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Bisou And B.F. Skinner

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

I have been avoiding clicker training for years.  This is a method, heavily based on the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, that gives the trainee–dolphin, horse or dog–immediate positive reinforcement for performing a desired action.  The reinforcement consists of a metallic click followed by a treat.

It sounds simple, but it isn\’t.  The idea is to not force or lure the dog to do anything, but to simply click and deliver a treat.  Thus, by a patient game of \”hot or cold,\” you can train Bisou to jump up onto a cane-bottomed rocking chair.  This is remarkable because dogs are not fond of jumping onto moving surfaces full of little holes.

I sneered at clicker training when I first heard of it.  It seemed amoral to my Catholic soul (all that bribery!) and abhorrent to my minimalist preferences (you have to have with you a clicker and a bag of treats in addition to a collar and leash every time you want to train).  And it is complicated, at least at the beginning.  Delivering clicks and treats at the precise moment they are required, plus holding a leash with a wiggly dog at the end of it while staying upright and listening to the instructor can feel overwhelming.

But I signed up because Bisou\’s brain needed stimulation and the only class available was clicker-based.  At first, it was a disaster.  Not only was I late and sloppy and endlessly fumbling in my clicking and treating, but Bisou, who would weigh eighty pounds as opposed to seventeen if I gave her all the food she wants, went completely to pieces whenever she saw the treat bag fastened around my waist.  Her eyes would bug out of her head and she would jump and twirl and yip and act like a complete idiot.  This from a dog who will be four this summer, and who had, albeit in her earliest youth, gone through obedience and agility training.

It took a couple of weeks for the sight of the treat bag to stop driving her into a frenzy and for me to become more adept at clicking and treating.  And things began to change–the clicker seemed to work.  I have to say that on paper clicker training seems, despite the complete absence of negative corrections, somewhat heartless and inhuman.  Maybe I got that impression because, when you\’re training a new behavior, you\’re not supposed to speak to the dog, just click and treat the correct action and ignore the incorrect.  And for me speech is so tightly tied to the mechanics of affection that to do without it seems cold and impersonal.

But I am not a dog.  And Bisou, once she stopped going into hysterics at the sight of the treat bag, has taken to the clicker like a duck to water.   She cannot wait to train;  cannot wait to get to class;  and once there, cannot wait for her turn to perform.  On command, she touches her nose to my hand, walks on top of squishy pillows, drops to the ground from a walk.  Last week, when the instructor put out some agility obstacles that she hadn\’t seen since she was a puppy, she threw herself at each one–the tunnel, the ring, the teeter–as if she\’d been practicing all along.  All I had to do was stand there and point.  One that she had never seen before, the ladder, she did perfectly from the very first attempt.

What can I say?  She has a lot of drive stored in her DNA.  When I was first considering buying her and was told that her father was an agility champion, I thought that this boded well for her general health, which is a huge concern with this particular breed.  But I had no idea what this would mean for her temperament and needs.

Now I know.  It means an irrepressible joy in doing, and endless energy.  Some dogs in the class have to be motivated to do stuff.  Bisou has to be slowed down.  I am not good at that.  Her eagerness makes me hyper, which in turn excites her more, so that the two of us are forever in danger of spiraling off into the stratosphere. 

Bisou\’s DNA is a source of some guilt and regret to me.  What is a dog with this kind of breeding doing, going to class once a week and chasing balls in the front field the rest of the time?  Isn\’t a dog\’s mind a terrible thing to waste?  Shouldn\’t I be devoting my life to taking her to agility trials all over the country, amassing ribbons?

But I don\’t think that a trunk full of ribbons would make her tail wag any faster.  I figured out at some cost, years ago, that just because one can do something well is no reason that one should do it.  I think I will apply that lesson to Bisou.

If you\’d like to see her sire, Denzil, covering himself with glory, click here (scroll down for videos):

4 Responses

  1. she's a diva! i was so relieved that our training school doesn't use the clicker. we did clicker training with riley and i was never clicking at the precise damn moment–ever. the teacher (who i grew to loathe) was constantly criticizing me for clicking too soon or too late. thank god for the new class, which uses noise and rewards, too, but instead of a clicker, we just say YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. SO MUCH EASIER. nothing to drop. and i can speak quicker than i can clickrosie loves the treat bag too.

  2. I can sense the fervor of a clicker disliker. I used to be one too. I'm glad to report that, according to our teacher, in emergencies when the clicker is not at hand, one can always click one's tongue!

  3. My dog is not a highly trained dog and I have never used rewards to get him to do what I want. I just expect him to do it when I am serious about something. He doesn't have to be a high performance dog and do tricks. As long as he knows the basic commands then that is all I expect of him.

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