In a recent conversation with Karen, she said, “I didn’t invent clicker training, mother nature did. I first stumbled across the info as a dolphin trainer in the 60’s. A scientific article came out about B.J. Skinner’s lab in Harvard, back in the early days of reinforcement theory. Animals are always looking for news in their environment. There is an equal amount of opportunity for animals to look for good news as bad news. Think about what is reinforcing a behavior. Why is the animal pulling away? Why is the animal digging? The animal isn’t the cause of it’s behavior. When people look at what is really going on in an animal’s mind, it gets them off of the punishment kick.”
I learned so much in both my interview with Karen, and at my attendance at Clicker Expo last weekend in Newport Beach. Here are a few of my questions she answered:
LS: How does clicker training help our domesticated animals?
KP: It liberates them from being passive, obedient creatures and brings them into the world as conscious partners. We are creating different relationships with them that is built on trust, because the humans have become predictable and reliable.
L.S. How are they learning?
K.P. We have been making animals do stuff since we first started domesticating them. This is a different agreement. We are now saying to them, if you can make me click, I will pay you and I will pay you something you really like. This is very different from traditional obedience. While it looks like humans are training animals, it’s really the reverse. If you teach a cat to touch it’s nose and the cat is interested, in five or 10 minutes the cat can train you to jump through a hoop. Many cats have trained me to hold up the embroidery hoop.
L.S. How would clicker training help to solve a behavior problem?
K.P. In most cases, either the human or something in the environment has been reinforcing the undesired behavior. That enforcement needs to be stopped and then an opposing behavior added.
LS: Could it be as simple as this? A dog jumps up on greeters at the door. At one time or another, they’ve been rewarded with attention, even if it was negative attention. Create a desired behavior such as “sit”, marked with a click, and rewarded with a treat. A dog can’t jump and sit at the same time and when he gets rewarded more for sits than for jumping, he’ll want to create more sits, of his own choice.
LS: Why do you not recommend the use of prong collars and training collars (choke collars)?
KP: As soon as you go to punishment, your animal is in a different place. Dogs will work to avoid punishment, but it also can ruin dogs that can’t take it. You will just get a different dog than one that isn’t exposed to aversive training methods.
LS: How has this helped other animals besides dogs?
KP: Clicker training works with all animals and all species. In my opinion, nobody should be allowed to get married and have children without first clicker training a chicken. Clicker training has swept the US and beyond in Zoos in the last 10 years. It is even allowing us to give better care to them, especially medical care. In the past, when an animal needed antibiotics, you had to put them in a squeeze cage causing panic and danger, or drop it to them chemically. This could be dangerous because it is very difficult to estimate the weight of a polar bear, so that was always the last resort. Now any keeper willing to pick up the clicker technique can treat any animal in a safe and humane manner. I once was heartbroken when I saw a rhino die because she couldn’t receive the medicine she needed. Now, lots of rhinos in zoos are being trained with operant conditioning. As a by-product, instead of the animal being afraid of the keeper, the keeper becomes some known quantity over which you have some control. The animals are still wild, but even a crocodile has been known to say, “Hi, how are you? Good to see you.” Enough learning takes place that I don’t know where the bottom line is.
Next: More about the Clicker Expo