The Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA), the organization for the "parent" science of clicker training, held its annual meeting this year in Boston, where I live. There were over 3,000 attendees, a 200-page program, and hundreds of papers, speeches, panels, symposia, and gatherings. This year was the 100th anniversary of B.F. Skinner's birth, and many special events were held to honor the occasion.
Last month I reported on the great success of the TAGteachâ„¢ presentation at the ABA conference. The behavior analysts recognized with ease how a marker signal such as the clicker could be used to teach children complex physical skills like dance and gymnastics. The graph showing improvement of "tagged" versus praised children while learning the same gymnastic skills was impressive. Equally impressive were videos showing the speed of learning and the joy and excitement of the children themselves.
Many of those who saw this presentation took brochures announcing the TAGteach Educators and Coaches Seminar coming up this fall on October 9 and 10 in the Boston area, at the campus of Bentley College. If you coach or teach, this is a fabulous opportunity to learn something completely revolutionary and incredibly powerful. So, come join us in Boston this fall (it's leaf peeping time, too!) and experience something extraordinary.
Training research at ABA
The ABA conference also included a number of sessions about animals and training. I particularly enjoyed a paper by Jennifer Sobie, soon to be Dr. Sobie. This professional dog trainer and behavior consultant from Michigan went back to school, between babysitting grandchildren, and is just finishing a Ph.D. in behavior analysis. Jennifer used behavior analysis techniques to compare one standard approach to dog aggression (classifying the aggression as dominance, territorial, fear-based, etc., and then trying to remove the cause or calm the dog through medication) to a more behavioral approach, collecting data from cases in her own practice. I was thrilled with her ability to use her business as a behaviorist to produce valid and valuable research-as well as to help dogs and their frustrated owners.
Eddie Fernandez, now a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, gave an interesting paper on teaching penguins to interact with objects in order to provide variety in the environment and encourage more swimming activity. The technique was a great success and has become a highly entertaining daily event for zoo visitors. Nicole Dorey, one of ClickerExpo speaker Jesus Rosales-Ruiz's graduate students at the University of North Texas, tackled stereotypic pacing in bears in a Texas Zoo. She used clicker and treats to teach the bears to play with objects. The bears indeed began showing much more normal activity-playing in their pool, for example-and the pacing was reduced.
Poisoning the cue: a demonstration
Nicole Byrd, another UNT graduate student, gave a very exciting paper. Nicole used her own family dog, an eight-year-old poodle mix, to develop and demonstrate a poisoned cue. She laid out a grid on the kitchen floor, so the dog's whereabouts could be clearly identified. She videotaped every training and testing session. First the dog was taught to go to out to a particular spot and then come back when called, on the cue ven, Spanish for 'come', using clicker and treats. We saw the usual clicker response: a fast, straight, merry, tail-wagging "come." Then the dog was also taught to come, with a click and treat on arrival, but adding a correction-a leash tug on the harness-if the dog was slow, or didn't come all the way. The cue for this was punir, the French word for 'punish'. The dog did learn to come on that cue, but slowly, dawdling or wandering around before starting the behavior, and with a totally different carriage and demeanor.
As we know, positively trained cues can be powerful reinforcers. Nicole then tested each cue's reinforcing powers by using it in place of a click to mark a new behavior. She first taught the behavior of going to a mark on the floor on the left side of the room, for a click and treat. She then reversed that, teaching going to a mark on the right, using the ven cue as the reinforcer instead of the click. The dog learned that new task in about three trials; we saw it on the video. The dog was working very fast, tail wagging a mile a minute, mighty pleased with itself. "Go to this mark, hear the ven cue, rush to my owner, get my click and my treat." Nicole then did the same training-go to a new spot-but with the punir cue as the reinforcer. Wow. The behavior did develop but it took forever, the dog never fully learned the behavior, and we saw lots of "distraction," "forgetting," and "not paying attention" going on-just the things dogs show us in many a training class. (Do we treat the symptoms and not the cause? I believe we often do.)
This presentation raised a lot of questions from the audience, you may be sure, and Nicole handled them calmly and graciously, standing her ground, for example on why she used a harness instead of a collar. "The dog is small, the dog is old, and I didn't want to risk hurting her by pulling on her neck." Well my goodness, one audience member argued, lots of people have small dogs and still use buckle collars-and leash corrections! "I didn't feel comfortable about doing that," Nicole said firmly. Click.
This research is continuing, and you'll be able to see the "poisoned cue" videos for yourself, plus some other fascinating clicker-related research at the upcoming ClickerExpos in Orlando and San Diego.
Don't forget that early bird registration ends soon. You could use the savings to take advantage of the special ClickerExpo tour of Sea World, including a behind-the-scenes meeting with Sea World trainers, some of whom will be at ClickerExpo too.