Friday, February 20, 2009

Introducing TAGteach: Lessons Learned

Theresa has gone off to Japan and abandoned us. I am bereft. So you will have to get by with a post from me today. Well, it's technically not really from me since I copied both the text and the photos from others (with their permission of course).

Maggie Ouillette who is a clicker trainer and TAGteacher has kindly provided this excerpt from a summary of a project she is working on for further TAGteach certification. Maggie's project involves implementing TAGteach in the teaching of shelter volunteers to clicker train the dogs.

Shelter Volunteer TAGteach Project - Some Things I've Learned

Implementing TAGteach into a training program was a learning process for me as well as for the shelter volunteers. Understanding the TAGteach methodology was just the beginning. It took some time to become comfortable actually using the process to teach dog training. The first step was to identify the skills needed to work with the dogs successfully. They fall into categories of:

  • Leash/dog handling
  • Timing of reward marker
  • Timing and placement of reward delivery
  • Ability to observe and shape behaviors
The tag points that I came up with were designed to break these skills down into the smallest denominator. Whenever possible I used `value-added' tag points which prevented undesirable behaviors as well as identifying a skill point.

Things I've Learned Through TAGteaching

Start small

My initial impulse was to jump in with both feet, using multiple tag points. The first training session was less than perfect because of that impulse. I started out wanting to tag everything. Over time I realized that using a limited number of well chosen tag points was most effective. I learned how important it was to introduce this new concept gradually.

Begin with the basics

I developed a set of introductory tag points which dealt with the skills needed from each of the four categories. For example, a set of tap points dealt with the basics of clicking and then delivering the reward. Each training session began with these tag points before we ever introduced the dogs. The learners practiced the exercises without a dog, then with a stuffed dog, then with a shelter dog. The learners were often a bit bemused about the simplicity of the introductory exercises. One teenaged learner remarked jokingly "Oh, we're in Kindergarten! She mastered the intro exercises easily. When we added the dog she was the first to comment "Oh, yeah, it's harder when you have the dog!"

When in doubt, break it down

In the past when I was working with dog training students, when they were having trouble performing a skill correctly, I would gently take the leash, saying, "Let me just show you how to do it". That may give the learner an opportunity to observe the skill in its completed form, but it doesn't teach them how to do it themselves. Now when those moments happen, I stop and say to myself "This would be a great place for a tag point!"

Verbal markers are problematic

When the program began, I tried using a verbal marker such as `yes' or `good' . I was teaching the volunteers to use a clicker as the dogs' reward marker, and needed a different marker for the humans. Theoretically, it should have worked. After viewing some video footage of my efforts, it was clear that I was having trouble maintaining a consistent signal. I also tried using the word `tag' to avoid conveying emotion, but that word sounded harsh. My solution was to use clickers for the humans when possible (no dogs present) and used an inexpensive child's toy that created a chunk-chunk noise when the volunteers were working with the dogs.

Let the tagger do the talking

This project taught me to talk less and tag more. There are times when I need to give an explanation of how and/or why something is done in a certain way. I still spend time talking about the exercises. The difference is that there is a separation of lecture time and hands-on practice. I explain the basics of an exercise, then give the tag/focus point, then the learner works on the skill. When I observe off-point errors, I don't do any talking while the learner is working. I make a mental note to add a tag point to address the off-point error.

Post-its and tape are my best friends

A target is worth a thousand words. Even clear instructions to "hold your hand like this" or "take a step" sometimes gets lost in translation. Giving the learner a specific location for hand/foot/treat placement sets the learner up for success. It feels great to get it right. It has been my observation that adult learners find it hugely rewarding to be successful. I found that material rewards or even praise were not necessary for the volunteers. Because they mastered the basic clicker training skills early in the process, they saw the dogs catch on very quickly. This was immensely rewarding to everyone involved.

Maggie Ouillette
Whitmore Lake Michigan

Thanks to Oliver Beverly of C.L.E.A.R Dog Training in Australia for the photos

1 comment:

  1. It sounds lovely. I particularly like the piece about non verbalization of an error point and simply making it a tag point next time.