Last week I went to ClickerExpo in Stamford, Connecticut. It was amazing- 450 dog trainers, horse trainers, exotic animal trainers, teachers, and pet owners- all so invested in positive training techniques that they wanted to spend three days locked up in a Connecticut hotel together. Kaylee came with me and far surpassed my expectations in terms of behavior. She settled beautifully during the lectures, enjoyed the labs (until she was too tired on day three and decided to nap instead), and played with her friend Esme in our hotel room. She walked past full tables loaded with the lunch buffet, and on the last day even joined our table at lunch and stayed wonderfully settled on her mat. She was friendly, but didn’t jump on people walking past, and was really just perfectly awesome. Having a fully grown trained dog is such a treat!
I took many, many ideas from ClickerExpo and I’m am excited to spend the next couple of months exploring them on this blog; but for today I’m going to deviate from my typical “dog training” topic into the realm of “child training” or “teaching” as it is typically referred to! In my previous life (really, up until December) I taught children with dyslexia how to read and write using the Orton-Gillingham method. As I moved through my Masters program in Applied Behavior Analysis I came to realize that the reason that method is so successful is that it really is based on sound behavioral methodology. During that time I also learned about TagTeaching- essentially, using applied behavior analysis in the form of clicker training to teach people. I applied some TagTeaching to my work with students but never really had an opportunity to explore where it could go in optimizing my tutoring sessions. However, now I also have my own children and am constantly considering the principles and methods of behaviorism when raising them. ClickerExpo reinvigorated my interest in TagTeaching and then today I had the perfect opportunity to apply it.
My 2-year-old son, Oliver, is a very cautious toddler. He explores new experiences but doesn’t like to take risks. Recently I’ve been trying to get him to use the “roller board” on the back of the stroller so that he can mostly walk, but hop on and take a ride if he gets tired. He wasn’t having any of it. So, today, after a whole weekend of thinking like a trainer, I decided that it made the most sense to “shape” the behavior of riding on the roller board. Shaping is a way of teaching where you reinforce closer and closer approximations to the sought-after behavior.
In this case, the terminal behavior was stepping onto the roller board, holding onto the stroller, and staying on for a reasonable duration of time. (Reasonable is a bit undefined, but it changes depending on where we are going.) I used freeze-dried blueberries as the reinforcer as they are currently a hot favorite in our house. I didn't use a clicker in this instance, but he received a verbal marker (good job! or other variations) and a blueberry while still in position immediately after performing to criteria. This is what I reinforced:
- Putting one foot on the stationary board. (His dad modeled this twice and was given a blueberry each time, that was the last piece that was modeled.)
- Putting two feet on the stationary board.
- Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the stationary board for 5 seconds.
- Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 5 seconds.
- Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 10 seconds.
- Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for 15 seconds.
- Holding onto the stroller with two feet on the board while moving for one entire city block.
And it worked! With no more than 1 or maybe 2 blueberries at each stage and with never having to “put” Oliver on the board (he kept asking to get back up when he finished his blueberries), we successfully shaped the behavior. We finished steps 1-7 by the time we got to Starbucks (10 minutes away), and he rode all the way home on the board afterwards. In the interest of full disclosure, he did get a lollipop from the barber that he sucked on all the way home, which may have also helped keep him there. But, isn’t shaping fabulous?
Many people are uncomfortable with reinforcing their children with food, but really- what were my alternatives here? As I see it, I could have done these:
- Held him on the board until he “got used to it”
- Waited six months until he understood the “rule” about standing on the board.
- Given up.
Wasn’t shaping it using a handful of dried fruit a better option? My relationship with my son is healthy and happy; Oliver played a fun game and got to eat something he loves (and is even healthy!); and rather than six months of pushing around an extra stroller seat, we now have a functional option to walking. Hurray!
So no, this is not a parenting blog or a teaching blog- but it is a blog about behavior and that extends well beyond dogs. It impacts every relationship in our lives and everything we want to teach to any organism- be it child, dog, or goldfish. As such, I just wanted to share how I use applied behavior analysis in my day-to-day life to make it easier, less confrontational, and more positive.