Clicker Training -- Treating Our Fellow Humans Like Dogs. Literally.

Amy Kuras

cute dogDogs are not humans. Humans are not dogs. We can debate 'til the end of the world as to which one is better or nicer or smarter, but can we all just agree on the point that they aren't the same?

So it would follow that training methods for one won't work for the other, right? Well, one company is trying to translate the popular "clicker training" method for dogs into teaching people how to do their jobs or their sports better.

It's called TAGTeach and it works (for both species) like this: the desired response is communicated, verbally for humans, non-verbally (or using very short commands) for dogs, and the clicker is sounded. Then the trainee does whatever they are being trained for: performing a gymnastics routine, say, or walking on a leash, and the trainer clicks whenever the desired outcome happens.

For a human in our example, it would be keeping their legs straight on the balance beam, for a dog it would be keeping the leash slack and not pulling on it. If they don't hear the click, the idea is they'll stop, assess themselves, and do the desired behavior instead.

(As an aside, dogs get treats along with their clicks at first. Humans are supposed to be satisfied with the click. WRONG: how many of us would always remember to do a certain thing if we got a mini-Snickers bar after?)

It sounds pretty ridiculous, no? Can you imagine clicking your husband when he puts his socks in the hamper, or clicking an employee you supervise when she shows up on time? Plus, it's just insulting; the first time I read about this, I thought, If you try to clicker train me you'd be eating that clicker. No one wants to hear their boss or family member is using a method that works well on nonverbal, simple animals on them, and it puts the trainer and trainee in an unequal power dynamic. One holds all the authority on right and wrong; the other blindly seeks approval. Not a recipe for healthy marriage or a functional work environment.

Human relationships are also too complex. You're probably happy with your dog if she doesn't pee on the rug and listens when you give her a command. With your spouse, the goals are a lot less specific and less of a black-white thing; his remembering to pick up milk on the way home isn't a trainable behavior because it involves memory, convenience, time management, and his or her respect for your time and schedule. He might remember to pick up the milk but roll his eyes about it, he might forget because something really bad happened at work just as he was leaving, or he got stuck in crazy traffic and got rerouted away from the store he usually passes, and he decided to get home on time to help you with the kids versus going a mile back out of his way for milk.

On the other hand, positive reinforcement is really effective with most people. How much nicer is it to hear "good work on that report" or "thanks for getting the oil changed" versus being scolded for not doing something? You're a lot more likely to remember your task and perform it well when you're praised for doing it. And of course, anyone who thinks that humans won't respond to an audible cue has never seen anyone whip out their phone and check their screen the second the "you have a new email" chime sounds.

Clicker training feels like treating another person like an animal; positively reinforcing behavior with praise, though, feels like treating a relationship with respect and kindness by looking for the good. 

Would you use clicker training with your family?


Image via Barbara Cannnela/Flickr

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