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Clicker Training on Ice

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In historic Lexington, Massachusetts, where I live, ice skating expectations run high. We're home to two perennial national women champion teams in synchronized team skating at three different age levels. Team skating? Incredibly exciting to watch. The artistry of solo figure skating with the creativity of ice dancing performed by groups at high speed, while joined together at the arms. Incredible talent.

I, on the other hand, am just your average "pond hockey" player… give me a frozen pond, some friends, sticks and pucks and I'm set. In other words, I have average skating talent. Same for my spouse.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I set out to teach my four-year-old daughter to ice skate. At about the same time, I was learning to clicker train. Why not put the principles into action on the ice? Well, because I might make a real mess of things. "Fear not!" said Karen Pryor. So I went forward.

My initial training goals were simple. Teach proper balance. Then teach taking successive steps. Then teach stepping and gliding. Ok here we go.

Year One

We get on the ice three times over the winter. Session one. We begin in backache hell for dads. Lean over to her height. Hold her up. Click for weight shifts forward, knees bent. Accidentally, she gets it. Click. Kiss on the top of her head or a hug each time as a reward. We tire (both of us) but persevere. Behavior degrades. She doesn't get a click. She asks me, "Hey Dad, why didn't you click me?" "Why do you think?" She thinks. We skate more. Her answer is a weight shift forward. Click, Kiss! She has it.

Our progress is fast and I raise the criteria. By the third time on the ice we have gone from me holding her up underneath her arms, to unassisted balance. I can give a push from behind and she'll glide on her own for ten to fifteen feet. I can push her from behind at a rapid pace and she keeps her balance. She'll even take a few cautious steps on her own with me behind her. I'm clicking all the time.

It's a warm winter and the season ends early. There's no chance to practice in the off- season... well, we clicker train our guinea pig but that's a different story

Year Two

Now Ellie is five years old. Soon, she'll be starting lessons taught by a real skating instructor in a real group. She's nervous. We decide to go skating before her classes start. Will she remember? Will we start at the beginning again? Will she want to be clicked?

We begin. Her balance is on target so I push her from behind and let go. Beautiful. A twelve foot glide, at least. "That's great", I say. She looks at me: "Where's my click?" Aware that my timing is atrocious, since the behavior has already happened, and yet astonished that she has remembered, I can't help myself. Click! She smiles.

We're off skating again. If I could get her to take steps, I could skate backwards in front of her, saving my back. So I raise the criteria. I'm very clear about what I want. "Take three steps," I encourage her. First steps... click. I got it! I clicked while she was stepping. "That's great!" Then... she falls. And... she gets up on her own. Click!!! Fantastic!

We begin again. More success!! More clicks. More reinforcement. Five steps, and fall into my arms. Click! Ten steps and fall into my arms. Click. Ten steps and keep your balance, Click! Wow! She is amazed. I am, as well. We go further. Three steps and glide. Five steps and glide. Click. We are skating!

She is incredibly proud of her accomplishments. Me, too. Time to end. I zoom her around the rink, holding her waist from behind. Speed is its own reward. And onto the jackpot... popcorn from the rinkside stand.

In her first class? She's a standout. An obvious candidate for competitive skating? Who cares?

About the author
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Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

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