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It's Nelly's World

Bad Dog (Trainer)!

alec vanderboom

Training is hard work. It was so much easier when I didn't know anything.

Clicker training, as Polly showed it to me, was a cinch. Nothing to it--Mercy does something you like, click!, give her a piece of food at some point afterward, bingo, she remembers it for all time. (Well, Mercy did, anyway.)

The only difficulty then was remembering to bring the clicker with you. (In the Good Old Days, they had to be purchased in a toy store [mine was an alligator], not from the bin on a PetsMart checkout counter, or included with every swag bag at every seminar you attend, so now you have twelve.) Come to think of it, remembering to bring a clicker is still a difficulty.

The past ten years, though, have done everything in their power to make clicker training the arcane art is really is, and I've discovered I'm no artist. After shaping or capturing (those are technical terms, kids!) about five or six little behaviors with Nelly--Ask Nicely; High Five; Roll Over--I've virtually stopped teaching her new ones. Need I mention that Mercy knew ten times that many, including Shut the Door (with her nose), Circle Right and Circle Left, Stop, and dozens more cute tricks both useful and ornate? It suddenly seems so complicated, after all the explanations.

My timing has always been perfect: perfectly bad. I moved to Hoboken just as it was about to take off real-estate-wise and drop me in the dust; same for Park Slope in Brooklyn; same for where I live now. Just made it!--not. Thus I jumped on the clicker training bandwagon right as it was trading up to a sleeker and faster model of conveyance, and I feel my skills are not quite adequate to this Brave New World of Positive Reinforcement. Now, it appears, you can't have bad timing, or you'll mess everything up: there are studies that prove you have an optimal three seconds (or is that two?) to deliver your reinforcer. Scads of books now contain complex and lovely recipes for Cordon Bleu behaviors, while my abilities are back in the Betty Crocker mix phase. There's ClickerExpo, where the most brilliant minds in the business are up on stage wowing you with the remarkable--nay, incredible--things that can be done with operant conditioning. And the the audience is just as awe-inspiring: handicapped folks who clicker-train their own service dogs; people who have fallen in love with animals whose behavioral difficulties, such as aggression, have driven them to find the only way to keep their beloveds alive.

All this has combined, I admit in shame, to shut me down. I haven't picked up a clicker in months. My timing, or something, is literally so bad that whenever I try to shape a new behavior, Nelly shrieks her impatience at me. (Um, yes, that's an aversive.) It all seems so difficult, and complicated, and scientific to a science-studies nincompoop: schedules of reinforcement, quadrants of operant conditioning . . . My brain starts slurring its words. And suddenly I get very lazy.

So now I've reduced my world to saying "Yes!" as an ineffectual reward marker--ineffectual because, of course, I use it twenty times a day in other contexts, and it ensures worse timing than the more precise click. It's the only cure for "forgetting" the clicker, though. I also make sure to get Nelly to sit and be quiet before I open the door for her to go out, but deep inside I know I'm probably reinforcing a behavior chain (she screams, then sits and quiets)--I know only enough to know I'm probably doing everything wrong, but not how to do it right. Or perhaps, as I suspect, I am lazy and dispirited and impatient. Training is hard work.