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Is it easy to train dogs?

Happy International Pet Day!

Some years ago I visited Waltham UK, the leading pet research center in Europe. We had a demo from a dog trainer. Our group would think up a sequence of tricks and the dog handler would teach them to the dog in front of us.

They used a clicker for that. A clicker is a small device that makes a loud click when pressed. The clicks have been associated with food with prior training so it acts as positive reinforcement. You can think of a clicker as giving treats every time the dog does something right, but it works better because the timing is very concrete and the flow is not disturbed.

The dog had a strategy to tackle the task. He actively tried different activities (like sitting, laying down, rolling etc.) and when progressing to the desired direction the trainer would click. So the dog would now continue working on that idea. Before long the dog would “unlock” our sequence of tricks and get the real treat.

The cool part was that we tested the same thing with a person. As previously click was positive reinforcement, no talking was allowed. One guy went out, others agreed on the trick to teach and one of us acted as a “trainer”.

It turns out that it is very hard to train a grown-up human with a clicker.

Why is that? Foremost you must take a crazy amount of action to accidentally find the “click”. If there is not enough action we could not give a click as he would never get to what we wanted him to do. Being passive does not teach you anything in this setting.

Often learning is like that. To get the positive click you need to make mistakes to find out what does not work. In some settings, you can not just think your way to success. Using games for learning creates a setup that allows players to make mistakes safely. So that we can grow.

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