It's a lesson in non-judgmental teaching 101. Lynn Loar, a California-based social worker, asks a recent violence prevention workshop in Whitehorse what task the learner, who is waiting outside the meeting room door, will attempt through clicker training.
"Shaping" is a new technique for turning show dogs into winners. My friend Barbara loves Great Danes and enjoys showing her dogs but her new Great Dane, Heather, was frustrating her. Barbara showed Heather in her first puppy class at 8 months. When the judge leaned over to touch the dog, Heather ran behind Barbara and wouldn't let the man near her. Heather disqualified herself because of her seemingly poor temperament. She was terrified of strangers. It looked as if Heather's show career was over before it had begun.
The interviewer, Darlene Arden, is a dog person--judge, breeder, and author of a book on toy dogs. She located the puppies, all eight to ten weeks old. I uncrated and test-drove each puppy beforehand, taking three or four clicks apiece. I selected the boldest and greediest of the two Chihuahuas, who performed very well, learned (at 8 wks!) a sit and a high-five, and one or two other things. The older affie was FAR too exploratory to eat or socialize, just took off to investigate all of Border Books every time he was set down. Useless for my purposes. The 8 wk female Affie wouldn't come out of the crate, but she was very interested in my bits of chicken. So I shaped her out of the crate, explaining what I was doing, and then across the vast carpet a distance of a meter or so, to my hand, and then to Darlene's hand.
The Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns have every kind of dog you can imagine and some you can't. Lapp herding dogs are a smallish, Nordic breed with a curled tail. They seem to be smart, calm, and tough. In my Tromso seminar an eight-year-old female learned to bark on cue and to avert her head and keep silent on another cue, in five minutes on stage, with her owner doing the clicking.
Understanding reinforcement training can't repair physical or neurological deficits, and it won't replace the help that only skilled professionals can give, but it can make life easier for everyone. Parents are learning to shape appropriate behavior instead of accidentally reinforcing inappropriate behavior: to reinforce silence not noise, play, not tantrums. It is not that they are "treating their children like animals", an ever popular prejudiced attack; clicker training is not about animals or people. It is about better ways of teaching and learning. Best of all, you don't need a PH.D to be an effective shaper. Recently I was driving home from an outing with my daughter and her family when her fourteen-month-old began to yell. He wasn't crying-yet, anyway- he was just making a very loud noise to protest the length of the drive and his incarceration in his car seat: and we were still twenty minutes from home. My seven-year-old grandson Wylie, in the backseat with his little brother, calmly got rid of the yelling by reinforcing longer and longer periods of silence. The marker? Wylie's grin. The reinforcer? One lick of Wylie's lollipop.