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Good Human! You're Learning the Fido Way

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For most people, tag is a child's game. But for a growing number of young athletes and dancers, "TAG" is a revolution in education.

Teaching with Acoustical Guidance is a technique that uses a sharp audible "click" to signal the moment when a student gets something right—from perfect form on a handstand to the perfect ballet arabesque.

The system, adapted from dog training, has taken off in the past two years, spreading from gymnastics and dance to soccer and golf. Today, the tinny sounds from hand-held clickers are heard from dance schools in Boston to Disney's Animal Kingdom.

"All 300 species of animals at Walt Disney World have training regimens that involve some form of clicker training."

Proponents say the science behind TAGteach—conditioning through positive reinforcement—is what makes it superior to conventional training methods that stress repetition and punishment, or negative reinforcement.

Those who use the method to teach humans face a challenge. They must overcome resistance to a technique that many associate with teaching Fido to fetch.

Still, they think it's just a matter of time before TAGteaching becomes universally accepted.

"We're all on a wave of something big, and it's all going to come to an explosion," said Angelica Steinker, who owns a dog-training center near Tampa.

Steinker began to TAGteach dog handlers in her classes about six months ago. The students are there to learn proper techniques for getting their dogs through fast-paced agility routines where one missed hand signal can confuse the dog and ruin a run.

TAGteach has provided great results, she said.

"I see improvements literally instantaneously," she said. "When you TAG them, they have an awareness of what they just did. If you've ever been TAGed, it's very dramatic in your mind because it marks it."

Sounds of success

Karen Pryor, a pioneer in the clicker training field who began working with dolphins in the 1960s, said TAGteaching is a natural evolution of clicker training.

"Any living organism that has a central nervous system can be taught with an acoustic signal," she said. "It is great for teaching complicated or precise movements."

Pryor's 1985 book, Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training, gave readers a practical introduction to using positive reinforcement for training. It included information on clicker training and became a must-have for animal trainers.

All 300 species of animals at Walt Disney World have training regimens that involve some form of clicker training, whether the aim is drawing blood from a tiger's tail or getting inch-long poison dart frogs to jump into a Plexiglas container.

"It's the same as your cat associating the sound of a can opener with a can of tuna," said Jill Mellen, Disney's education sciences director.

Trainers P.J. Lacette and Sandy Guy, owners of Best Paw Forward in Sanford, were emphasizing positive reinforcement in their training—"using food instead of fear," Lacette said—when they learned about clicker training.

"Up on stage, they were demonstrating the clicker," Lacette said. "We turned to each other, saying, ‘This is what we have to do.'"

The clicker made food training more efficient by marking the exact behavior that would get dogs the treat they were working for, she said. Lacette and Guy have used the clicker—from basic puppy training to advance show dog and agility training—for 10 years.

Gymnasts flip over clicks

The leap to using clickers on humans is a more recent development.

Theresa McKeon, a North Carolina gymnastics instructor, was one of the first to bring clickers into the classroom. She was sold on clicker training thanks to a difficult horse.

McKeon bought a horse at auction, only to learn its temperament left much to be desired. It would as soon throw a rider as stomp one, she said. Clicker training worked wonders on the horse, and that inspired McKeon: How might it work for her young gymnasts?

"With gymnasts, we're working four hours a day, five days a week," she said. "I was always looking for anything that would shake them up. I tried TAGtraining, and it worked."

The benefits to the method are plentiful, she said. The sharp and instant click works better than verbal praise on many levels. It's immediate. It's nonjudgmental. And when McKeon got her students to TAG each other, it was fun.

"Now they know when they get things right," she said. "If I should miss a TAG with a kid, they look at the TAGer. They don't look at me."

It's also precise, she said. Once students learn a "TAG point"—the specific skill or position that instructors are looking for—the click will tell them when they get it right.

Positive influence

Results convinced McKeon that TAGteach was the future.

"I was a gymnastics coach for 20 years, and I burned out a lot of kids," she said. "TAGteach changes the whole mind-set because it's so positive. They learn faster and they stay longer."

McKeon, who holds TAGteach seminars across the country, has seen TAGteach applied to a wide variety of disciplines, from teaching children with attention deficit disorder to helping people with physical therapy to learning French.

"All it is telling someone is, yes, or try again," she said.

There is little scientific research comparing the effectiveness of TAGteaching to other methods, though a group of McKeon's gymnasts were used in one study. Those results have not been published.

But McKeon, Steinker, and others are sold, and they promote TAGteach with the zeal of the newly converted. Steinker went so far as to suggest TAGteach to the wife of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football player whom she met on a plane.

"I don't think [Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach] Jon Gruden will do it," she said. "But when somebody finally does, they're going to kick some serious butt."

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