Let’s say that you want to go chase down the ice cream truck and your teacher or parental figure doesn’t want you to chase vehicles. There are a few options for the teacher.

The teacher can force you to not chase the truck. They can watch your every move and interrupt you if you consider making the undesirable choice.

This is really appealing to the teacher. It feels like the results are immediate because the learner stops the behavior in the moment. The side effect is that the learner isn’t actually making choices. The desire to chase the ice cream truck isn’t being modified. The learner is simply being suppressed for the behavior and the behavior is likely to resurface when the interrupter isn’t present.

The learner can also learn to avoid or be fearful of the teacher. All responsibility for learning here falls on the learner’s shoulders and if it doesn’t work, then it is the learner’s fault. Because it is rewarding to the teacher and it feels effective in the moment, this method can be repeated for years without any real progress being achieved and without the learner absorbing the lesson.

Another option would be the teacher rewarding the learner for ignoring the truck, focusing on the teacher and distracting the learner when they think about making the undesirable choice with bribes and lures.

The learner is making choices here and the teacher isn’t going to be lulled into false progress because of the appearance of immediate results. The teacher is responsible for rewarding appropriate behavior which will increase the frequency of desired choices.

When the ice cream truck is too appealing for the learner, then the teacher is responsible for breaking out all sorts of methods to be more exciting than the ice cream truck. Initially this can work beautifully, but ultimately it puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. The teacher is begging and pleading that the learner not have any other interests and the learner just wants to see the world. The learner learns to evaluate whether or not the teacher has things that are more important to the learner than the ice cream truck.

A third option is the teacher rewarding the learner for focusing on the teacher and setting the learner up to make the right choices incrementally, until the learner is able to make the desired choice with any duration, distractions, distance or location. The teacher is responsible for setting up the learning scenarios and progressing those scenarios when the learner is ready for the next step.

Running in the ringThe learner is responsible for learning and making their own choices. The choices either lead to reinforcement for the desired choice or to an easier learning step.

There is no punishment which might lull the teacher into false pretense that the learner has absorbed the information and there is no bribing, begging or pressuring the learner to make the right choice. The learner learns that rewards will be given for desirable choices and that the teacher won’t give them the option to make undesired behavior choices repeatedly until the learner can make desired behavior choices in those moments. The learner learns that no matter where the teacher is desired behavior choices lead to amazing things. The teacher takes responsibility for teaching and the learner takes responsibility for learning.

In my online class, “Ready, Steady, Squirrel”, we are teaching dogs to focus on their handlers and come when called even when the ice cream truck of squirrels, critters and other moving distractions runs by.

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