The Table Game

by | Nov 1, 2019

I designed this game in 2000 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 25 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!



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Key Reading

What Words Conceal

The language across all kinds of media paints a picture of dogs and our relationships with them.

Location is Their Cue

We begin teaching the dog to go to a target, such as a mat or platform and in this process our focus is on the outcome – the dog can place feet on the object or settle down. But at the same time this learning is happening the dog is also noting the location: where this is happening in this room, in the house, relative to the food-machine (you).

Cue Seeking is Connection

Connection is very individual and to be authentic we have to observe, slow down, understand our dogs and meet them where they are.

The Right Bed in the Right Spot

Resting and sleeping are not necessarily the same state. Good sleep where we feel safe and comfortable is important for us all.

Play Health Check

When we look at play or food delivery as an ACTIVITY we share the same mindset as the dog: is there pleasure to be experienced?

Since the Dawn of Dog Training

The old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right” and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

Back to Basics?

The word “basic” is often derided as synonymous with “shallow,” but in its origins it is the very opposite: foundational, profound, supportive.

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

Do you see what I see

Doing better is the reward from doing the work. This work needs to be the right work at the right time with the right intent done in the right way.

Top Training

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

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