Why Karen Pryor was a game-changer, and not just for dog-trainers

November 7, 2009 at 4:36 pm Leave a comment

I became a fan of Karen Pryor when I read her first two books “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “Lads Before the Wind” many years ago.

pryor“Reaching the Animal Mind” Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals” is her newest book,  and in it she revisits the paths she covered in earlier works. She talks about discovering how to use a sound stimulus as a marker for a reward with dolphins. Although I had read this previously, it was still interesting re-reading it. She also goes over some of the training material she laid out in “Don’t Shoot the Dogs.” but since it has been a while since I had re-read that book, again, I didn’t mind seeing it covered again.

Pryor is a keen observer, and she details many instances of training or behavior problems — in dolphins, dogs, cats, and horses  –  that were the result of miscommunication, bad timing, and other confusion between people and animals. As a trainer and behaviorist, I know that many of the so-called behavior problems we have with our pets are because of miscommunication of some kind so it was very interesting to read her observations in this regard.

One of the most interesting parts of this book, however, was the section on teaching people — clicker-training people. Yes, clicker-training people. One of the earliest users of clickers with people used clicker training to mark the wanted behaviors/actions of kids doing gymnastics. As toes pointed just so — click! — and the child knew exactly what was right. It works for animals so why not for human animals?

As you can imagine, some parents got upset. But the quick-thinking coach told the parents this was TAGteaching — Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteaching has taken off and has been used in many different ways, from gym coaches, dance instructors and more.

One of the strongest messages from TAGteaching is that the good behavior/action is marked –  not the wrong. Far too many teachers and coaches try to change behavior by emphasizing what has been done wrong — but this isn’t the best way to teach.

I stress this concept in the first week of my dog training classes. I tell my students, “In our society, people are used to complaining when something is wrong. We complain when we get bad service, but we rarely reward good service as strongly. We readily complain to the business manager, but we assume when things go right, that’s the way they should be all the time.”

“Our dogs can’t learn that way. If our dogs only hear complaints, yells, and screams from us, they will think that the world is simply that way. But the dog will not change his behavior for the better. However, when we help the dog to change his behavior with clear communication and with praise, petting, and rewards – he learns a different way – and will be more apt to change his behavior.”

Pryor says people are the same way, and I agree. We are all more motivated when our efforts are recognized, praised, and rewarded.

Pryor also talks about trainers like myself who grew up with compulsive training (forcing dogs to learn something) and how we have –  and how we can –  learn new things ourselves. My introduction to clicker training was very negative in several different ways. First, I was very successful using older techniques. My dogs were great, well-behaved, competed very successfully in many sports and were very happy. They were not fearful as people said they should be and were very willing to offer new behaviors.

I wasn’t motivated to change.

Then, too, the trainers themselves who were embracing the new techniques were very quick to call me old-fashioned. They were very eager to tell me I was abusive (and worse);,and so I had no desire whatsoever to join their ranks.

But then I had several dogs of my own who challenged me. In the mid-80’s, Chocho, a Papillon, was not at all accepting of compulsive techniques. I had to find a different way to train him. Although I didn’t use a clicker — I used my voice to mark actions — I changed my training techniques for him.

Chocho was followed by a very intelligent, very willing Australian Shepherd, Dax, who was sound sensitive. Even a muffled clicker in the pocket would send her to the back of the house. So, again, no clicker, but more exploration into different training techniques.

As with any profession, I continue to be open to new things with the dogs who share my life today. Riker is also sensitive to sounds but also sensitive to anything negative; his feelings are easily hurt. Bashir is extremely intelligent, very eager to please me and devastated when I’m not happy with what he’s doing. Archer is a very happy worker and I want to keep him that way.

So along my journey of discovery I have found that there are many ways to train dogs.

Pryor talks about different techniques, too, and even though she feels the clicker is the best tool for marking behavior, she also explains how the voice can work as a marker.

Even though some of the material in the book was a rehash of her previous works, it was still interesting, thought-provoking reading. And there is plenty of new material to ponder. I’ve marked several pages and will go back later and re-read them.

I’m going to re-think this TAGteaching, too. I wonder if I can use a clicker in my classes to mark the (human) students good behaviors?



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Why Karen Pryor was a game-changer for dog-trainers — and for me Sport The Beagle Dog

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