Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Clicker Training

Last year when we were having issues with our cat I was exploring various options for improving her behavior (side note: sometimes Thalia expresses a desire to become a cat psychologist, and believe me, this particular cat could be her Master's thesis). One of the books I got was Karen Pryor's Clicker Training for Cats. Thalia had a great time teaching the cat some tricks. And then we sort of set the whole clicker thing aside.

The other day I waltzed into the library and looked through the new nonfiction shelves. Hey, Karen Pryor has a new book out -- Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals. Figuring it would be full of fun animal training anecdotes (it was -- if you like reading stories about animals having positive training experiences, this is the book for you) I checked it out and started reading it.

And there on page 14 encountered the idea of clicker training in sports. "The first public application of clicks to human muscle moves was in children's sports, particularly gymnastics and track." Really?? So, like, you can train kids to improve physical performance using positive reinforcement instead of yelling at them?? I immediately started googling the idea and discovered that it has the name of TAGteach. And my mind started exploding with ideas, particularly when I read this PDF file that tells about a dance studio that uses the concept. And teaches kids to dance without a huge amount of shouting and negative reinforcement. No person standing there declaring, "No no NO, you're doing it all wrong, try again," just a simple click when the legs are "dead straight". (In my head I'm saying all that with a British accent. Hee. If you're in our dance studio you know what I mean.)

I finished the book. Which, by the way, is excellent, and goes fairly in depth with the concepts while maintaining an engaging tone. I read about clicker training in dolphins, other sea creatures, cats, dogs, wolves, horses (including the ponies that learned to surf), zoo animals (ibis, rhino, gorilla, etc.). I learned that conditional reinforcers always go through the amygdala , how clicker training affects the hypothalamus, what the SEEKING circuit is (other than a really tough concept to google, so no link -- it has to do with dopamine and is mostly in the hypothalamus).

And also in chapter 11 discovered an entire chapter on TAGteaching. It was fascinating. I explained the basic concept to the kids, and we decided to give it a try. We would use one of Annabeth's typical competition comments -- "arms" -- and see if we could improve her reel. We analyzed how we would tag this, and decided that she tended to raise her right arm during leaps, so we would tag for correct arm placement during leaps. I got out the clicker we had used for the cat, and plunged in. I soon realized that it would be better if Thalia clicked the tags, partly because Thalia was seated where she could see Annabeth's right arm more clearly, and partly because Thalia is more familiar with the dance and therefor knew when to expect the leaps.

It worked great, except Annabeth started raising her left arm to compensate. But before we tried to tag for that problem we had discovered a new problem -- the cat, hearing the clicker clicking away, had trotted in to see what we were up to and find out if it involved treats for her. Indeed, the book mentions that animals remember the clicker training seemingly forever. IT'S TRUE. And we need to find a new clicker if we're going to explore this further. I looked around at Target the other day for toys that make an annoying beep when you press a button, sort of like the Nemo car keys, but came up empty handed. I hate toys like that and refused to buy them when the kids were little -- now I'm searching stores for them. You just never know where parenting will take you, I guess, since I never would've expected to be interested in this sort of plastic-electronic craptastic toy.

In summary, this is a great book whether you're interested in animal training or in kids' sport/dance performance. Heck, it even has application for your own golf swing or softball pitching.


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. I too, am thinking about using this to improve areas of dance with my daughter. I'm also wondering if the clicker concept ties in with EFT relaxation/anxiety relief. May have to check that out.
Good luck with your clicker adventures.
Craptastic... love it!

Gail said...

It's so interesting that you would mention EFT, because it's been tumbling around in my head this morning --whether or not there's a connection. I don't know!

Ami said...

So if I could get someone to click when I eat something that's good for me....

Staci at Writing and Living said...

I'll have to explore this. I have one dog with poor vision and an inferiority complex that he overcompensates for by barking at everyone he doesn't recognize (which is everyone more than, say, two yards away). Then I agreed to adopt my sister's dog who was abused as a puppy (not by my sister; it was rescued from its original owner). To say my dogs have issues is an understatement.

Gail said...

Ami, I'm thinking about clicking myself for walking past the computer without sitting down and reading blogs for half an hour.

Also, I want clicks for vacuuming.