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On My Mind: Clicker Training…What a Concept!

The rising tide…

I sense that the concepts of clicker training are spreading faster and farther than ever before. It’s not just the click that people think of now. It’s not just, “Oh, it has to be positive.” It’s more fundamental than that.

two dogs looking at camera

Can you teach a dog the concept of "mimic?"
Ken Ramirez will show us how
at ClickerExpo 2011.

A piano teacher at a lunch gathering told me, “The key thing, for me, is breaking things down into small units, and then starting with a point of success.” She’s grasped a crucial concept—start with something the student can already do right, and proceed in manageable steps. Boy, that’s very different from my piano lessons as a child! I can’t help but notice that the language is straight out of TAGteach™. When I asked her, she had never heard of TAG. But she has the concept.

I’ve done some choral singing over the years, and this year I wanted to do that again. I went to some auditions, and was thrilled to be accepted into one of the fine classical music choruses in Boston. One night at rehearsal the conductor said, “Maybe you’re wondering why we are rehearsing the last parts of each section first. Well, if you learn the last parts first, then you will always be going toward something you already know well, so it will be easier and easier.”

Back-chaining. Skinner first published a description of back-chaining in the 1950s. It’s detailed in Don’t Shoot the Dog! (2nd edition, p. 88). We teach a lot about it in KPA courses and at ClickerExpo. But here it was in real life. Not only that, psychologist Susan Friedman e-mailed me recently that her chorus director, out there on the Other coast, also teaches new music from the back to the front. These choral maestros are not using the language we use, but the actual concept is suddenly being accepted, understood, and put to use.

Concept training

Ken Ramirez started talking about concept training some years ago, at ClickerExpo. Can we teach animals the concept of adjectives? Ken calls them modifier cues. Go over the jump. That’s a cue. Go over the left jump (as opposed to the right jump). That’s a modifier cue. Big/small, high/low—those are all modifiers. When you teach two or three such pairs, the animal “gets the picture.” Now it understands the concept of modifier cues, and you can give some very complex instructions easily.

This year at ClickerExpo Ken will be teaching us about the concept “mimic.” Can you teach an ape or a dolphin to copy what another ape or dolphin is doing? Of course you can, because they’re so smart. Or is that not it? Can you also teach a dog the concept of “mimic?” Yes, it turns out that you can, and Ken will show us how he does it.

Universal concepts

When you think about it, just understanding that clicks mean treats, and that you, the learner, can make clicks happen, is a concept. Guess what? You can teach that concept to a crab. Or a turtle. And just like us mammals, a crab or a turtle that learns how to make clicks happen begins acting confident, bold, even sort of cocky. Hey, did we think that concepts, not to mention attitudes toward life, could only materialize in creatures with big brains like us? Now it looks as if anything with a nervous system can pull it off.

ClickerExpo has become a place where we find not just new methods, new explanations, and new solutions to old problems, but new concepts. Concepts that are spreading like viruses all over the planet. This year ClickerExpo offers the most innovative and front-edge program we’ve ever put on. Newport Beach, CA, January 21-23, 2011, and Chicago, March 18-20, 2011. I can hardly wait. Come and get a few new concepts yourself!

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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