Monday, November 8, 2010

Getting Bored Training Your Dogs? Give your kids a try!

It's kind of funny - as patient as I am when it comes to training dogs, it takes a lot more for me to be patient with the kids. I don't know why, but I expect more from them. Which isn't fair - I get that - they're learning too. So this weekend was not only about teaching the kids, but also about teaching me that I can apply the same teaching principles I use with canines: positive reinforcement yields results.

Find what's reinforcing
Months ago, we developed the point system. If the kids did something good, they got a point. Those points could then be turned in at the end of the day or in the middle of the all depended on how desperate we were for them to behave. They got to have a popsicle or something of value.
Advantages: they were really excited about doing things right
Disadvantages: life got too busy and before we knew it, days had gone by and the kids were racking up the points. The reinforcement rate wasn't high enough for them to care after a while.

We decided to go with something more tactile...something they can physically hold on to. Enter: Pennies!

Gather training tools
The kids love when we're training the dogs with the clicker, so we decided to incorporate the clicker in their training too.

J and I carried around a handful of pennies and a clicker so we could quickly reward the kids.

Clearly state the criteria
The rules are: state EXACTLY what we WANT them to do. Words like don't and stop are omitted. If we tell exactly what we want them to do, we make the goal very clear. If we were to tell them to stop jumping on the couch, for example, then that's technically saying that running on the couch might be acceptable.

Good example: When you are done brushing your teeth, wipe all the water off the counter with the towel next to the sink. Clearly states: wipe the water, use the towel to do this and wait until you are done brusing your teeth to do it.

Bad example: Don't leave water on the sink. How? When you're talking to 3 and 5 year old kids, this could mean use your sleeve to wipe the water. Where? They could just wipe the water right in front of them, ignoring the water by the faucet. When? Again, they could wipe the counter before they start brushing their teeth! Definitely not what we're looking for...

Continue to reward the behavior
When the trainee is in the acquisition phase of learning, it's important to remember to continue to reward that behavior every time it happens. This is how good habits are formed.

Use negative punishment, when necessary
Our biggest challenge is the television. So, if we tell them to do something and they don't, we remove the television. No, not the whole thing! That's too impractical! But we definitely walk right over to the remote and turn off the T.V. End of discussion.

Example: "L, it's time to go wash your hands. When you're done washing your hands, go sit at the dinner table." No reply. So, I simply walk over to the T.V. and turn it off. That's when he says, "HEY! why'd you do that!?" I state very calmly, "I asked you to go wash your hands and then sit at the dinner table. The T.V. will remain off until you can do what I tell you."

What we learned this weekend
L learned to maintain eye contact when someone is speaking to him.
D learned to put her fork down once she's taken a bite.
Both kids learned to eat over their plates and keep their bodies facing forward while they eat.

What we found interesting about the training
The kids were VERY quick to point out when we didn't click and reward. At one point, J and I were talking and D put her fork down and wiped her face with her napkin after she had eaten. "HEY! you didn't click me!" LOL...

If one child got rewarded for a specific behavior, the other was quick to correct themselves. I clicked L for eating his green beans with his fork, instead of his fingers and caught D out of the corner of my eye stop using her fingers and grab her fork. Then, before I could even say anything she said "Look! I'm using my fork!"

It's not easy to stay on top of their behavior constantly. We were really tired by the end of the day. But we gave ourselves credit: we're using a very powerful tool and if we stick to it, we'll be rewarded handsomely with well-behaved, engaged-in-learning kids!

There were times throughout the day where nothing beat a good timeout. Crying for no reason? That gets you excused to the room for a timeout, just like a dog that's barking gets removed from the room.

Just like when training your dog, what you think is reinforcing or what was reinforcing to them ten minutes ago may no longer have as much importance now. With the kids, the pennies were not always want they wanted. Sometimes they wanted to watch a movie, sometimes they wanted to play a video game...we used these to our advantage.

Teaching people with clickers is not a new thing! To learn more about Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAG), go to!



  1. I love this! As a childless person, I'm very careful not to offer dog training tips to people raising kids. : )

    But principles of learning have many applications. I've loved seeing video of TAG training gymnasts. Why not bring it home to your kids? It looks like you've made learning fun for your kids.

  2. This is harlious!! I don't have kids either, but find your theory cool and funny! The principal is the same, why not?? Do you really use the clicker??? That's just too funny! :)

  3. Dog training demands tantamount of patience as it is time-consuming. Proper socialization with the right amount of attention can help resolve dog problems.

  4. Yes! We definitely use the clicker! It's especially helpful teaching them exact behaviors, such as "sit in the chair with your knees facing forward". The kids love to sit with their legs hanging off, their arms draped across the back - if you can imagine, this leads to a very sticky meal! So we practiced! Everytime their knees were forward, CLICK! If their knees, weren't they didn't get a click. Rather than feeling discouraged, this made them hop out of their seat faster to try again.