Trading Places

 Photo by  Mike Burke  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mike Burke on Unsplash

We recently attended the Training Thoughtfully conference in Milwaukee where a host of behaviour consultants (across species) came together to explore how we can be even more thoughtful in our positive-reinforcement work. Part of this was changing the lens we use. So for a few minutes I stopped being the trainer and became the dog.

It happened on the second night when we sat down to play the ABACAB or PORTAL game.

There are three roles: the teacher has a clicker, reward trinkets and a bunch of objects that can be manipulated, the learner (the dog, horse or human), and an observer. A key part of the game is that we can't talk, just like when we are working with a learner from another species. 

I thought this would be a novel but boring way to test the mechanics of the teacher. Oh was I in for a surprise. 

Our horses bring us to our truth. He needed her to do more than give him carrots. The treats in your pocket are not a substitute for love and appreciation. They are an expression of that love.
— Alexandra Kurland

As trainers, we are taught that consistency matters, to the point that everything magical is stripped from the experience. We are told, "Focus on the mechanics." And we idolize those who have crazy mechanical skills. "She is a machine!" 

And sure, consistency matters, but only as defined by our learner. Let's pause there. We know that reinforcement is defined by our learner. If they find it aversive, it's not a reward.

It's the same thing with consistency.

I didn't care if my teacher needed a second to reset the task. Or even if she changed up the task we were working on. I didn't care if her click was slightly off-timed. Within limits of competency, these things were not what I found myself tracking.

Instead, it was the quality of my teacher's attention. She had this way of delivering my trinket. Her attention would focus on me. Her face would light up. And she would place it in my hand in a way that said it was a cherished item. I felt special. I felt like I had done something truly wonderful.

And then she would get distracted, as we all do. She had to configure the next task or quickly determine how to help me, her learner. And so her attention would drift and I could feel that something was missing. The treat delivery mechanic was the same, but her attention was elsewhere and the task felt less rewarding. And in response, my attention and full participation felt less warranted. 

Our attention adds a valence on top of the reinforcer being used and it can have a positive or negative charge.

Now, I was lucky in that I had an amazing teacher who had played this game before. And these moments were brief. But it made me start to reframe so many things we see in the homes of our clients, and in my own home. 

Training is far more than the mechanics. Training can be a joyful and connecting moment for everyone involved. And the way to achieve this is to be more fully present. If we aren't laughing or feeling joy, how do we expect our learner to be feeling?

This game also showed me firsthand just how easy it is to create a moment of confusion for our learner and the unbelievable cost attached.

My teacher had me successfully moving items under a napkin and into a cup on a visual cue. And then she upped the ante by placing a large, metal water jug onto the table. I began experimenting with what I thought she might be looking for. Everything I tried resulted in no click. No reward. 

The moment of slight frustration that I experienced meant so much more to me than I ever would have predicted. I'm in a situation so alien to me. I can't ask her what the bleep she wants. 

Mistakes aren't bad in training. They are information for the learner. This was not the first time she had raised the criteria. I had been puzzled and made mistakes earlier in the game, but this quickly became different. I couldn't figure out what she wanted and I had no way to tell her that. So I started to guess.

But when I had no choice but to start guessing, my frustration bloomed. And it turns out this is not something I handle well, like many learners.

My teacher took the jug off the table and I could feel myself relaxing. She is an amazing teacher. She realized we had hit an impasse so she took us back to earlier tasks I had done successfully. And so I began to advance. I was starting to get a handle on what my teacher was asking me for when my teacher put that water jug back on the table.

I'm going to be 90 and on my deathbed and there had better not be a stainless steel water jug in the room. I never want to see that water jug again.

As soon as that water jug hit the table, I didn't want to play the game anymore. I'm not exaggerating. There was no denying this emotional response. And we laughed after because she realized it as well. The whole room did. We had quite a group gathered around us, including the amazing Alexandra Kurland and Kay Lawrence. 

My teacher quickly changed gears and actually took the jug and set it behind her under a different table. She rocks. She was sending me a clear signal that this jug would not be a part of our game anymore.

And so my performance and enjoyment bounced back. But only because my teacher recognized she needed a different approach.

And here's the kicker. 

This conditioning was still present the next day. I entered the conference room and found myself tensing up and scanning the room for those evil little water jugs. I was actually relieved to find they were not present.

How many of my own training sessions with my dog had created an unwanted negative emotional response? And what of our clients? 

Every teacher can learn so much by experiencing their methods. It is so eye opening to experience the joy of clicker training as a learner, and to witness the nuances that truly matter. And also to better understand how these tools can be used to build the relationships that we yearn for. 

P.S. This will come as a surprise to no one but me, but I'm told that I am a hyperactive lab with a bit of a competitive streak.