Home » Library » Enjoy » The Phoebe Chronicles

The Phoebe Chronicles XVI: The Dharma of Clicker Training

Physicists have string theory, the hoped-for, unifying "theory of everything" to fully explain and link together all known physical phenomena. Looking at fundamental interactions in nature and space, string theory seems to underlie it all. Very exciting, if you're a physicist.

Zen Stones

I'm no physicist nor am I a Buddhist, yet it seems to me that perhaps Buddhism offers the same workable, unifying theory of everything for the rest of us. When I observe the things that interest me—writing, gardening, cooking, walking, children, friendships, and clicker training—through the frame of Buddhism's simple, grounding ideas, the process becomes the same for each. If I engage in these areas of my life with the teachings of Buddhism in mind, they all proceed with more pleasure, peace, and productivity than they would otherwise. It is a spiritual theory that unifies, explains, and guides daily life and behavior.

Clicker training is especially interesting when viewed through a Zen lens. Take these words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, poet, and peace advocate:

"Every day we touch what is wrong, and, as a result, we are becoming less and less healthy. That is why we have to learn to practice touching what is not wrong—inside us and around us."

This is the fundamental realization that we make when we first become clicker trainers. Focusing on what we don't want leads to more of what we don't want. Turn your focus to the behaviors you do want in order to see more of these behaviors. The others will disappear.

That epiphany generates the next principle of clicker training: desired behavior must be recognized in the moment it occurs. Clicker trainers practice the discipline of acting in the moment, to recognize wanted behavior. It's how we time our marker signals. In Buddhism, this awareness of the moment, in the moment, is called "mindfulness." Thich Nhat Hanh, again:

"Life can be found only in the present moment, because ‘the past no longer is' and ‘the future is yet to come.'"

Clicker trainers know this truth well. When we say, "It's only behavior," we mean the genesis of the behavior is irrelevant, because it is in the past. We may envision a finished behavior, but that is for the future. The only behavior that matters is the present behavior. We, too, are interested only in the present moment, only in life itself.

As I ponder these commonalities, I begin to see the Zen of clicking everywhere, under many different names. A client of Pen and Press, my business partnership, is a healthcare consultant. He bases his work, in part, on a business strategy called "positive deviance," a theory of creating lasting change through incremental progress. Positive deviance asks leaders of organizations, whether corporations, schools, or hospitals, to "stop focusing on problems and start focusing on what's going well."

The concept originated when a group from Save the Children traveled to Vietnam to study why some children were less malnourished than others, although they lived in the same conditions. Given an impossibly brief six months by the Vietnamese government to erase malnourishment in the country, they dispensed with conventional wisdom (deliver boxes of food), and sought solutions with available resources.

"Focusing on what we don't want leads to more of what we don't want. Turn your focus to the behaviors you do want in order to see more of these behaviors. The others will disappear."

The group visited villages and looked for children who were in marginally better health, then worked side-by-side with those children's mothers, the "positive deviants," to understand the survival feeding practices they used. In many instances, the "deviant" moms breached conventional wisdom about how, when, and what to feed a child. The group then helped the "deviant" mothers teach other mothers about their practices. They used the same strategy in 14 villages, each time finding solutions from within the village itself. They observed and marked positive behavior, and the positive behavior increased. They looked for behaviors already present and rewarded them, increasing them bit by bit until these became the dominant behavior. Sound familiar?

As a world health program, positive deviance has now reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages and has been applied in more than 20 developing countries. Corporate leaders are taking note and applying the concept as a way to encourage the best performance from their employees. They call it "leveraging internal successes." Clicker trainers call it "shaping."

How can any theory of behavior be applied to both Hewlett-Packard and a hungry child? Because regardless of what we call the bucket, whether positive deviance, mindfulness, or clicker training, they're all drawn from the same well.

So, when you next pick up a clicker to shape a simple sit, pause and reflect. You may think you're training your dog, and you are. Yet you are also joining a vast and varied movement, both ancient and new, that turns our eyes and minds from negative to positive, coercion to reward, inertia to change, problem to solution, pain to pleasure, and strife to peace. And that's exciting.

About the author
User picture

Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.


Yes a Zen like attidue when aproaching clicker training. This is inspireing to say the least. May the force be with you.  ;)

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <embed> <object> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.

More information about formatting options

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.