HAWS dog trainer Ginny Marchel and I just completed a 3 week long program working with women and their children who have been exposed to violence. Many times these families have a difficult time communicating with each other in a positive manner. The children have often grown up knowing mostly criticism, and very rarely encouragement.
Adapting a program called SHIP (Strategic Humane Intervention Program) developed by Lynn Loar, Ph.D., we taught the families how to play the clicker training game with each other.
A clicker is a small handheld device used by trainers to teach animals new behaviors. The sound of the click is paired with something reinforcing to the animal. So every time the animal hears the click he gets a treat, an opportunity to play a fun game, a special toy, or anything else he loves. The trainer uses the sound of the click to "mark" desirable behavior the animal elicits. So if you have a dog who tends to jump on people you would wait until all four feet are on the floor, click the clicker and and give the dog a tasty treat.
Clicker training is also used to "shape" behaviors. When teaching a more complex behavior the click happens when the animals makes progress towards the end result. So if I wanted to teach a dog to wave I could shape it by waiting until the dog lifted his paw up off the ground just a half an inch and then click and treat. Over a period of time my expectations for that paw lift would gradually increase -- I might click the half an inch several times and then wait until the dog lifted his paw an inch, and then several inches, etc, until finally the paw was up in the air and moving back and forth several times.
The wonderful thing about clicker training is that the focus is on capturing the behavior you want, and ignoring the behavior you don't want. This is a wonderful way to build confidence and creativity in an animal, and eliminating negativity from your relationship.
The clicker training game is one that people can play with each other. One person is the "trainer" and one the "trainee". The trainer chooses a behavior that she wants to trainee to perform. The trainer can only communicate with the trainee through the sound of the clicker. The trainer is not allowed to tell the trainee that she is doing the wrong thing or give hints.
While clicker training was originally developed for the use with animals, the SHIP program uses it to teach families how to develop relationships using positive feedback. When playing the game mothers and children are not allowed to tell each other they are doing something wrong, and instead have to focus on what the other is doing correctly. The hope is that playing the game will help them in their relationship even after the program has ended.
The second part of the program is allowing the families to use what they've learned by training dogs. Last night Ginny and I brought HAWS adoptables Wayne and Winnie -- 10 week old pit bull puppies.
Wayne and Winnie are very rambunctious and tend to be a bit mouthy and jumpy. The families helped them by clicker training them to keep all 4 feet on the floor, sit and down. It was also great for Wayne and Winnie to get very important socialization to children and new adults.
It was a wonderful 3 weeks. The children and adults told us how much fun they had, and how much they would miss working with the dogs. Ginny and I would like to think they'll miss us too!