Clicker Training humans : It works but is it Ethical?


I am a Veterinary Technologist. What is that. It is an LPN in the veterinary world. While in college, it is required to learn dog and cat training. The method is giving a dog or cat a treat for performing a desired behavior and using the clicker at the same time. Over time the dog or cat learns that the click is the reward instead of the treat and they desire the click.

This is based off Pavlovian Theory. Pavlovian Theory is a learning procedure that pairs a stimulus with a paired response. Ivan Pavlov used this theory with dogs. He discovered that objects or events can trigger a response. The stimulus was the food bowl full of food would trigger an unconditioned response which was salivation. Pavlov noticed that his dog would associate his lab assistant with food. This created a learned and conditioned response. 
He then chose a neutral stimuli. This was a bell. When he gave the dogs food, he would ring the bell. He would repeat this. After a while, the bell ringing would trigger the dog to salivate. This created a conditioned response. Now the bell has the same response as the dog food.
This is a great tool for dog or training. This is for dogs. It has no ill effects if applied correctly. The dog will learn how to behave in a family environment and can live a rewarding life. No one gets hurt. The dog trainer will have to know animal body language to decipher when the animal has had enough or when the animal is in distress. They are taught when to stop. 
Part of ABA is based on this theory. ABA does not allow for the child to have emotions or to be distressed. They are treated worse than the animals described above. I am only touching on ABA in this blog.
Yesterday it was bought to my attention that there is a TV show in the UK that shows people how to clicker train their baby. It is called “Train Your Baby Like a Dog.” As a parent and pet professional, I have a huge problem with that, and I hope you do too. Your baby is not a dog, your baby is a human. At a very young age, they are able to communicate using sign language (the particular sign language depends on the area you live).This is because the language center of the brain develops faster than the speech center of the brain.  Babies do have cognitive thought. They do have emotions and are very capable of expressing them. 
For example: My son at six months old was able to ask for milk using ASL at six months old instead of crying. Sign language is a powerful tool when raising babies. In my opinion, every baby should learn it. It decreases stress in both the parent and the child. The frustration from not being able to communicate is not there. Creates a very happy home. 
I was in ABA as a child. It uses some of these methods in the “therapy.” It is compliance training. Only this does not hide that the parent is training the child like a dog. The child has emotions, dislikes, triggers, etc. This training does not allow them this and causes distress. This will lead to PTSD. 
In my opinion this is abuse. Yes a child should learn but not everyone learns the same. They need to be afforded dignity. There is no dignity in being treated like a dog. 
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3 thoughts on “Clicker Training humans : It works but is it Ethical?

  1. Let me start by saying that you are 100% right about ABA being abusive, and I believe it should be illegal.However, I think the salient point you make here is that in clicker-training, “The dog trainer will have to … decipher when the animal has had enough or when the animal is in distress. They are taught when to stop.” As you point out, in ABA training the parents/therapists do NOT take into account when the child is in distress and do NOT stop. So it seems to me that in a context where the parents were extremely sensitive to the child's emotional and cognitive needs, this would not be the same thing.I haven't seen the Channel 4 show about clicker training babies. It's possible the parents are awful. But I do know that in my family (in which all the humans are neurodiverse), dog-training like methods were extremely helpful in understanding how to communicate with our baby. We taught them “come” and “stay still” as soon as they were mobile, and it was literally a life saver in terms of allowing them greater freedom without greater risk. (And no, sign language wasn't an option because we're all dyspraxic. They're 8 now, and still can't sign). Most children in America and the UK are still being raised with negative reinforcement such as spankings or time-outs or parental disapproval, even as young children. I've seen so many parents punish kids for rules the kids didn't even know existed, such as squirming in the shopping aisle. This show claims that it is encouraging changing how we teach kids and substituting immediate positive reinforcement for good actions (while ignore unwanted behavior). Using clickers is a little different than normal, but I wonder if your reaction to it is more by association than for a rational reason. Clickers aren't inherently bad because they're used in a very bad way in ABA. They're not inherently demeaning because we use them for dogs. My dog eats out of the same type of bowls as the rest of the family, because I can't be arsed to buy separate pet food dishes and this way they can all be washed together. That doesn't mean I'm degrading myself or my kids because they're all technically dog bowls. What works for the puppy works for me, in this case. Likewise child tethers aren't bad just because dogs walk on leashes. And using a clicker isn't inherently different than any other positive reinforcement (giving kids treats for good behavior is a long-standing parenting technique which can lead to eating disorders, so an alternative isn't all bad. Likewise verbal praise can lead to kids not trusting that people praise them without an agenda. So there's no parenting technique that's 100% risk free)My point here is that clicker training and positive-reinforcement training for dogs has very widely replaced negative-reinforcement training for dogs. I remember just a few decades ago when most people would swat their dogs to correct them for misbehavior, and now that's widely seen as abusive because trainers have widely accepted clicker training and similar methods. And yet it is still not only legal but widely defended (more widely defended than hitting dogs!) for parents and schools to use corporal punishment on their kids, including autistic kids. Kids, including very young ones, are very widely treated worse than the family dog when it comes to training/teaching them to behave. That needs to change.In fact, in all states it's legal for parents to use significant force in corporal punishment for autistic kids, and in many states its legal for schools to use corporal punishment on autistic kids without their parents permission. In this context, wouldn't it be better to focus on abolishing ABA and also abolishing corporal punishment of kids, rather than trying to stop a show that seems a bit gimmicky is dedicated to providing parents an alternative to corporal punishment?


  2. PSFirst, to cite my sources on corporal punishment of disabled kids (I hit my character limit above), I wanted to say that overall I really like your blog and appreciate the good work you do. I just think in this instance the focus of that work is misguided.


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