Saturday, June 5, 2010

On "behavior" vs "behavioral"

Elisa doesn't want me to use sugary water as part of the training. Like all parents, she feels her kid shouldn't be hooked to sugar as we are. So I write to the pediatrician:
I would like to feed Dario, about four-month old, with tiny amounts of sugary water. That is, I would rub a bit of sugary water on his lips. The reason is that I am looking for behavioral reinforcers.

Could this be bad for his health? Does it risk giving him an addiction to sugar?
Their reply:
In regards to your email. We would not advise giving sugar water or using sugar water as a reward. In general, we do not advocate ever using food products as rewards for good behavior and at this age we would not suggest discipline or rewards as babies are not able to understand these concepts until 15 months of age. Behavior can be discussed at your next well appointment with your doctor.
I suspect I am in for a long lecture at the next visit. But I am preparing my ammunitions. I will tell them: "Does a puppy understand the concepts of discipline and rewards?" They will call the police.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Last February, I have mused on the different techniques to get your baby to sleep a full night. Animal training theory clearly ridiculed these theories. I was looking with disdain at all of them, including the colonel method (extinction).

I know two colonels: Elisa and myself.

One week ago, I came back from work having read some more of "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child," by Mark Weissbluth, that recommended extinction. The rationale: it works, and it is the method that parents have an easiest time sticking to, because it will have effects very quickly (hence, positive feedback, for when you need to do it again after a sleep mess-up). Elisa, at the same time, had done some internet reading, in particular from Dario's pediatrician website. Claim: a baby is ready to do her nights at an early age. It's just the parents who are not ready.

At that time, Dario was being fed at 1:30am, 3:30am and 6am, roughly.

We looked deep inside ourselves, and thought that, if the conditions had been right, in a time of war, a war against an enemy set to destroy a good part of Humanity, that only the most resolved could stand a chance to defeat, if that had happened, it our president had asked for our help, had begged to put us in charge of a regiment, we thought, we would have accepted our responsibilities and the rank of colonel.

And thus, that same night, we moved Dario back to his room, closed behind him the steel doors of our hearts, and didn't answer his cries until the pre-specified time of 5am. Two nights later, he was sleeping seven hours in a row.

Last night, he slept nine hours and gulped down eight ounces of formula upon waking up at 5:20am. Two personal records that we will remind him of, with tears, for his twentieth birthday.

Where is animal training and positive feedback in all that? My belief system is shaken if not ground to bits.

With a way out: what we did was: "Ignore inconsequential undesirable behavior." We were using principles of animal training after all. Like any colonel who knows his men well.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Speech Therapy

Dinner with friends of Elisa. Alice is a speech therapist. This is all behavioral. You need to learn fine actions with your mouth, get used to placing your tongue here and there, pursing your lips.

There, timing is everything again. Alice tells us that as the kid speaks, he gets instant feedback with such words as "excellent" at the very precise time when he pronounces the sound correctly. You don't wait for the end of the sentence. She explains this method comes from behavioral studies, probably directly from Skinner. Warm fuzzy feeling all around.

Karen Pryor tells us the clicker works better than the voice for animals. Why is that so? She doesn't know why. It just does. She retells the story of a dog trainer who calls her irate: I tried your clicker thing. My dog learned twice as fast as when I use my voice. I took the clicker and smashed it to pieces!

It is so clear that it would work so much better for speech therapy too. Two hypotheses about the advantage of the clicker over the voice:
  • The voice carries too much information, and thus the organism spends a lot of time trying to interpret if "good" meant "goooood!!!" or "gud (but please, better next time)".
  • The voice's timing is not as precise as the hand. When the right behavior happens, it takes a tad longer to articulate "Good" than to pinch a little object between the thumb and the index finger.
What is the essence of comedy, you ask a friend. And as he is about to answer something: "Timing!" I tried to make that joke many times, but it usually falls flat: my timing is not as good as Borat's when he takes his class in comedy.

If a man answers

While I am still waiting for Dario to to give me a hint that he has noticed this recurrent click sound, that he has noticed food tends to come at the same time, while I am waiting -- and I am patient -- it is a good occasion to further my education.

Monica told us the other day of a movie. Chantal complains to her mother about her failing marriage. The mother proudly reveals her secret: the book "How to train man's best friend."

And it works (plot spoiler: until the husband is tipped off by an ungrateful friend of Chantal. What follows is what give the movie its title, "If a man answers", and is of no relevance to this blog).

What works? Very little is said, but this 1962 movie is resolutely modern.

1. When you call your dog, always make it a positive experience, and give lots of praise.

Chantal calls her husband Eugene to the bedroom (his studio is also his home), he arrives annoyed. She gives him displays of affection with a sexual undertone, and while you are here, hey, can you help me position these frames on the wall. Oh, perfect, I couldn't have done it without you.

In animal training, timing is everything. As soon as Eugene holds the frame on the wall: Oh perfect!

2. What to do if your dog is pulling on his leash? Let him drive you for a while, then finally pull him in the direction you want to go to. Unclear? Indeed.

Chantal can't get Eugene to go to Bloomingdale with her to choose some new drapes for home. So on she goes: breakfast in bed, and mon cheri (Chantal's mother is French), today is your day, I'll come with you anywhere you want to go. We follow an annoyed Chantal at the museum of photography (the movie is set in New York), at a camera store, then at a tobacco shop. Oh, mon cheri, we are two blocks from Bloomingdale, let's go. Why don't you go while I choose my tobacco blend? Unclear indeed.

Chantal calls her mother to get the missing instructions: at this time, you need to pull on the leash. Oh well, so much for positive reinforcement. But it works... until the ungrateful friend destroys this marital harmony.

These are alas the only two examples of the application of animal training. But still, it highlights the use of positive reinforcement and the strict application of operand conditioning. If the movie were to be done today, about fifteen years after clicker training has taken the dog world by storm, how would it go?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Workshop day 1

The web site has a list of forthcoming workshops. One is in Vermont, five hours from New York. This weekend.

So, that's where I am, at the end of the first day, mostly a day of theory with a little bit of practice. Most of it, I knew from reading about it. Yet I didn't feel bored at all. It seems that Teresa, the presenter and co-founder of tagteach, has been using positive feedback techniques during the day, by giving us unexpected breaks.

Teresa is the gymnastics coach who was using clickers to teach her students. She is now full time in her company giving seminars and doing interventions in fisheries.

I laid down my cards while introducing myself this morning: I really need to be able to hold a handstand by April 15. I'll be clicked for that first thing in the morning tomorrow.

Dinner with six other of the participants. We talk mostly about dogs chasing squirrels and about raising kids (whether autistic or not). I mention clicking my six-week-old. Nobody is horrified. I feel I belong.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Click for food

Being now the proud owners of 28 clickers (I gave away two to K, one to R, one to M, one to J), I started clicking.

Each time I insert the bottle into Dario's mouth, I click. Now, sometimes, Dario does a click with his tongue, a loud, nice 'tchak'. I am trying to shape him so that this is word for "more food, please". It seems to be the simplest possible shaping possible: he gives the cue, I do the behavior.

So far: no success. Need to remember to stop the training after a few minutes into the feeding: he still needs to be hungry enough to pay attention.

But so exciting.


Still reading Pryor's book, I learn that clickers are used in teaching. For autistic kids, but also in gymnastics, shoe-lacing, etc. Pryor has even co-created a company at I am on my way to Vermont to take their workshop. This is where the handstand video comes from.

Parents complain: you can't treat our kids like animals. That's why the technique has been renamed 'TAGTeaching'. But somebody had a perfect answer to this common complaint:

The medications you give your kids -- they've been tested on animals first right? You wouldn't want them not to be tested on animals first. Well we did the same with this technique.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The joy of clicking

Until Dario's hearing is good enough to distinguish a clicker from a cooing parent, I have already put to use the three Pryor-certified clickers I received.

- The first, I sent to Harish and Priya, due to have a kid in ten days. Harish is the person who introduced me to "Don't shoot the dog," the book that started my devouring passion for animal training; the book that made me want to have a kid.

- The second, I lost.

- The third, Elisa and I used to play "the clicker game". Not only this game is incredibly fun, it is also very instructive. You know what your dog (or baby) feels like when they are trained. And it feels good.

Elisa made me stand on one leg with elbow touching a knee, she made me switch off the light, do a handstand. I made her open a drawer, put the milk back into the fridge, throw a yoga ball over the trapeze bar.

I have played this game before with Sandra, Pierre and Emile. This time again, it was eye opening. The most surprising fact: it is very important for the animal to 'get their treat' from the trainer after each click.

I immediately ordered a 30-pack of Karen Pryor clickers. I can't leave with the risk of being left without a clicker for a day.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Power of Positive Parenting

Maybe I am making a mistake, saying that I want to apply animal training techniques on Dario. The book "The Power of Positive Parenting" by Glenn Latham focuses completely on behavioral techniques. Lucky we are: research in behavioral science has shown that positive feedback is more efficient than negative feedback.

If this hadn't been the case, the book would have been titled "Better Children with Punishment and Surveillance", and it probably would not sell as much.

There is no mention of animal training in the book, no mention of clickers. Yet, all the ideas that matter to me are there, i.e. amongst others: reinforce desired behavior; ignore inconsequential undesired behavior; replace undesired behavior by something else; change the environment; judge a technique only on the effect on the behavior; etc, etc.

I am still hoping that I will be able to use a clicker on Dario before he is able to understand the flourished language of his parents -- who, reading "Le Comte de Monte-Cristo," are now trying to imitate the mid-19th century style of the Parisian high society.

The book sounds fabulous, by the way. And if I can't use a clicker on Dario for all that matters when a child grows up, I'll use it to teach him how to play ping-pong with a pigeon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Which clicker is best?

Karen Pryor says: anything that makes a click can be used for clicker training, but we sell our own clickers, she adds.

It seems clear enough that she doesn't think this clicker is any special, but it is hard to pass on such a business opportunity: People may want to order the Pryor-certified clicker, having the superstitious belief it will work better than your average retractable pen.

I just ordered a pack of three.

And as we know from studies about the placebo effect, the Pryor clicker might well work better than any other: the trainer will try harder, because he knows he has the exact right tool.

For the record: I trained a cat to follow a chopstick end with its nose -- with a retractable pen.

Hand stands

At the beginning of Jnuary, I registered on I gave the web site my credit card. On April 13th, I will be able to do a handstand and hold it for fifteen seconds. Hesky will be the judge. If I fail, stickk will automatically use my card to send $200 to a pro-life organization. I am on the complete opposite of the spectrum in that respect: I believe that infanticide should be legal. Let's not get into details here, just read Peter Singer's arguments, it's roughly what I think. Let me add that Dario's life is not at risk.'s spiel says this anti-charity system is based on serious research on commitment, and it just works.

So I have been waiting for results, but as I don't practice my handstand, I don't see that I am making progress.

Karen Pryor's book, "Reaching the animal mind" has a chapter entitled "People". Each chapter has an accompanying web page with videos and additional readings. That chapter's page contains videos on TAGteaching: the application of clicker training to humans, mostly in sports contexts.

Check out the first video, it is about handstand training. I just contacted a handstand instructor to ask her to teach me this way. Until Dario can be trained, maybe I'll put myself through it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Our Babies, Ourselves

Harish sent us a book: "Our Babies, Ourselves: how biology and culture shape the way we parent" by Meredith Small.

This book was published in 1998, and it indeed sounds so pre-1998, that is, so pre-The Nurture Assumption by Judith Ruch Harris. In the sense that it makes unproven statements about the effects of early parenting on later life. Here is an example from the end of the chapter on crying:

[...] the work by Tronick and others shows that even from day one, the way babies connect to their caretakers has a powerful influence on how they see the world. One child might grow up self-assured with a positive attitude because even in infancy she experienced a state of equilibrium with a caretaker who was sensitive and empathetic [...]
The work of Tronick shows that some activities of the caretaker has some influence on the child's attitude a few minutes later. It is a far cry from the twenty years implicitly heard in the verb "grow up". The statement sounds true. It may not be.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Parenting for Primates

This is the name of a book by Harriet J. Smith, published in 2006. The title means: "buy me". I can't imagine a life worth living without such a book in my bookshelf.

Harry Harlow experimented with infant monkeys, giving them the choice between a wire milk-giving dummy mother and a fuzzy fur dry one. The infants preferred the latter.

Dario is even smarter: Often, he prefers the fuzzy milk-giving mother to the fuzzy dry father. Despite the songs.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Discipline tricks

Elisa receives weekly tips from Today's email contains has a number of themes, but one of them is: "Discipline tricks to introduce now."

Dario is three-weeks old today, so you can imagine how much I am looking forward to testing discipline tricks.

Only one applies from birth: Lavish love. We are trying that as much as possible. One web site or another cites the research of Ronald G. Barr on infant crying: you hold your baby two more hours per day, she cries 43% less when she is six-weeks old (the peak of crying in all cultures). I ordered a book by Barr -- who seems to be a reference on the matter of crying, but in the meanwhile, Harish sent me "Our babies, ourselves," by Meredith Small. The chapter on crying cites Barr again and again.

Reading said chapter on crying makes me fall in love even more with Dario. No more thinking about putting him in the crib when he sleeps: I want to hold him all the time. Lavish love. And I read: it's not how much you hold your kid, it's how fast you answer his calls of distress. I am running to buy a baby monitor.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Is he trainable?

I am having a crisis of confidence: At twenty days of age, is Dario trainable?

To be trainable you need to be a being who can correlate input and output, and who has some control of his person.

People talk of sleep associations: the baby eats, then sleep. Warning: the breast becomes a sleep association, and Dario will not want to sleep without getting fed. Different sources say that this may happen "at an extremely young age". Well, when I say "different sources": it just happens that a cunning author has bought many domain names, pasted the same text and has added some advertising for his book, but I digress.

The truth is, right now, I have no evidence that Dario can correlate input and output, nor that he has any control of his person. Yes, he has pure reflexes. Some learning has happened at the sucking level, but there is no indication that this is any more than a specialized circuit.

Just in case Dario ever becomes trainable: when I give him my finger to suck, I always make a nnnnngggg-tchak noise with it. Maybe some association will remain between the noise and the comfort of the finger, and this will facilitate training later.

And what shall I try to train him on? Sleeping? Pooping? Certainly not. One needs to select tasks of no utility to either of us at first, because we need to be both relaxed about the outcome. Thus, an obvious task: grab the giraffe.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Skinner is not somebody who wants to be balder than a Skin Head

Yesterday, I received the visit of a friend. PhD at Stanford in one science or another, journalist, he knows about everything.

He didn't know who Skinner was. Hadn't heard the name. Even more disturbing: he knows about much more minor figures in Psychology, like Freud, who is only #2 in the list of the ten most influent psychologists on

Skinner, who wrote about superstition in the pigeon! I was mad.

I bought Walden Two, a novel that described a utopia. Said Skinner published it in 1948. According to the Wikipedia entry about the book:
When the members find a problem in their community they may design and experimentally test a possible solution, carefully documenting the results of their experiment in accordance with thescientific method.[11] If the results of their testing indicates that the proposed solution would be an improvement over their current cultural practices then they may make that experimentally validated improvement into a component of their community's culture. This cultural optimization process is called "cultural engineering."[12]
You can imagine how much I am looking forward to this book. The current edition has a preface called "Walden Two Revisited." About twenty-five years after its publication, Skinner writes about the relevance of his novel. He sure sounds Communist, and I don't mean that in a bad way.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A toaster that toasts on both sides


Karen Pryor starts her book 'Reaching the animal mind' with this observation: that Konrad Lorenz created ethology and B. F. Skinner created behaviorism, and animal clicker training inherits from both: you need to know the nature of your partner. You have to understand the machinery.

Excellent development tools are now available for C++, Java: you can see the source code as it is being executed, dump the value of critical variables, and repeat the same code many times, stopping it at appropriate places.

Nothing of the sort exists for Dario. I bought "Cry Translator" for my iPhone. I record the Dario's cry, and it tells me if he is hungry, bored, stressed, sleepy or has discomfort. Usually, I get two or three different answers in the same number of consecutive recordings. One could qualify this app as useless, or at least useless for an infant that age, or useless for an infant with a French accent (the app comes from Spain). But it still serves a purpose: it reminds us that there are not so many types of things that can go wrong with the machinery.

But as far as debugging tools go, we don't have much else at home. We observe Dario swaying his head left and right, opening his mouth wildly, closing it on his fists, the blanket. And that, we learn, may mean that he is hungry, has gas, is tired, and, maybe, that he is stressed.

Contemplative on his mat, Dario is becoming fussy. Swaying his head left to right, opening his mouth wildly, closing it on his fists. We know what this may mean: anything. The key to successful analysis: change one variable at a time. We burp him and put him back on the mat. Same. We change his diaper and put him back on the mat. Same. We give up.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Return of the lama

In a recent post, I describe the lama training technique. (The word "recent" is redundant as I don't have any non-recent post relative to this one.)

There is a reason for that: it inspired me to try a technique to put Dario to sleep. I tried it when he was six-days old. It worked beautifully.

Letting the kid cry (as in controlled crying) for a while before coming back is like allowing the lama to run away, withdrawing only after a while: a big no-no according to animal training theory, much slower than the recommended approach. For instance, using that approach, a student at the EATM was able to put a cotton swab in a koala's ear in less than a year.

Hence the translation of this technique to an infant: put in bed, give finger to suck for ten second, remove. Wait for about ten seconds, give finger again, remove. Wait a little longer, give finger just before your beloved starts wiggling, and so on. At some point, rubbing your finger against his lips doesn't trigger any reaction anymore. He closes his eyes. Success.

And with a bit of luck, each night, it will be a little longer delay between a finger suck and the return of fussiness.

As I wrote: it worked beautifully.

Further attempts in the days that followed showed that the correlation was serendipitous. The only thing that I achieved is: avoid the cries while Dario is falling asleep, but I do not control the timing.

Controlled crying

The Scott Brown of sleep training techniques is called "controlled crying". You let your kid cry, but not as much as the colonel plans to do after he locks the steel door of his heart that happens to also be the door to his son's bedroom. (He swallows the key.)

Controlled crying is described in four steps by -- a name that certainly inspires trust. From the web site, I suspect it is a TV show.

Steps 1 to 3 are simple: bath, PJs, story time, cuddle, crib. But, Attention, attention: no wild hand gestures. You will be done with the first three steps in twenty minutes. Step 4 shouldn't take more than an hour. But don't worry: you have to do it only if your baby cries. I quote:

If your baby cries when you place her in her crib, start the controlled crying technique:

  • Wait five minutes before going back to the room. Make your check brief and any interaction minimal. Don’t touch, pick her up, or cuddle her – simply say, “Mommy/Daddy is here, go to sleep” and then leave, even if he is still crying.
  • If she’s still crying after 10 minutes, repeat the procedure.
  • If she’s still crying after 15 minutes repeat the procedure and continue to repeat it every 15 minutes until she’s asleep.
  • If she starts to quieten down, wait to see if she’s starting to settle to sleep – if you go in at this point you may disturb her. If she starts to cry loudly again, start your checking again.
[...] If you apply the technique properly your child shouldn’t cry for much more than an hour.
It seems very close to the "cry-it-out" solution of the colonel. Super nanny adds this insightful comment:
The key to this technique isn’t to stroke, pat or re-position your baby. This type of contact could be seen as a reward for crying and rather than reduce the crying it could teach your child to cry for a set period before you go into her and cuddle or stroke her… thus inadvertently encouraging more crying.
I dislike this technique on theoretical grounds: how is it that 'stroking, patting and re-positioning' will encourage more crying, while a warm 'daddy is here' will not?

Yet, there seems to be a strong body of evidence that this technique works within a few days. If the theory is in conflict with experimental results, the theory has to go.

This technique is not recommended before the age of six months. We hope that Dario will have been trained using other techniques by then. We have five months and two weeks left. Super Nanny says:
we feel a gradual retreat technique is more appropriate for younger babies.
This sounds appealing, but Super Nanny doesn't describe it. I find a good description in It looks great.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

On sleep training and Modus Tollens

There are different techniques to train your baby to sleep. According to, the full range goes from, at the extreme left, attachment parenting to, at the extreme right, the cry-it-out method. The left-to-right ordering has the right feel to it. I can see leftist hippies co-sleeping with their child as easily as I can see a conservative army colonel letting his kid cry to exhaustion. You will become a man, my son.

A term that recurs is that of "sleep association". For instance, the child who nurses and immediately falls asleep may be learning that nursing leads to sleep. Like most high schools students, he may also apply the Modus Tollens the wrong way, and conclude -- incorrectly -- that no nursing implies no sleep. I have difficulties to believe that an infant shall be so precocious as to be acquainted with logic, and shall at the same time make such a basic mistake in its application.

Moreover, what of Pavlov's dog? He learns that when the bell rings, food will come. To be BC (behavioristically correct), I should say: when the bell rings, he salivates. I haven't read anywhere about the more surprising result, that when food arrives without the chime, the dog doesn't salivate.

Is the dog smarter than the infant, knowing that if P implies Q, then it is not necessarily true that Not P implies Not Q? Or is he more stupid, not able to even grasp the notion of logical implication but in a feeble neuronal loop that doesn't go through the heights of the frontal lobe?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Just fussy enough

Dario is just fussy enough for me to try a variation of the lama training method.

The lama training experiment

Karen Pryor describes how to train a lama to accept to be touched. You start approaching from far away. If you approach too much, the lama will run away. So you approach just enough, until you see the lama show signs of tenseness. At that point, you give him a reward for having left you come so close: you withdraw. He relaxes. You iterate, sometimes coming a little closer, sometimes staying a little longer.

The success of this technique leads to the following hypothesis: lamas don't have the cognitive abilities to discretize continuous quantities. 100 meters and 98.3 meters? It's really roughly the same. 98.3 and 95.2? Same. And so on.

How to test this hypothesis? One could discretize the continuum for him: pre-install a set of very different landmarks (from the lama's point of view: his favorite foods?) at the stations that you will be posted.

Before we get into technicalities regarding the convergence of Cauchy sequences, let's re-center onto what's important: that it works. And the question that is on everybody's lips: can this be applied to infants.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Animal training on babies?

Imagine my disappointment when I typed the Google query animal training on babies: there is nothing better than discussions on baby dogs and on dog meet baby.

On the other hand, clicker training on babies: we are sent to Karen Pryor's web site, with a blog entry by chipper28, that starts so:

Clicker training a baby. I’ve already discovered that these four words elicit a strikingly wide set of responses. “How could you even say that?”, “Huh?”, “Do you really think a baby’s smart enough to do that?”, “Interesting idea,” and “You can not do that to my grandson!” are a few examples. Leaving out the emotional responses for the moment, we seem to be left with either explaining what clicker training is or arguing whether our son might be approaching our dog in intellect. I haven’t actually spoken to anyone who had any real constructive ideas unfortunately.
Said chipper28 is unlikely to be Karen Pryor herself. She or he continues on her post dated 01/02/2008: "we have a four-month-old son and a four-year-old Irish Terrier."

Looks like I will get all I want. Alas, chipper28 got too busy with the training itself: this is the first and the last entry in his or her blog hosted on Karen Pryor's web site.

The visit to Pryor's site was an occasion to learn that she published a new book in 2009: Reaching the animal mind. As I have bought "Don't shoot the dog" about 15 times to give it to friends, it is proportionally not much more to buy this book without reading any review.

And so it starts

Having a kid one week of age is the perfect occasion to also give birth to a blog. For one thing: Google's generous paternal leave policy gives me seven weeks to idly muse during the times Dario is not to be attended to.

The title of the blog is directly linked to the location I am starting it: I am on my dining room table, facing the kitchen -- "une cuisine à l'américaine". On the counter top is a toaster.

I was about to call the blog "don't shoot the kid", a reference to Karen Pryor's famous "Don't shoot the dog", a giveaway on my main interest today: how to apply animal training techniques to babies.

Yet, today's interests are not tomorrow's. When Dario turns forty, the meaning of "toasted on both sides" will be as crisp and current as it is today: it means nothing. Until then, Elisa and I have acquired this infant that we are ready to be trained by.