written by Alexandra Kurland
Simple and Easy aren't Always the Same.
One of the things that appealed to me when I first started exploring clicker training was it's simplicity. I always think about the proverbial elevator speech. How do you describe what you do in the time it takes to go up a couple of floors in an elevator? With some of the things I've studied, I'd need to trap the elevator between floors for a couple of hours to even begin to have someone understand what I was talking about. But clicker training is different. Once you've referenced B.F. Skinner and marine mammal training, people are at least in the right ballpark. They may not really know how the game is played, but at least they have some general idea of what you're talking about. Then you add in the simple mantra: if you like it, you click and reinforce it. There, done. You're on the third floor. You can get off now.
Except that brief description doesn't really tell you very much. Like all good things that are worth studying, simple does not always mean easy. Lets tease apart that opening mantra. If you like it, click and reinforce it. What do you like? What behaviors are you going to train? And what aspect of the behavior are you going to click? It can sound so easy. I want my horse to back so I'll click every time he takes a step back. That should work. The left front foot lifts up slightly - I'll click that. The right front lifts slightly - click again. The left front picks up and then sets down again. Click that. The left front lifts forward to paw just before the horse shifts his weight back. Click. Four clicks for four very different behaviors. Some horses can handle this. Others can't.
Go play the training game and find out what kind of "horse" you'd be. Would you go with the flow and figure out the answer in spite of your trainer's handling errors? Or would you be the "horse" who becomes frustrated and confused when the criteria are not clear? Is it any wonder some of our horses become confused? It sounded so easy, just click when your horse backs, but your horse's behavior may be telling you need to look a bit deeper into the equation.
So behavior - what does that mean? Are you selecting a single component out of a larger behavior, or are you focused too much on the end goal? And what are your goals? What do you want to teach?
And click - when, how often, for what? Reinforce - how often, with what?
Lots of questions pop out of even the simplest of equations. So let's look at some of the things that make simple also easy. I'll do this by looking at the characteristics that good clicker trainers have in common.