoint could be “clicker behind your back.”

For loose-leash walking, there would be more than one TAGpoint, and I’d start with leash handling, shaping the client for the appropriate leash hold.

  • Four fingers of right hand together
  • Four fingers perpendicular away from body
  • Thumb straight up
  • Loop leash over four fingers
  • Loop leash around hand once
  • Clicker between thumb and forefinger

How about TAGging reinforcement skills? There are only two TAGpoints for reinforcement skills in this exercise, but they could be broken down into smaller components if necessary.

  • Treat hand at neutral position while you click (much better than saying “Don’t have your hand in your treat bag while clicking”)
  • Feed at seam (deliver the treat to the dog at the seam of your left pant leg)

When the student is ready to start moving with the dog, I usually start by having the student walk “an invisible dog.” With an empty leash in the student’s right hand, the student clicks and treats the dog for moving in position while he is tethered.

It helps to build a really strong reinforcement history of the dog moving with the student at the heel position, using lots of pace and directional changes, before asking the student to handle a clicker, or add effective reinforcement delivery and leash skills. Following those steps, by the time the leash is in the student’s hand and attached to the dog, a fairly nice heel is already established.

TAGpoints can also be developed for teaching loose-leash walking using the “Be a Tree” technique.

Be a Tree

TAGpoints can also be developed for teaching loose-leash walking using the “Be a Tree” technique. The “Be a Tree” concept was originally introduced to the dog training world by a wonderful organization called Doggone Safe. The metaphor describes how humans should stand when greeted or approached by an overzealous, exuberant dog—stand straight and still, with hands still and held close to the body. (To learn more about the technique, check out the Doggone Safe website.)

As most trainers know, both dogs and humans possess an instinctive opposition reflex that can create a tug of war between the dog and handler on walks. Without even being aware of it, we pull back on a tight leash reflexively. Applying the “Be a Tree” technique can be very helpful in rehabbing a human with an established reinforcement history for pulling back on the tight leash or popping the leash. TAG a client for "being a tree" instead of pulling back on the leash—it’s very effective! 

Using the “Be a Tree” concept for loose-leash walking, it’s important to keep in mind two elements—the person stops all forward movement when the leash goes tight, and the leash hand is anchored at the body. Develop TAGpoints for both of these steps:

The TAGpoint is "stop when the leash goes tight.”

The TAGpoint is "leash hand at belly button.”

If the dog owner is wobbly on her feet and has a hard time stopping without taking additional steps, break the behavior down further and include a TAGpoint like “feet at shoulder width.” This gives the client a broader base, better balance, and a clear visual reference for the appropriate position.

seam 3

Getting treats "at the seam."

What are we going to do with all these tickets?

Tickets are also effective reinforcers for playing the shaping game or for capturing student behaviors to build clicker skills. At games class, I reward the winning team with ten tickets and the losing team with two or three. If a student is struggling to get a dog to look at the mat at Tuesday’s foundation class and comes in with “go settle” on cue at the next class, jackpot! Ten, fifteen, twenty tickets, hooray!

Obviously, the tickets have no literal value. Like any conditioned reinforcer (clickers, money, paychecks), they are only valuable because they clear the path to a primary reinforcer—something the animal (in this case, the human) wants to work for.

In my classes at Rewarding Behavior Dog Training (RBDT), tickets have become classroom currency. Tickets can be used to purchase a variety of toys, treats, and great training books in the classroom’s pet boutique. They can also be applied toward future RBDT services. I’ve set a rate of 20 tickets = $1 credit in the store or toward RBDT services.

Another option is for students to save their tickets and enter them into semi-monthly drawings. Prizes can include 10-packs of playgroup sessions, canine massages from the certified canine massage therapist on staff, gift certificates for local pet stores and boutiques, toy and treat baskets, etc. To make things especially fun, our first drawing is slated for Christmas Day—the two individuals listed on the winning ticket will each win a free three-month membership in my classes (valued at $275).

Successful clients = good business

TAGteaching and clicker training are operant conditioning at its best. Both revolve around breaking down behaviors into their smallest components, rewarding successive approximations of the goal behavior, and training alternative, incompatible behaviors when unwanted behaviors arise.

TAGteaching allows you to communicate effectively with your clients, and lets your clients interact positively with each other. Implementing a TAGteach program at your facility will produce more enthusiasm and better training results for your clients. Since launching the TAGteaching program in my own classes, I can say that both enrollment and re-enrollment rates have skyrocketed, to the point where additional classes have had to be added to the schedule to keep up with demand. Even then, we have had to wait-list clients occasionally as a result of the significant increase in demand for services.

A roll of raffle tickets costs approximately ten dollars, and is an investment in both your own professional success and in the training success of your clients and their dogs. What are you waiting for? Purchase a roll of tickets at your local party supply store, and create a list of suggested TAGpoints. Then start increasing your client satisfaction and, subsequently, your revenue—today!

Note: Because there will already be lots of clicking going on in class, I suggest choosing a marker other than a clicker when TAGteaching your students. A digital timer with a beep tone can function as a good marker. I have also used a clap, or the word “TAG.” Choose any marker that you like. Feel free to comment below this article with suggestions for other TAGteaching markers!

About the author
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Casey Lomonaco lives in upstate New York, where she offers editorial, writing, and behavior consulting services through her company Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training. When she is not working with or writing about dogs, she is knitting, reading, or hiking in a forest—with dogs.

I am so excited to begin

I am so excited to begin doing this Tagteaching method in my group classes. I will be running a class for kids ages 6 years to 13 years at a local animal shelter and I think this will help them greatly in class! Thank you so much for the information.

Thank you!

I LOVE this idea and will be implementing it in my classes as soon as I get my materials!

How to Train People While You're Training Dogs

I have used this method a lot while raising my disabled child.  I just didn't realize that I was using the clicker trainig or TAGteaching method :)



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