roadblockIn my previous post I talked about roadblocks to being a better trainer.  Today, I’ll be digging into two of them. One of my roadblocks is being a “desperation clicker”.  That is, I click when I’m desperate and I just want to click and reinforce something, anything!   I just want to keep the animal in the game. I get so used to trying for as high a rate of reinforcement as I can, that I have trouble slowing down when I actually NEED to slow down and be more selective.

The second roadblock is a mental/emotional/ethical aversion to punishment. I don’t want the animal be punished in any way, however mild. For example, being handled and held is aversive to a chicken, so picking up the chicken when it makes a mistake is punishing. Is this a horrible, abusive punishment?  No, it isn’t (as long as I don’t leave two eyeballs and a beak on the table).  But it’s still punishment, which is why I try to avoid it.

How are my aversion to picking up the chicken and being a “desperation clicker” related?  I don’t want to pick up the chicken so I keep trying to click and treat for something close to what I want.  But if I’m stuck, not really getting anything that’s close to what I want, I’ll drop my criteria altogether and click for anything to keep the bird in the game. To say, “Yes, I’ll take that!” saves me from feeling like the animal has to “wait for information”, but then I find myself in a training hole without any way to fill. This leaves me with no options except picking up the bird to say, “Oops, wrong answer.”  There’s a sign on the wall:  “Bang head here”.  That’s what Bob Bailey says to do when you’ve found that you’ve dug yourself into a hole.  Bang your head on the wall and then go back and fix it.

If I don’t want to “hurt” or “be hard” on the animal, then it’s paramount that I be as clear as I can possibly be in my training.  Clicking for crap over and over again is only going to frustrate us both, which isn’t fair to the bird (or any learner). Since I don’t want to “hurt” or “punish” the animal, however mildly, then I must acknowledge the results of my training and my choices.  And then I must change my behavior.  As Bob Bailey says in his Chicken Workshops, “It’s all about changing the trainer’s behavior.”  There’s no point in doing the same thing over and over again and hoping to get different results.  That’s the definition of insanity.

What can I do then to make it clear to the learner?  Knowing that I’m a “desperation clicker”, I can clean up my act and ONLY click for what I actually want.  Duh!  If I’m more selective about what I’m clicking for and, therefore, more clear to the chicken about what I want, I won’t have dug that hole in the first place.  Then I won’t have to bang my head on the wall, I won’t have to fill in the hole, and I won’t have to pick up the bird and tell her she’s made a mistake when really it was my mistake all the time. It’s so simple in theory and yet so difficult to do in real life!  But that’s Job #1 – be more self-disciplined in what I’m willing to click and pay for.

Self-discipline is hard.  Can I discipline myself forever and always?  Do I have what it takes to be:  selective, disciplined, patient, and organized?   What are my criteria to start with?  How long should I stay there before moving on? Do I have the self-discipline to STOP training when I notice that things aren’t going quite the way I planned?  I still struggle with that. Do I have the creativity to find another way when the way I’m going isn’t working?road-open

Click what you do want and DON’T click what you DON’T want.  Remember, NOT clicking is information to the animal: “That wasn’t good enough” or “That isn’t what I wanted, try again.”  This mix of clicking and NOT clicking is the definition of “differential reinforcement” or “shaping”. As a trainer, I have to mark the reinforceable pieces without those steps disappearing into a muddle of rapid fire “clicks for anything.”

What do you need to change to become a better trainer?  What’s habits are holding you back?



About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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5 Responses to Breakthroughs

  1. bookendsfarm says:

    Good post! Did he tell you his definition of CRAP? 🙂


  2. terrybg says:

    Nice post, but just as a side note, a few words about chickens: Speaking as someone who has chickens, trains them, and takes them on school visits – picking up and holding a chicken is not always aversive to them. Some like it! Don’t judge all chickens by the ones used in the Bailey workshops 🙂 Also, just like any animal, there’s lots of variability among chickens. Some “get the game” and enjoy it. Others not so much (for example, some hens are more flock bound than others, so just being slightly removed from the group to train them is aversive.) Maybe you haven’t worked with the right chickens 🙂


    • You’re quite right – it all depends. Some learners find some things aversive where other learners find them rewarding. It’s up to us to notice what is aversive and what’s rewarding. Our training goes straight downhill if we use something we think is rewarding but the learner doesn’t and vice versa.

      It still comes back to how can I make the lesson more clear to the learner? If I happened to have a chicken that liked being picked up, then I don’t have that as an option to tell her that she made a mistake, even though the mistake was really mine via my bad training. The responsibility weighs heavily then to set things up so that there is clarity and as few mistakes as possible. That means that to change the learner’s behavior, I must change my own first.


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