Thursday, March 24, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Karen Pryor- Punishment and the Public

The very first session of the weekend was the opening plenary session with Aaron Clayton and Karen Pryor. To say that I was excited to see, hear, and meet one of the pioneers of clicker training is putting it mildly. I was downright thrilled.

Me, Karen Pryor, and my friend Sara.

If I'm honest, though, this was the most disappointing session of the entire weekend. Not because of what Karen had to say, but because it was too short! We only had an hour for the entire plenary, and in that time, we were welcomed, given an overview of the conference, and reminded of dog etiquette. This left her with about 15 minutes to speak, which simply wasn’t enough. I wanted more!

Still, I can’t complain about the content, because it was excellent. She had a dense power point presentation, rich in information, and although rushed, she did a wonderful job presenting it. Next time, I’ll be sure to make it to one of her full sessions. (One of my friends went to her session on creativity in animals, and her recap was fascinating. Perhaps she’ll do a guest blog? Hint, hint, Sara.)

So. Punishment and the public. Karen shared that one of the great difficulties in getting people to cross over to clicker training is that the clicker is a relatively new technology. It is based on scientific principles developed over the past 50-100 years, as compared to the more traditional techniques that have been around for thousands of years. It's the way it's always been done, the way our parents trained dogs, and the way their parents did, and their parents... That's a lot of time to overcome.

Further, the old methods are “method based,” by which she means they feel natural. They are much more dependent on instinct and reflexive action. It is akin to the so-called “whispering.” In comparison, the new technology of clicker training is what she calls “principle based.” This means that it requires the trainer to think and plan since it is based on science. As a result, it can be a bit more challenging at first.

Of course, learning how to use the clicker is worth it. As Aaron put it, positive reinforcement results in lasting learning. While we can engineer motivation through punishment and fear, it's much harder to sustain over the long-term than motivation that is based on willing partnership and cooperation. Notice that this promotion of clicker training is based on results, not any sense of moral superiority. This really hit me hard- I'm positive trainer because it “feels” better, but at best, that’s not a very convincing argument, and at worst, it’s judgmental and alienating.

In fact, not a single presentation I saw discussed the ethical implications of using the clicker over punishment-based methods. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the “discussions” about training methods on the internet. What I’ve learned from them is that many, many people believe that the ends justify the means- the “red zone dogs” need rehabilitation, and using corrections works (at least temporarily). The problem, as Karen put it, is that the public accepts punishment. This makes sense- we live in a punishment-based society, after all. So with this in mind, just what is a clicker trainer to do?

First, Karen said that we need to give up punishing the punishers. Don't get into conflicts with others about methods. Arguing and lecturing rarely succeeds in changing someone's mind, and usually just firms their resolve. Who hasn’t seen those internet discussions devolve into name-calling? Therefore, instead of treating people like adversaries, we need to treat them as fellow learners and communicate the benefits of modern training with them.

We need to educate people on the fallout that can come with punishment based methods. There has been some evidence in recent years that confrontational training methods can create or worsen aggression in our dogs. Thus, avoiding the use of punishment isn't so much a moral issue as a valuable training approach. (Beyond the issue of fallout, I think that Kathy Sdao gave the most convincing reason to avoid using corrections, but you'll just have to wait to hear about that.) Talk about the benefits of the clicker, too. It's a powerful, precise tool.

Beyond simply educating, though, we need to “shape alternatives to misbehavior.” No, not in our dogs (well, yes, in our dogs, too), but in our students, our spouses, our selves. Think of mistakes as TAG points, not correction points. TAGging means positively reinforcing people when they do things right. Sound familiar? It should- it's basically clicker training for humans. TAG points are the things we want people to do, so if you're trying to get someone to stop giving collar corrections, instead of nagging them when they get it wrong, tell them to keep the leash loose (or to use a hands-free belt, or to keep the leash hand firmly by their side, or whatever makes sense), and praise them when they do that!

Be sure to break behaviors down. Splitting criteria into achievable units works with people, too. Better, perhaps, than trying to get them to change all at once! Work on one skill at a time. Make behavior change easy for that person to attain. I don’t think that crossing over to clicker training has to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If someone wants to be more positive in their training methods, do it piece by piece.

And here's the thing: it's already happening. Twenty or thirty years ago, the use of any treats at all in training was frowned upon. It simply wasn't done. Now? Almost every trainer I know that uses corrections also uses treats. It's even got a label- balanced training.

So go out. Be positive. And don’t forget that it's about more than just our dogs. It's about our relationships with friends and family, with co-workers, with people we barely know, and with ourselves. Be positive. Focus on what you want. Or, to use Karen’s words, change the world one click at a time.


Joanna said...

I am always thinking about how to apply "clicker principles" when I'm teaching people. I feel that it's made me a much better trainer -- and, hopefully, just generally a funner person to be around. :)

Crystal said...

Good for you, Joanna! The world would be a better place if everyone did that.

megs said...

Great post! I'm always looking for new ways to help enlighten people, because it seems like an uphill battle.

With this type of approach, I know some people I've spoken with have at least thought, "Maybe I should check this out!" Which is a start, at least.

There are, unfortunately, always a handful of people who seem to disagree with science because of their experiences... I'm always baffled by that, "Well my experiences show otherwise," and "It's just a theory," despite scientific research that proves them wrong.

Crystal said...

ARGH. I wrote out a whole comment and my browser ate it!! Let's see if I remember what I said...

Basically, I was trying to say that I understand some of the skepticism. The media is often reporting contradictory scientific findings- what causes cancer or autism or whater- which happens because that's how science evolves. Some researcher learns something fascinating, but which cannot be confirmed through further testing. That's not new, of course, but since the media is so far-reaching, I can see how it would lend to a culture of scientific skepticism.

Further, people resist change, ESPECIALLY when their current methods are working. Why fix what isn't broken, and all that. And, if we're honest, traditional methods are based on operant conditioning, too... just not the quadrant we like.

Of course, I do think that clicker training has some unique benefits. I think it's easier/safer for new trainers and their dogs. I mean, timing is hard to figure out no matter what, and the consequences of a mistimed click seem less severe to me than the consequences of a mistimed collar correction.

Plus, Kathy Sdao's talk about cues, and how they can be used as reinforcers, was really enlightening for me. It was perhaps the most convincing argument for positive training that I've heard in a long time. I can't WAIT to share it with you guys.

Ninso said...

I love this post! And thank you so much for blogging about all the seminars you attend! Next best thing to actually being there!

Crystal said...

You're welcome, Ninso! And thank you for the lovely compliment. I'm glad that people enjoy my seminar posts, but I must say- they aren't anywhere near as good as being there in person. I know I miss a lot of the finer details, and I there are often little stray ends that just don't fit in the post, that are fascinating anyway. So while I try to share the knowledge love, my hope is that it inspires people to attend one of these seminars themselves.

Raegan said...

When I find myself tempted to really lay into someone, to punish the punisher, over something (like the police losing my bicycle), I ask myself "What change in behavior do I want to see?" If the answer is just to make me feel better, I suck it up and let it go. That's the cost of having greater knowledge. But sometimes the answer is "to keep this from happening to someone else" and I'm able to be more productive in my interactions with people

Everything is dog training.

Crystal said...

"Everything is dog training." Oh my gosh, Raegan, that's so true. Maybe I shouldn't admit this publicly, but I did this during my recent job interview for a social work position.

I had to respond to a scenario question that described a woman with disabilities who couldn't speak, and who had recently begun hitting the family member helping her. The family member was refusing to work with her as a result, the woman's mother worked full time, and they couldn't afford to hire someone to care for her. As the social worker, what would I do to help them?

In my head, I thought, what would I do if this were a dog? And I knew: get a medical check first. As it turned out, the scenario was based on a real situation, and in that case, there was indeed a medical cause for the change in behavior.

Everything is dog training.

Sare said...

Great recap! Can't wait for more. Can I put a plea in for the Kathy S. recap next....?
Also, did you get a chance to see Ken R. I think he would have some interesting perspectives on this too.

Crystal said...

Sare- I actually have the Ken Ramirez session written up already, so I'll post that one (well, two, actually) this week, but I'd be glad to work on Kathy Sdao next. I went to four of her sessions!

Lisa said...

I was in Newport for the expo and I had the exact same thought with Karen's opening pleniary discussion! It was awesome, but WAY too short! We had the same thing totally, overview, introductions, etc.

Otherwise it was AWESOME! I'm a KPA grad, and think Karen Pryor is a genius and a wonderful person.