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Clicker Classics: Getting to the Core

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Separate training fact from training fiction

In search of a happy and successful life, there's no shortage of sage, well-phrased bits of advice. We're bombarded with these maxims from childhood onward—everything from "The early bird catches the worm" to the "Golden Rule." Need a prescription for business success? "Stick to your knitting." How about one for your life? "Moderation in all things." Disorganized? Remember to "Make a place for everything and put everything in its place."

"A treat should always follow the click. Yes it should. No it shouldn't. Usually. Maybe."

But if you show me one cliche maxim, I'll find its opposite. "Stick to your knitting,"—but "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." Moderation in all things? OK, but "Don't become a jack of all trades and master of none." "Make a place for everything and put everything in its place," but remember that "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

That's why I like the experience of ClickerExpo. We get past so many training contradictions. We get them sorted out because the faculty, despite their diverse backgrounds, practice core clicker training the same way.

At ClickerExpo San Diego in January 2005, for example, there was a lot of good discussion among attendees about whether or not, for optimal results, a treat should always follow the click. Yes it should. No it shouldn't. Usually. Maybe. And so on.

There were some very interesting subtleties in these good-natured discussions among attendees. First, you could hear a deep-seated need to understand "the rule" about treating after clicking. Uncertainty about this rule in particular produces anxiety because the question is central to good clicker training practice.

Second, the discussion participants often quoted quick bits of well-phrased advice they had heard at other conferences and seminars as if they were "training gospel." I wondered whether we understood what was originally meant by many of these quotes. Could we even quote them accurately? How many of us, for example, caught the intentional misquote, above, of the phrase "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"? What Ralph Waldo Emerson actually wrote was "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Now that's an important difference, isn't it? It changes the entire nature of the "rule." When we quote Emerson incorrectly we misrepresent the core of his idea! Maybe that happens in our world, too.

Finally, the phrasing of the question had a huge impact on the ensuing conversation. What did the person mean when they asked "Should we always treat after the click?" Did they mean treat with food? Or did they really mean ANY reward the learner finds highly reinforcing? We often don't stop to find out.

At the Saturday afternoon panel discussion, with the entire faculty either on stage or in the front row, we got a clear and unified answer to the question "Should we always treat after the click." (listen to the panel discussion in its entirety here) First, the question was rephrased as, "Should reinforcement always follow a click?" The answer is yes. Why? The clicker is a marker and also a bridge to reinforcement. What's a "bridge?" In non-technical terms, it's a promise to pay—a promise that the goods are on the way, shortly. When you click and don't deliver what you promised, you put cracks in the bridge. You begin to weaken it. Eventually you will crack the bridge enough that it's no longer structurally sound. Pay up and your bridge stays strong…it even gets stronger! If you already have a deep history of reinforcement with the learner, an accidental unrewarded click probably won't have much impact on your training, but rewardless clicks shouldn't be part of your training plan . They don't help you achieve your objective and they slow down the communication and training process. That's why Karen Pryor says "Don't lie with your clicker." Provide reinforcers after you click.

Second question: does the reinforcer have to be food? No, food is a great primary reinforcer for many animals, which is why everyone on the ClickerExpo faculty always starts out training with food and associating the clicker with it . But the principle is that you should use whatever your learner finds highly rewarding and also associate the clicker to that. In fact, it's great to have an animal that will really work for other reinforcers like touch, play, or toys. The point is that you as the teacher/trainer must identify your learner's strong reinforcers.

Clarity! Consistency. And you know what else? Room for variability—not on the core issue of whether or not to reinforce after clicks—but on how fast and when, if ever, to introduce new types of reinforcers after clicks. Horse trainer Alexandra Kurland never replaces food with other reinforcers following her clicks, because she finds the consistency makes her a better trainer and the horses always respond. Marine mammal trainer Ken Ramirez has his new trainers at the Shedd Aquarium work for their first couple of years only with food, post-click. Once the trainers have a deep history and record of positive reinforcement with the animals, then and only then does Ken begin to allow other reinforcers like touch to follow the click instead of food. Why? Ken has seen too many trainers make the move too quickly or rely too heavily on non-food reinforcers, with serious life-and-limb consequences.

Steve White, in certain police work, must look for dogs that find non-food rewards highly motivating, so he can click and work in the field without food. Becky McClintock of Texas Hearing and Assistance Dogs has to find dogs that, while trained with clicks and food reinforcers, will be able to work for whatever kinds of reinforcers her physically challenged clients are able to give. Sometimes that means the animal even has to jump onto his/her owner's lap to receive the reinforcer! TAGteachers Theresa McKeon and Joan Orr report that with young kids, TAGs (clicks) should be followed by reinforcers (anything from puzzle pieces to leaving practice early) but with older kids and adults, the information contained in the click ("Yes! You did that right!") is often the only reinforcer they want.

It was clear in San Diego. It wasn't just the sunshine. It was the light brought to bear on the core training issues, on the importance of finding out what people really said and what they really meant, and on the importance of understanding how one can best apply core training principles to one's environment.

I love the way award-winning poet Shel Silverstein summed up this idea in "Early Bird," from Where the Sidewalk Ends:

Find out more about the next ClickerExpo

Aaron Clayton is the President of Karen Pryor Clickertraining and TAGteach International

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Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

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