The Table Game

by | Nov 1, 2019 | Klog | 3 comments

The Table Game

by | Nov 1, 2019 | Klog | 3 comments

10 min read

To think - coming up to 20 years since I designed this game for my college students in computing - to improve communication!

Who knew it would become a future piece of technology for (dog training and) behaviour world!

... and cruises of course


The original game was based on Lego bricks only.

Two players, each had the identical set of bricks. They would sit facing at a table - I think today they could be anywhere in the world with a video link - but a piece of card blocked the view of each other's set of bricks.

Person A would build something from their bricks, and verbally describe to their partner (Person B) how to construct the same set. The purpose was to develop minimal, and clear, language that was:

~ unambiguous (not "the big green going sideways")
~ accurate (not "second lumpy bit from the top")
~ minimal (dumping fluff and unnecessary junk)

Once the other person had completed, we removed the screen.

hah ... hah ... huh ?????

Once these basic skills were established - visualising the build order, using an agreed terminology (East/West: North/South), "nipples" (🤔 which I gather is a pukka engineering term), we then progressed to taking written notes of the instructions and then seeing if the same accuracy could be achieved.

I do love teaching skills to new learners ......

For college assignments they had to develop written instruction sheets, which needed to be "proven" by other builders, and the skills to develop better language, clearer communications (which was the module) and learning to express in a way that did not include jargon.

The students were going to need skills to talk to other computer nerds - that was easy, but also non-nerds - that was the challenge.

For evidence on this assignment, their instruction builds had to be completed by a person of another generation - in this case, 20 years older.

So then we move to the teaching world of dog trainers - firstly communication with other people, non-nerds with dogs......

For dog trainers of course!

Heaven, or perfect learning, is the opportunity to learn what to do before your dog enters the picture, and to be clear about what you do, how to do it and how to be flexible, step sideways, apply in different situations. Going by the new sexy term “agile learning”, which is not new, just a new brand.

Simply - let's NOT screw up the dogs by learning on them!

So .... to learn the skills of anticipation, which is often mislabelled as "good timing" is through teaching another person through the use of the clicker.

But 20 years ago, the Clicker Game, promoted as the introduction to teaching with a marker, probably harmed its reputation than actually secured more followers. Person A clicked as Person B was moved around the room and shaped to "do things". This was more than likely a total beginner, Person A, not yet able to click effectively to avoid confusion and uncertainty in person B. Person B was then poisoned by this experience.

Hey ... let's sit at a table, with no audience, some Lego bricks, and a few coins for reinforcers?
The perfect learning environment to learn how to set up a high probability of the Person B doing something that we could click - put a toy car on the table, and nothing else, and they are likely to push it. Click. This builds the skills to anticipate a behaviour, in jargon terms “antecedent arrangement” - which is far easier person-to-person, than dog-to-person. We then learn to click and deliver a reinforcer.

But how did they push the car?

Which hand, one finger?

Where did they push it, did it only go forwards?

We begin to see the potential behaviours we can shape ... we begin to see how to use placement of other objects to encourage this behaviour to be shaped in a specific direction.

Are we guiding ? How much guidance do we give ..... or are we leaving the learner to self-teach with no guidance?
Now we can anticipate when to click, and also when to not click - not sure which is more important. With our little car zooming up and down the table we can begin to think about cues - what they are and what we add them to and how we add them.

The concept of "a cue" is tricky. Dogs can recognise that under these conditions stuff works, but under those conditions it doesn't. The more significant the conditions, the more likely the dog is to notice, consider it relevant and come to the conclusions we are looking for.

But too often a "word" as a cue is of little significance. So in teaching the game I think it valuable that the learner experiences minor changes in conditions to realise what is a cue for success, and what to do when it is not present.
BIG step for the dog, even BIG aha moment when you are learning it as a learner.

We have our car chundering around - but if we add a cue, what is it a cue for?

~ the finger on the car
~ the pushing of the car
~ the direction of the car
~ the stopping of the car


So I build an avenue around the car - more Lego bricks. The car now goes up and down the avenue, backwards and forwards to earn a click and coin. Whilst this is happening I add two cues - one to represent the car, one to represent the action. Later I will isolate the directions, East/West, turning and stopping. I replace the car with another object, a mini-bucket, give one cue (which signified "push") and a new cue. But the avenue is still there.

"Where's my car gone?" can be expressed, silently, with many different ways of looking, sitting and sighing. Then the mini-bucket is pushed backwards and forwards.

Now we learn that the cues are for actions or objects.

Now we have syntax.

Now we can change objects, and introduce new actions.

Then we can think about directions .......


Anyone want a game?

What is our experience?

Just as doing a task is not the same as learning a task, experiencing the learning process is not the same as observing the learning process. Experiencing and learning skills of puzzle solving are unique to each individual - person, dog, chicken.

When puzzling through why an action is successful, but the same action 20 seconds later is not, is a challenge. Your mind needs to be "up" for that challenge, if not you would give up. You may be tired, it may be one puzzle too far - this will show in the body language.

What we see is the person sit back in the chair, put their hands on their lap and their eyes roving over everything that could provide information. Lots of blinking and sighing. Observing this body language is a key part of the process when learning how to teach. Do you assist at this point? Go back a step? or Go for a walk?

The engaged learner is going to be sitting forward, eyes absorbing all information. They are likely to keep repeating the same actions, but perhaps slowing down to allow for observation time. Will your dog do this? Absolutely. Then we see the puzzle solved, the actions begin to speed up, and the understanding of what is a cue is solved.

This is a REALLY SIGNIFICANT moment for that learner. So precious, and it is the right of that learner to experience it. It will never be forgotten.

Learning to puzzle solve is a skill, and a teacher should guide their learner through the process, providing new scenarios for them to apply their skills. Often these scenarios are a lateral step of expansion not a linear step of increased difficulty. This is where confidence is built, this is where the skills are applied to new situations.

This is a key learning skill for ALL learners. Not sit, down, come, touch.

This game is a valuable experience for learner and teacher and everyone should have experience in both roles. Experience of poor teaching is as valuable as much as experience of good teaching. Good teaching will leave the learner enthused, satisfied, confident and "expanded" !

What the game can bring is an opportunity to share the experience, the thought processes, and collaborate between players to improve our teaching to those who cannot share - the dogs, horses, cats, pigeons, chickens, mice.

..... and look, we move away from computers, phones and interact with people and wine!

Go Table Games!


If you would like a copy of the original booklet published on 2004 you can download the pdf here.

Here is a series of videos that give you some idea of how it may help your understanding of training:


  1. Iris Maxfield

    Interested in how this actually plays out when linking the learning to dogs, I understand whats said above.

    “For college assignments they had to develop written instruction sheets, which needed to be “proven” by other builders, and the skills to develop better language, clearer communications (which was the module) and learning to express in a way that did not include jargon”

    I admit to being full of jargon (especially if I lose a word “thingamajig” replacing platform could be my plaster)

    But we communicate by giving of ourselves when training too, very often with out being conscious of what we give out. I see the link there to the above explanation of the game, in as being aware of what is being communicated.
    I also think for me that it links putting random objects on the floor, sitting in a chair and just leaving the dog to work it out, do something, which spells out frustration to me, watching the video, the moves are very clinical with no expression.

    Would like to understand more about that, thinking on the lines that the people playing the game understand the rules already, but applying the game to animal training, they don’t get to read the rules.
    I did try it once many years ago when it was first out a friend did a workshop day and this was part of the afternoon.

    As a “game” it looks interesting, I can imagine its fun, especially if the person with the marker is given a set route of behaviours to a conclusion on folded paper once sat in the chair, opposite the learner/subject.

    I’m seeing it as a “raising the cognitive skills” game. Would that be a fair/unfair description?

    • Kay

      “the moves are very clinical with no expression.”

      I think that is often the outward appearance when you are concentrating very hard on getting something “right”, and worrying deeply about not getting it “wrong”.

      Even when training a non-human species, part of the teaching is to be able to be emotionally supportive but not overwhelming, or cheer leading the learn step-by-step. That occasional sucking of breathe, a sigh at the wrong moment and the learner stop puzzle solvingand begins to seek approval. A computer, with no emotional support is often the better teacherwhen it is a skill we need to teach ourselves.

      But that computer can also break down the criteria if there is too long a gap between success …….

      I would not recommend you shape towards a set outcome, but rather you shape the skills of learning and the skills of teaching. A fixed outcome “line all the toys in a row” is more likely to lead to disappointment with non-achievement, but “teach the principle of targets” is open to adapt to both learner and teacher.

  2. Iris Maxfield

    Be interested to hear from others that have played the game, how they related the game to the training they were doing, and any light bulb moments had while playing.


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