Click it and trick it

I’m reading a book on clicker training called Reaching the Animal Mind. I’m ambivalent and have skipped entire sections dealing with the training of dolphins at Sea World-type establishments. I don’t doubt that dolphins can be trained to do marvelous tricks, but I’m uncomfortable with it because I am opposed to marine theme parks.

A section about using a clicker on an autistic child intrigued and sort of horrified me. Why does a child with a disability need to be trained like a dog? Later, however, I was fascinated by a chapter about TAGteaching, which essentially is clicker training for humans. It’s used by gymnastics coaches and golf instructors.

Isis and I have been working with a clicker for almost a year with a good amount of success in correcting some behavior problems. I have failed, however, to teach her any tricks. Not one. It never seemed particularly important that my dog be able to “shake” or “roll over.” These are not useful skills to her, merely a means of entertaining me. I can see how it’s very rewarding for a dog to learn a trick that brings great joy to its owners. Witness the enthusiasm on Isis’ face when she wears a reindeer costume. You could call it abuse — dogs don’t like to wear outfits. But she clearly is overjoyed to be making me happy.

Frequently when someone meets Isis for the first time, they ask if she can shake. Like this is as fundamental a skill as sit or stay. And I feel sort of dimwitted because I haven’t bothered to teach her this. After reading the chapter on “shaping” I tried to shape lifting her paw, the first step toward shaking. She would sit and look at me happily, waiting. When I did nothing, she lifted a foot as though she were about to lie down. I’d click at that moment and she’d stop what she was doing, and take the treat. I don’t know that she “got” that I was rewarding her for lifting her paw. Eventually she’d just lie down anyway.