Clicker training is pretty cool stuff. People leave their first class orientations excited to get home and start clicking their dog. So it’s really no wonder that I hear this question (or similar versions related to husbands or bosses) on such a regular basis.
My honest answer is always the same: absolutely! The principles of reward-based training work for dogs, cats, tigers, dolphins, and goldfish. They also work for Homo sapiens.
We wrote last week that the laws of learning are just that, laws. Just like the law of gravity, they exist whether you believe in them or not. Our brains really aren’t all that different from the brains of dogs, cats, or even goldfish. Sure, we may have a more highly developed pre-frontal cortex. But really, the basic structure is the same.
Whether you’d like your children to keep their rooms clean, your husband to call if he’s going to be late, your wife to turn off the light, or the client with developmental disabilities you support to cooperate with her cares, the principles of reinforcement and shaping will get you there. You may not be clicking and giving out M&M’s (although I’ve known some parents and caregivers who’ve had success doing so), but you can still modify behavior for the better.
The first step, just as with our dogs, is to figure out what your end goal is. Define the behavior you want. It’s difficult to train a negative. Just as I have clients reframe their expectations from “I don’t want my dog to jump” to “I’d like my dog to greet people by sitting,” make sure you’re focusing on what you’d like the other person to do.
Next, figure out how you’re going to get where you want to go. If I want a child to keep his room clean, I might have to start by noticing when he puts one thing away without being asked. This last point is important, by the way. The more you prompt the behavior, the less likely it is to last. Wait for it to happen on its own, and make sure you’re looking for the smallest step towards your end goal. If you wait for your child to clean his entire room, you’re going to still be waiting 10 years later. Look for something that’s likely to actually happen within the next day or two, and reward it.
The rewards you use will vary, but it’s important to be sure that they’re actually rewards and not bribes. Showing your dog a piece of hot dog to get him to sit teaches him that he should sit in the presence of hot dogs, but not that he should sit at other times. Telling your child that you’ll take him out for ice cream when his room is clean will get him to clean his room this once, but that’s not going to make him any more likely to clean his room in the future unless more promises of ice cream are forthcoming. Instead, wait for the dog to sit or the child to pick up one thing on their own, then surprise them with the reward. Rewards should be pleasant surprises, not wheedling promises.
Some people become offended when we talk about changing human behavior, claiming that “psychological manipulation” of this sort is evil. I think this attitude misses the big picture, which is that being kind and noticing when other people make an effort makes life better for all involved.
By concentrating on what you like instead of what you dislike, we can all become better people. The people whose behavior we wish to change still have free will, and your genuine praise, warm hug, or an unexpected outing or gift on occasion aren’t going to influence them so much that they do something that they wouldn’t already consider. We’re just making the behavior we want more likely to happen: they ultimately still get to decide whether they wish to do it or not.
Which reminds me: if the methods you currently use to train your dog aren’t something you’d be comfortable using on a pre-verbal child, it may be time to reconsider your dog training program. Adult dogs aren’t human children, and we should acknowledge that they’re a completely different species with their own complex language and way of experiencing the world. However, we know that dogs have about the same cognitive abilities as pre-verbal children in laboratory tests, and using methods on our canine companions that would be considered abusive towards children or people with disabilities seems a poor way to show our love for them.
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple point. You can relate to the people around you by nagging and yelling in frustration or you can relate to them by praising and noticing their efforts. The choice is yours.