Clicker Training And Aspergers Dance Awkwardly Together

Learning to clicker train my son’s new dog opened the door into what he goes through every day because he has Asperger’s Syndrome Disorder. 

The newer part of the shelter is two-stories high with offices upstairs and a football size first floor dedicated to training classes, all of which are listed on the animal shelter’s web site. We are registered for “Basic Manners,” which meets every Tuesday night at 7PM for six weeks. That first night, per instructions, we leave Gracie at home, arrive on time and slide into chairs that face a long table littered with papers and bags of what we assume are dog training related items.

During the early part of the class, we all introduce ourselves, spending more time describing the dogs that will be joining us next week than we do talking about ourselves:  this one has a Schipperke that sneezes on command; he recently adopted a purebred Jack Russell terrier, she has a six month old golden doodle pup; that couple has a Maltese mixed breed, the man sitting behind us has a Siberian Husky that offers its paw up in a high five, the family sitting to the right of us has a hound mix breed and we have a bully breed – what we’re pretty sure is more Amercan Staffordshire terrier than pit bull terrier.

Over the next six weeks, we’ll master the nuances of shaping behavior with the help of a palm-sized, plastic clicker which sounds pretty easy until we get started. The instructor raises her voice slightly when she moves into teacher mode, picking up speed as she takes us through the basics of working with a clicker. For this first session, we pair up: one of us is the trainer who, with a series of clicks and candy rewards, will try to “shape” a specific behavior. (ie Can you get your partner to do one action using just the clicker?) For example, “sit in a chair,” “stand on your left foot.” This is done without any talking or any kind of non verbal prompt except for the staccato-quick sound of the clicker. Once we get the desired result, we switch roles and are given a different behavior to shape.

If you have neurodevelopmental disorders of any kind, wrapping your brain around this type of an exercise can be a sensory nightmare because there is too  much to keep track of.  How can I make this work for both of us?  Over the next six weeks, we tackle each piece of instruction, improvising when we can.  Like the times we played follow-the-leader with you and Gracie following behind me, walking where I walked, stopping when I stopped.

After that first night, I know that part of the challenge will be the way that people’s voices riccochet off the walls of that huge room; that you’ll process maybe half of what you hear. Because it’s a small class, with three instructors, I’ll ask one of them to show us again what the lead instructor just demonstrated. Show me once, show me again. Watch me. Do what I do. Now, it’s your turn.

The mechanics of clicker training frustrate you and the theory of clicker training frustrate me. We meet in our collective confusion and make the best of it. What we have working for us is Gracie. She brings her delight with other dogs and an affection for the people she knows to class. She’ll be stand-offish, reserved with strangers. “Gracie’s MO,” explained one of the behavior experts at the shelter when we adopted Gracie, “is flight.” We see this daily and one of the things we know is that changing behavior takes patience, time and an ability to find common ground.

I grope to find that common ground with you. Together, we fumble our way through this six weeks. Each time I feel you stumble, my steps falter alongside of yours. Somehow, we get to the other side. Gracie graduates and we see an improvement in how she walks on leash, which is the goal we set for her at the beginning of this training session. I know you feel both a sense of accomplishment and relief that we’re done because I feel both of those emotions.

Harder for me to explain is that I no longer feel emotionally and physically tired from having to keep track of so many things each time we had class.  What I wonder now is if I just got a glimpse of what is true for you all the time?

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