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.