I can’t remember who started it, exactly, but some time in the past year or so, my husband and I began to use the word “click” with one another. I’m pretty sure it was a joke at first- a humorous extension of what we were reading in books and hearing at seminars. We laughed at our own silliness.
Slowly, the word became our preferred way of thanking the other for a favor or for doing a particularly distasteful chore. “I went grocery shopping on the way home from work.” “Oh, click!” It was still amusing, but the silliness gave way to genuine gratitude.
But this little relationship quirk has gone even further lately. Apparently, I have a tendency to leave the light on in the front room, a habit which causes glare on the television screen, and thus greatly annoys my husband.
For awhile, he simply grumbled about it. “Ugh, I hate when you leave that light on,” he’d say, stomping over to turn it off. Or: “Can’t you ever remember to turn that off?” I’d apologize and promise to do it tomorrow. But after several weeks of grumbling and nagging, my behavior hadn’t changed at all, so my husband decided to try a different approach.
“Honey, would you like to earn a click?” I looked at him, confused. Apparently, his annoyed grumbling hadn’t been strong enough to make a lasting impression on me. He nodded towards the front room.
“Oh,” I said, realizing that he wanted to me to turn off the light. And then, “Oh!” as it dawned on me that this had really been bugging him. And finally, “OH!” as I realized I had an opportunity to make him happy. I quickly jumped up and scrambled over to the light switch.
I cannot tell you how exciting that moment was for me. I love my husband, so while I might have some annoying habits, I don’t mean to upset him on purpose. On the contrary, if I can do something to make his life better, I want to do it. Here he presented me with a very small, easy thing I could do for him to show that I cared.
As I did, he simply said, “click.” It may sound silly, but I beamed in response. I loved knowing that he appreciated my action, no matter how small and inconsequential it might be. I found his simple response incredibly rewarding.
This scenario repeated itself for a few days, and within a week I was actively turning off the light without being prompted. At first, I did it ostentatiously so he’d notice, but soon, it became a habit.
To be honest, I’m not sure why his nagging failed to motivate me, but a single, simple word did. I mean, it’s not like I wanted him to grumble at me, nor did I want him upset with me. But it didn’t change my behavior the way that “click” did- no, the way even the mere possibility of a click did.
I have no idea what our dogs think about training. I can’t tell you exactly how they feel when we grumble or nag them, nor when we offer them a chance to earn a click. It would probably be anthropomorphic to say they must have the same reaction I did... but I’m going to risk it.
Maisy, sensitive soul that she is, hates being told she was wrong, no matter how gently I do it, and it rarely causes lasting behavior change. Perhaps if my punishments were harsher, the lesson would stick, but just as my husband doesn’t really want to pick a fight with me, I don’t really want to yell at her.
What’s more, Maisy loves to get things right. I know people often say dogs have no innate desire to please us, and that may be true. Maisy wants tangible rewards, no doubt about it, but she’ll also work for my praise and affection. We’ve developed a relationship that has made my opinion valuable to her, which is why I can’t help but think that a smile and a kind word is just as exciting to her as it is to me. Just as I was glad I could make my husband happy, Maisy seems overjoyed to do the same for me.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s simply a function of a strong reinforcement history. Maybe my praise has been conditioned to be rewarding because it's been followed by food in the past. I don’t know, and really, I don't think it matters. Because when I see her eyes light up and her tail wag wildly in circles, I can’t help but think being clicked makes her feel as good as I did when turned off that light.