On the way home from karate class, we dropped off our seven-year-old car pool passenger at his front door. As we drove home, my own seven-year-old sighed. "Christopher is hard to train," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I say something nice to him whenever he says something nice to me. But he doesn't say a lot of nice things. He's getting better, though."
I don't think Christopher's mother would appreciate that my son considers her son a training prospect, but then I suspect her definition of "training" has something to do with dominance and discipline. The only sort of training my son has seen has been positive: marking and rewarding incremental steps toward an eventual goal.
He would certainly be less aware of the mechanics of positive training—and less able to implement them on his own—if he didn't live with a couple of clicker-trained border collies.
Clickers are like pencils or nickels in our house. They're on the mantle, in the coat pockets, under the couch pillows. Clicker sessions happen at odd times, anywhere I happen to be. Waiting for the teapot to boil, Phoebe looks attentive, I click her four or five times for backing up in a straight line. Sitting on the couch watching TV, my teenager polishes off a package of beef jerky. Rather than throw out the bits at the bottom of the bag, I ask Phoebe to earn each tasty morsel by practicing spinning to the right, so much harder for some reason than spinning to the left. Dragging the garbage cans up the driveway early in the morning, Phoebe wants to help by yanking on my pants leg. I check my coat pocket for a clicker, ask her to lie down and stay, click once I've got the can where it needs to go, and reward her with a game of tug with a stick.
My three boys live with all this clicking, and accept that this is how one communicates with dogs. They do it themselves, and have clicker trained old Esme to paw their foot when they ask any question beginning with "Who's the best... -looking in the family/basketball player on the street/skateboarder in town?" They've also trained Phoebe to bark on cue, run toward them and bounce off their chests with both paws, and nibble on their fingers when she wants the treat they're hiding in their fist. While I'm not keen on the behaviors they've chosen to train, they got those behaviors with solid, positive, marker-based training.
I'm most pleased, however, with how they've implemented the principles of clicker training into their interactions with other humans. In the carpool to and from karate, Nathaniel's friend teased and generally made himself unpleasant. Once in a while, however, he talked about his passionate interest in endangered animals. Rather than teasing back, Nat waited for these moments, and responded with enthusiasm. Gradually, our car rides together became discussions about wild life, which evolved into shared plans for saving the rainforest, and the rest of the world while they were at it. Positive begat positive, negative self-extinguished. Simple clicker training.
My boys have learned the mechanics of clicker training by picking up a clicker and treats and trying to get the dog to do something. Those skill are evolving, however, into an ability to focus on the solution to a problem, rather than the problem itself, and to enact that solution step-by-patient-step.