#NVC Meets Clicker Training: Needs and Reinforcers – Part 1

Writing, clicker training, and nonviolent communication (NVC) are my passions. For several months I have wanted to write a series on how NVC and clicker training overlap (thus combining all three passions) but I keep being too busy — with, guess what? Yeah. All of the above. I’ve been co-organizing an NVC telesummit that started Monday, Nov. 5!* When I do these things, it tends to use all my spoons. I made an attempt at cohosting the first call, but it was too much for me, so I’ve gone behind the scenes again. I’m better at the writing and brainstorming and promo stuff, I think.

Anyway, the more I study nonviolent communication (NVC), the more I love it. This has also been true for me with clicker training. The more I learn of both, the more obvious it becomes how I can apply the underlying principles of both to virtually everything in my life, and I find it fascinating to see how they bleed into each other.**

It’s not surprising I would see these synergies, because this is where my energy is going, but since I haven’t yet met anyone else who is passionate about both applied behaviorism and NVC, I haven’t had anyone to share these exciting little bursts of insight with. That’s where you come in!

I have heard from a couple of NVC people, and a couple of clicker people, that they’re interested in this topic, so I will take a stab at it. The most encouraging response was when I explained the difference between “splitting and lumping” to an NVC practice group facilitator, encouraging her to “split” more in her teleclasses. She later told me that that had been a useful tip which supported her in her role as facilitator. Since clicker training is basically a form of pedagogy, this shouldn’t astonish me, but I’m still always surprised when I pass a tidbit along to someone who isn’t already a clicker enthusiast and they tell me, “It worked!”

DISCLAIMER! I am not a professional in either field. I have no certifications or degrees or licenses. In both areas, I am an enthusiast, a dedicated amateur (though I’ve been clicker training much longer than studying NVC). I strongly encourage you to ask questions, to challenge me, to tell me if you disagree with me — and of course, because I am a believer in positive reinforcement, I also encourage you to share what you like, what makes sense, and where you think you can expand on my ideas. I think these sorts of interchanges — no matter whether they take the form of agreement or disagreement — offer the most potential for juicy learning and cross-pollination of ideas. I hope this will be a wonderful learning opportunity for many people, especially me!

I’m actually going to leave my attempt at defining what NVC or clicker training are, including the purpose of each, till another time. I want to start off with what I see as the basic “unit” of each practice. In NVC language, this would be “needs.” In clicker language, it’s called “reinforcement.”
In this post, I’ll tackle needs. The next post on this topic will take on reinforcement.

Needs – Human Example

Let’s start with needs. NVC holds as a basic tenet that all people have the same basic needs. This list at the Center for Nonviolent Communication is a basic example, though I prefer this PDF by Miki and Arnina Kashtan of BayNVC.
Now I’m going to say something that a lot of NVC practitioners (and other people) might find challenging, but I hope you’ll stick with me anyway. My first NVC teacher and main mentor believes, as do I, that animals have the same basic needs as humans. In other words, those lists I linked to are not just lists of universal human needs; they are cross-species lists of needs. If you’re thinking, “What about bacteria? What about amoebas? I doubt they have most of these needs,” I agree with you. Though I can’t prove it, I think it unlikely that bacteria have a need for companionship or trust or fun. So when I refer to an animal/being in these discussions, I mean “anything with a brainstem that eats,” because that’s Karen Pryor’s definition of an animal that can be clicker trained, and because I think it’s a manageable and reasonable way to define parameters. And yes, that includes humans — people can definitely be clicker trained, though it’s called TAGteaching (mostly because a lot of parents got in a flap when they learned their kids were being taught using a tool “that was for animals!”).
Do ALL animals need everything on the lists I’ve linked to? Maybe not, but then not ALL humans need everything on these lists, either. For example, I know some people who would say “sexual expression” is not a need for them. However, overall these are universal human needs, and enough experiences and science support my belief that they are equally applicable universal needs among social species, such as dogs, horses, parrots, apes, and dolphins, to name just a few. (If you’d like more information on this topic, I recommend For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and in Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, who studied both zoology and behavioral psychology. Although the book is geared to dog lovers, McConnell uses other species as examples as well.)

At any rate, a lot of learning to practice NVC is learning to connect with the basic needs at play in ourselves or in others with whom we’re interacting. This often takes the form of hearing the needs underneath the strategies we are using to try to get those needs met. For example, suppose I’m in an argument with my partner (this is hypothetical — I’m not saying this is an argument I have with my partner, nor that this is the language she’d choose), and she says, “You’ve spent the whole day blogging, and now it’s almost bedtime and you’re still at it! I’ve been waiting for you to watch a movie with me! I rented this DVD so we could have some time together, but you care about that stupid computer more than me!”

If I have my “NVC hat” on (as opposed to losing my head), I might make some guesses as to what my partner is saying her needs are. From an NVC perspective, her need is not to watch a movie because plenty of people and animals don’t care about movies; movie-watching is not an universal need among people. So, what are the possible needs she is asserting? My guesses might be that her needs are for fun, connection, companionship, and knowing she matters.
I might try to find out by asking, “Were you really wanting to have some connection with me tonight? To know that you’re important (matter more to me than my computer)?”
A cartoon of a hippopotamus and a giraffe. The hippo says, "I think that you..." and the giraffe shouts, TELL ME YOUR NEEDS!!! A banner says, Dear Beginners, This is how you can make your partner hate NVC. (Or hate you.)

Painfully true. (Just ask Betsy.)

Another cartoon by Sven Hartenstein

If she says, “Well, yes, I do want to spend time with you, but I also am just really sick of work, and I can’t understand why you aren’t! We spend all day on our computers, and now I’ve got this movie we’ve been waiting to see, and I want to watch it! Don’t you?”
From this, I think probably her primary need is fun (play, relaxation, enjoyment) and secondarily also some companionship in having fun. So, watching the movie with me (or by herself, or with someone else) might meet her needs, but so also might other forms of play, relaxation, or enjoyment, such as playing cards or backgammon or doing something fun with the dog or with someone else. So I might agree to watch the movie with her, or if I want to keep working, I might empathize with her need for fun and ask if she’d be willing to watch it without me — if that would still be fun and relaxing for her? And we’d go from there. Her needs have been identified, however. (My needs will be in another post in the future!)

Needs – Canine Example

Now I’m going to apply the same scenario to a dog! (Note: Because I have more experience with behavior in dogs than in any other nonhuman species, my examples will usually be dogs, but I encourage people with birds, horses, llamas, rats, etc., to comment with questions or examples.)
I’m blogging away at my computer, and Barnum starts barking. (This IS a real example which happened while I was writing this post, so I used our interaction as an experiment.) He’s looking out the window when he barks. Barking is no more a universal need among dogs than movie-watching is among people. Don’t believe me? My first service dog (same breed) never barked, even when a stranger approached the house. So, what is the need underneath the behavior here? First, I’ll tell you what I think he was “saying,” before I tell you what needs I guessed. I guessed he was saying, “I see someone in the yard, and I want you to know that they’re there!”
Back of Barnum's head and back as he looks out the window towards a green, leafy view outside.

What’s that?!

Note that there appears to be an extra step here: I am interpreting Barnum’s dog language into human words. This is a difference between communicating with most animals and most humans; humans are more likely to be able to use language we think we understand to interpret into needs. However, we often rely too much on language, thinking we know what another person is saying when we don’t, and we tend to ignore obvious (body) language from nonhuman animals about what they are saying. There are many times I know quite clearly what a dog is saying to me, while I can have a long, drawn-out discussion or argument with a person before I have a facepalm moment and say, “Ohhhh, so you mean X?!” Sometimes I’m not sure what Barnum (or another dog) is saying to me, and sometimes I am.
With either species, the process is basically the same: You make guesses and see how they land. With a dog, you often need to use a strategy to make a guess because just asking the dog, “Are you wanting X?” doesn’t always work. (Note: Except when it does. Many dogs know words for toy/ball, play, eat, dinner, car, walk, out, etc. Barnum knows the words “train” and “training,” and I try to use care about saying them in his hearing because he can get very disappointed if training is not forthcoming when he thinks it is.) Anyway, aside from these obvious examples, you usually “ask” a dog what they want by beginning a strategy that you think will meet their need and see how they react to it.
In this case, if I think Barnum is saying, “Pay attention! Intruder alert!” I’m likely to guess that Barnum’s need is communication, contribution, and safety. In other words, he wants to communicate to me that one or both of us might need to handle the danger of a stranger coming to our home; he wants to contribute to me by letting me know this. So I would probably thank Barnum for barking, ask him to be quiet, and treat him for remaining quiet while I look out the window or go to the door to see who’s outside. Looking out the window is partly for my own peace of mind and partly to convey to him that I have heard his alert and am taking it seriously — that he has communicated successfully to me his concern for our safety.
Suppose I do this and I see . . . nobody! Which is what happened! Either I guessed wrong or there was a dog, neighbor, or other “disturbance” he saw, heard, or smelled (perhaps in our neighbor’s yard) that I didn’t see. So, I went back to my work (this blog). As with my human partner, my initial guess was not entirely correct, but I’m still open to more information.
A few minutes later, Barnum — who was looking out the window again — barked again. Obviously what I did before did not meet his needs. I’m going to make a new set of guesses. I watch him for a few seconds and notice that his bark and body posture are a bit different from when he is truly alarm barking. I also catch him glancing at me a couple of times between barks.
I decided that actually Barnum is probably thinking, “I’m bored! She’s been staring at the computer all day, but last time I barked, she paid me some attention and moved away from the computer. If I keep barking, she will probably pay attention to me by telling me to be quiet, and I might even get a treat if I am quiet, and then I can do it again!”
Barnum lying on Sharon's bed with his chin on her computer keyboard in her lap.

Are you STILL on the computer?

I made a different set of guesses about his needs. I guessed Barnum might have needs for stimulation, play, challenge, purpose, connection, or companionship. Possible strategies to meet these needs include: physical affection (ear rubs, belly rubs, butt scritches), play (tug, fetch, chase), a puzzle toy (Buster Cube, treat ball, Kong), or training — which engages body and mind and usually is his favorite strategy for meeting needs of connection, creativity, purpose, challenge, stimulation, learning, and movement, among others.***
I decided to leave training as a last resort for three reasons: 1. It’s what I usually use, and I wanted to experiment. 2. I wanted to finish this post, and training can use up a lot of my physical and mental energy. 3. Training meets so many of Barnum’s needs that it would be harder to distinguish which specific needs were successfully being met by the strategy of training (normally not something I care about, but for the purposes of this experiment, I wanted to try to figure it out).
Then I actually tested this out while I was writing this post. I didn’t start with petting because Barnum rarely wants petting except first thing in the morning or last thing at night. (It’s a Bouvier thing.) I was also interpreting his body language as requesting more active engagement than passively receiving physical affection. So, I moved to the edge of my bed, got a plush squeaky toy and threw it for him. (The spider that quacks like a duck!)
Huggles Seat-Belt Spider

It actually looks creepier in real life. And it sheds!

He was not that interested at first, but then when I made it clear I would play with him (by voice and body language), he got it, and we played some version of tug/fetch/chase. Much to my surprise, when we started playing this way, he came over all wiggly and pressed himself against me. I took that as a request for petting, which is a delicious and rare treat for me (mutually reinforcing, AKA meeting needs for physical affection and connection for both of us). I vigorously rubbed his back and sides and scratched his butt, then he happily bounded over to pounce on his toy. We played some more, during which he requested scritches one more time, and then he got bored.

At this point, I could have decided his needs were probably met. Clearly he HAD had a need for connection with me, including physical affection, and I was touched by that. He’d had some fun, but my guess was that he had not had enough stimulation, play, and similar needs satisfied. If I went back to the computer, he might go back to looking out the window and maybe barking. Even if he didn’t, he might still have these unmet needs but just suffer in silence.
I thought it was likely that his needs for mental engagement (stimulation, challenge, play, whatever you want to call them), were still unmet. Again, I wanted to see if something other than training would work for him. I gave him a previously stuffed IQ Treat Ball set to a high difficulty level. He immediately began pushing it around my room, trying to get the kibble to fall out.
Two hard plastic balls, one blue, one orange. Each has a transparent hemisphere and then a divider inside with an opaque hemisphere below. There is a hole in the divider that can be adjusted in size, and the transparent hemishere has one hole in it as well.

Can be made difficult or  easy to get treats out by rolling

This might seem like a strategy for meeting a need for food, but I have often found that Barnum prefers a food-dispensing toy to easily-accessed food. For example, once when I was leaving the house, I left him a raw knuckle bone and the Buster Cube to occupy himself. Betsy came back into the house because she’d forgotten her hat and saw that he was ignoring the knuckle bone completely — normally a high-value food reward — in favor of the Buster Cuber, with its lower value kibble, because the reinforcement of working to get the food out was so much better. In other words, in that case, his need for challenge or work was greater than his need for eating or chewing.
Barnum pushed the ball around my room until either it was empty or it got stuck under my bed (or maybe both — he’s pretty good at getting toys and treats out from under furniture) and then went to his crate and took a nap. I decided his needs for connection and activity had been met, and now he had a desire for peace, rest, or space.
Barnum sleeping on the bed, Sharon's bare foot in the foreground.

Goodnight, everybody.

Future posts on NVC and clicker training may cover some of these similarities:
  • Opposition to punishment
  • Splitting
  • Assumption of innocence
  • Observation
  • Separating behaviors from intent
  • Focusing on the moment, not guessing stories
  • “Respect the organism”/Recognizing that the other has needs
  • Asking for what you want, not what you don’t want
Please let me know what you think of this topic!
– Sharon and Barnum, SD/SDiT
Notes:
*I’ve decided not to post my NVC events here from now on because I think you’re probably not that interested in that. But if you do want to be on my mailing list for NVC events I’m helping to organize, drop me a line and I’ll add you to my email list. If you want to read the blog posts I’ve been writing on this, they’re at Mair Alight’s blog, where I’ve been putting up information on the telesummit.
**I’m also clear on a couple of very fundamental principles in each practice that seem to clash as theory. From the clicker side, I anticipate the argument, “But we can get the behavior we want without needing to know WHY it’s occurring,” and yes, this is often true, and it is often true that it helps a lot to know the need behind the behavior in the first place to prevent it or to influence it. From the NVC side, I anticipate two major arguments: 1. That animals aren’t people, and 2. that clicker training (and behaviorism in general) is used to elicit behavior, which is “manipulation.” Indeed, the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, refers to “manipulation” as a form of violence specifically stating “that would include any use of punishment and reward.” I think actually both science and experience can show that, in practice, these are complementary, not antagonistic, approaches. I definitely plan to delve more deeply into these issues later. You might get some ideas of where I’m heading if you read Rosenberg’s article, “Praise versus Encouragement.”
***Note to trainers concerned that I’m reinforcing an undesirable behavior chain: I asked for a down-stay then worked at the computer for a short time before the next step to break the behavior chain of bark-cued quiet-reward for quiet.
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15 Responses to “#NVC Meets Clicker Training: Needs and Reinforcers – Part 1”


  1. 1 Giselle Scull Monroe (@megangiselle) November 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    I find both these topics, and their use in conjunction with each other, fascinating.

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler November 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Giselle. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. 3 brilliantmindbrokenbody November 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    Wow, that article on praise was awesome. I have never been able to explain how tremendously hard it was for me to deal with the absence of praise as a child, especially in my teens. And as I read that article, that is a big part of how praise can be violent. If you have a piece to hand specifically about managing that with children, I would really love to read it and share it with my parents. I think it would go a long way to explain to them why my sister and I had/have such damaged relationships with my father. Thanks!

  4. 4 fridawrites November 11, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    I learned a lot from this post–I’ll be coming back to think about how to implement the many ideas and to reinforce myself (I have memory issues).

    I was really interested in the info on barking; my dog barks outside when he hears people, even very far away when they’re no problem for us and can’t be near us. I think maybe he wants me out there with him more. I can’t always be (heat intolerance, anaphylactic mosquito allergy), but that may be part of it.

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler November 12, 2012 at 12:12 am

    I don’t have anything to hand, no, but you might find some of Marshall Rosenberg’s other writings and videos (search on youtube for Marshall Rosenberg NVC or Nonviolent Communication — he and other NVC practitioners have some great videos).

    One thing that article reminded me of was a psychology study I read about. Two groups of five-year-olds were each given an impossible task to do. Individually, an adult would ask a kid to try to do this thing and the kid would attempt and struggle to do it, not knowing it couldn’t be done. In one group, the kids were told how smart they were as a way of encouragement. In the other group, the kids were praised for how hard they were trying. What they found was that the kids who were told how smart they were felt much worse, got much more upset than the kids who were encouraged about how they were really giving it a try. The second group had much better bounce back.

    This study really made a big impact on me. Here’s how I interpret it: Being told you’re smart (or pretty or talented, etc.) is a judgment, and it’s not something you can do anything about, and it carries a weight of expectation and stress, because what if you stop BEING that thing? It’s not about what you’re doing, it’s a judgment of who you ARE. If you’re told you’re smart, and you still fail, does that mean you’re not really smart after all?

    Being praised (or encouraged, whatever) for trying hard, on the other hand, is something you can feel good about, take strength from, because it’s something you can DO, no matter what the circumstance. You can always try, and if you fail, it doesn’t judge your level of tryingness. Who you are is not being judged or evaluated, only what you’re doing. So, if you are praised for the PROCESS and not the result, you can still hold your head high if you “fail” because it wasn’t really a fail, because you succeeded in trying hard!

    I’m curious if this resonates at all with you in terms of your question about “managing praise with children”? Or is at all relevant to what you were saying about praise in your upbringing?

    P.S. What I try to do now, when working with any human (and I don’t always remember/succeed, but I am TRYING when I remember! 😉 — I am realizing I pay much more attention to this with children than with adults, and I want to change that, because we all need the same kind of thing, basically) is to specifically say WHAT I like about this or that thing. e.g., “The yard looks so much better now that you have cleared away all the dead leaves. I feel safer about having fewer ticks around with the leaf debris not next to the house,” versus, “Great job with the yard!”

    I know feedback/praise/encouragement always are much more meaningful to me if the person is specific about the thing they liked and why they liked it.

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler November 12, 2012 at 12:30 am

    I didn’t really get into strategies here for dogs barking outside, per se. That’s a training issue, and this was more theoretical.

    Do you know CK and Max? CK has a great protocol for what she used to stop her three dogs from barking — two rescue doxies who were the main barkers and also her adopted GSD, Max, who is now her SD.

    The problem with a dog barking outside and you’re inside is that barking is self-reinforcing for most dogs, and you can’t really do much to influence the behavior if you’re not there. So, it’s both a maintenance and a training issue. I had this problem with Gadget when I got very sick with Lyme and was in my room and couldn’t call him or cue him verbally, and he was out in the living room barking out the window.

  7. 7 fridawrites November 12, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I’m not familiar with CK and Max–I’ll look them up. Often I’m at the table just inside the kitchen door. That’s why I’m thinking that it’s also an attention getter–he does want me outside throwing the balls, and not inside throwing them. You’re definitely right about barking being self-reinforcing. Since we have neighbors who are close, we always bring him in when he starts, as his bark is very loud.

    I love the needs list–I’m thinking of printing this and putting on fridge after discussing some of these ideas w/family.

  8. 8 brilliantmindbrokenbody November 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Makes sense to me. I was identified as being in the top fraction of a percent intelligence-wise at a young age, though I was in my twenties before I knew that. I was praised a lot for intelligence, which i suspect was why lack of praise and even disappointment expressed about my scholastic performance was devastating. My sister is not as smart as I, and put in pretty similar effort (or lack thereof) into school, and her relationship with my dad is/was worse than mine. I at least could bring home high test scores to get approval and praise. She got less of that than I did when we were in our teens, I think.

  9. 9 Sharon Wachsler November 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    BTW, there is a way you can train barking and not barking by combining it — putting both on cue — teaching quiet and bark in the same sessions. Karen Pryor describes it in Reaching the Animal Mind.

    I started this with Barnum as a puppy, and I’ve overall been successful with it; he is not a barker, and he had the potential in a big way. He is mostly NOT barky. I say mostly just cuz I haven’t finished training it. I started with him mostly training him not to bark, and then when I thought the danger had passed of him becoming a barker, I started to put it on cue, and now we’re in a “testing out the barking” phase (see below). (An extinction burst.)

    The method I used w/Barnum takes a lot of care, planning, and attention to detail because since barking is self-reinforcing, you have to factor that in. *Especially* because anytime you teach a new behavior, the dog will offer the behavior sometimes before it’s on cue. So that means while you’re in process, the dog will probably increase the amount of barking — occasionally trying out the barking to see if it will be rewarded — so you have to be prepared for that and jump on it fast and stop it from becoming self-reinforcing.

    Some people just train the dog not to bark or to bark less, but I like to have a bark on cue so I can use barking as part of a service skill, if needed. I think CK’s solution is great and probably more what you need if you’re trying to decrease barking in general or particular situations. I’ll ask CK to drop by or find CK’s blog….

  10. 10 fridawrites November 13, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Yes, I prefer it to be on cue so he can bark for help or to alert someone I need in a business when I can’t get in and there’s no other way, etc. The family should prob. spend some time outside together waiting for him to do it, as it’s physically difficult for me to work w/him on this since he barks away from me.

  11. 11 fridawrites November 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    He’s not a big barker in general and is often quiet–he’s just been barking more to either alert us or warn others away. But he already communicates that someone’s out there, so not necessary most of the time. Now if someone’s at my gate or in my driveway, that’s a different story.

    He never barked as a puppy–never–once or twice in the first 10 mo. or so. He’s never barked in public, thank goodness, and seems to be well aware that he can communicate with me in other ways there.

    Because we have had break-ins at our home, I need to be careful about how I do this. My border collie was not a barker until this happened–part of the problem. Now he will.

    But when it’s the same people, same routine stuff, yeah, I want him to quiet. At least bringing him inside helps (he’s not barking to come in, though, wants to be out).

    Thanks for giving me more ideas.

  12. 12 Eileen November 14, 2012 at 12:46 am

    Oh Sharon this is very fun. Been meaning to look into NVC. This is a great intro for those of us who are curious but unfamiliar. Don’t you love when your passions link like this? I am looking forward to more.

    I wanted to share a little nugget I recently learned. You mentioned about Barnum preferring to engage with a puzzle toy than to eat something high value. In Susan Friedman’s LLA class I learned that this is not uncommon, and that there is a scientific term for it. It is called contra-freeloading and has been observed in many species. In the class we saw a video of a squirrel passing up an open bowl full of peanuts in order to work to get a peanut out of a mechanical gizmo. I see it with my dogs with the Manners Minder (full of kibble while I have meat in my hand). Her point about it is how wired animals, including humans, are to “work” for food. And of course we see it with clicker training when we are lucky enough to have a food motivated dog.

    Thanks again for this post.

  13. 13 Björn Tikkanen (@BjornTikkanen) March 26, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Your site, thinking and writing feels very interesting to me! Would love to read the follow up blog posts.

    I have started to write some about this (some of the topics at least) as well in a try to sum up my thoughts on how I want to use “agile software development” and clicker training as an enabler to make people and their dogs happier. Free to download from https://leanpub.com/clickeragilebook (working on new version right now, to be updated soon).
    I have also been thinking a lot about NVC and might have more on that in later versions of the booklet, but have not yet used it myself to the extent so that I can really write about it.

  14. 14 Sharon Wachsler March 26, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Bjorn. Thanks for your comment. I took a look at your booklet. This is timely! I recently read a post by one of my favorite dog bloggers about how a video game is very successful because the developers used applied behaviorism to create the game and to study how effective it was at getting players and keeping them. Here’s the post: http://caninesinaction.com/2011/11/angry-birds-and-behavior-or-how-to-train-your-pet-like-an-addictive-casual-video-game/

  15. 15 Björn Tikkanen (@BjornTikkanen) March 30, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I’m glad to hear that, Sharon. I will take a look at the link, I see more and more areas where these soft, non-violent and free will based methods can help us improve the world. And why don’t start with our dog or with angry birds? 🙂


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