How to Get What You Want

woof with words

By Joan Orr MSc and Anne Wormald MADS

She never listens! He’s lazy. She’s not smart enough. He has ADD. She’s from a single parent family. He’s stubborn. She’s a Libra. He’s got special needs. She’s too smart. His dad’s a lawyer. Her mom is a feminist. He’s from Boston.

There are lots of labels and excuses to explain why people don’t do what you want. Let’s just put all those aside for now and think about the most important thing. Which of course is you getting what you want. Sometimes you need others to act in order for you to get what you want and sometimes it is you who needs to act.

The internet knows that the way to get stuff done is to set goals and work on one small thing at a time. Look it up. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and all that other irrefutable wisdom. Productivity experts agree that we need to break big tasks into smaller ones. Ironically the instruction “break it down” is itself ill-defined. It is particularly vexing for people with no training in behavior analysis to come up with goals that are easily achievable and upon success can be reinforced. This is the reason that most New Year’s resolutions have failed by the end of January (if not sooner). Most people want to do too much at once in order to save time, but the result is that everything takes longer, seems increasingly impossible and is more frustrating for all involved.

In this article we’ll describe an approach developed as part of the TAGteach method for goal setting that’s simple enough to explain to parents and non-professionals, while being a powerful tool for everyone. TAGteach involves a set of procedures derived directly from B.F. Skinner’s original work.(1)

The WOOF Approach

WOOF is an acronym for the four criteria for a goal that is clear, precise, consistent and easy for the learner to understand, remember and implement. By “goal” here, we mean the small sub-goal that is a precursor to the big goal. The end result of the WOOF planning process is a behavior goal that can be easily achieved, observed and reinforced, and which results in the goal setter being closer to the final big goal.

Here are the four criteria for an attainable goal:

What you Want – phrase the goal in positive terms

One thing – ask for only one thing at a time

Observable – the behavior can be observed and counted

Five words or less – the goal is stated succinctly

1. What You Want

The behavior goal is phrased using positive language to describe what you want the learner (yourself or another person) TO do. For example:

I want my child to stop running around, would become: I want my child to be still.

I don’t want him to drop towels on the floor would become: I want him to hang up the towel.

2. One Thing

The behavior has only one component. This is very difficult for people! It is natural to want to do several things at once so as to get to the end goal faster. Multitasking makes the brain work less efficiently, so it follows that it makes sense to work on one new thing at a time.(2,3) 

Studies have shown that interruptions of as little as 4.4 seconds tripled the error rate in a sequenced task (4) and people who are heavy media multitaskers actually perform worse when tested for the ability to switch tasks.(5)

You may think you are a whiz at multitasking. Check out this link for a test from Psychology Today that will let you discover the sad truth about this.

In any effective teaching situation, the teacher reinforces success right away. If there is more than one component of the goal behavior and the learner only gets one part correct, the teacher is left wondering whether to reinforce. The learner never knows whether absence of reinforcement means that they got one or more parts incorrect, or which parts they got right or wrong. They begin to think more about what they might have done wrong, than what they are doing right.

Here’s a video that gives an example of what we call multi-nagging. The coach gives the athlete several instructions at once. See if you can name all the things she is supposed to remember after watching the video once. How many times do you have to watch it to remember all the parts? Watch the body language of the athlete (one of the authors in younger days!). She shows signs of becoming overloaded with information and eventually she just walks away.

In a scenario like this, the learner will do her best, but will likely only remember one or two things and will pick one herself to focus on. It would be much better for the coach to be the one to choose the point of focus to be sure that the athlete masters the most important aspect first. The coach can change the focus once each piece is mastered.

3. Observable

The behavior goal is observable, so that the learner and teacher both know when it is met. You must be able to see it happen so that you can reinforce at the exact right moment. Again, this seems simple and obvious at first glance, but it actually requires forethought, imagination and subject matter knowledge to define observable goals.

As an example, say you’re a baseball coach and you’re working on batting skills. The end goal may be to hit a home run. You can easily see the ball flying over the fence, but this isn’t a behavior. This is the result of a behavior. The ball going over the fence was caused by a series of muscle movements performed by the hitter. In order to influence the behaviors that result in the home run, the reinforcement must come during one of those muscle movements.

Examples of observable behavior goals that a baseball coach could work on one at a time could include:

  • feet shoulder width apart
  • transfer weight to forward foot
  • swing through the ball

Here’s another example. Say you’re a teacher and want your learners to write neatly. This is vague and there isn’t likely to be agreement in the mind of the learner and the teacher about what this means. In order to define an observable goal you need to ask yourself, “what does neat writing look like? What are the characteristics of neat writing?” It may be that the bottom of the letters are all on the line, the tops of the letters reach to the top line, the letters slant in a consistent way etc. An observable goal along the way to teaching neat writing could be, pen touches line.

General goals such as run faster, jump higher, get more exercise, stop smoking and be polite are too vague and would need to be further defined into observable behavior goals before you could ask a learner (or yourself) to attempt them.

4. Five Words or Less

The last words you say to a learner before they attempt a task are the most important, so make them count! Short verbal cues have been shown to be most effective in skill development.(6) State your goal in five words or less (colloquial language is intentional here) and your learner will have the best chance of understanding, remembering and executing the goal.

At first it may seem that the “five words or less” rule is too limiting. How can you explain everything and tell the learner all the things they need to do in five words? You can give explanations and instructions with more words, but when it comes time for the learner to take their turn, the last things they hear should be the five word goal. That gives them a single point of focus and makes success much more likely. Neither you nor they need to worry about anything else. If there are other parts to the end goal, you can work on those at another time with a goal that is five words or fewer.


So there you have it, the WOOF approach to goal setting. This approach has been used in several published studies, discussed in several books and presented at numerous ABA conferences as part of the development of teaching goals (known as tag points).(7)

The best way to summarize this is to show you an example. Here is a video that illustrates the WOOF in action. In this video the teacher is using a sound marker (a tag) to reinforce after each correct trial. The teacher states the goal to the learner each time using consistent language that meets the WOOF criteria. You don’t need to teach with a marker signal to use the WOOF approach. Any goal setting will benefit from simplified, well-structured goals that are clearly understood by both teacher and learner.


Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about each of the WOOF components and seeing more videos and examples, we have a more detailed article on each of these:

  1. What you want
  2. One thing
  3. Observable
  4. Five words or less

Get a Free WOOF Planner Download

Download a free WOOF Planner to help you and your clients define and track progress on goals that meet the WOOF criteria.

Take a Quiz

Try our quiz! Take a look at each of these goals and indicate which of the WOOF criteria are met.

Click here to take the quiz.


  1. Vargas, J.S. (2009) Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, New York NY. page 12.
  1. The Multitasking Mind (Source: Society for Neuroscience)
  1. Napier, N.K. (2014) The Myth of Multitasking. Psychology Today online. 
  2. Altman, E.M., TRafton, J.G., Hambrik, D.Z. (2014) Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. J Expt Psychol, 143(1):215-226. 
  3. Ophir, E., Nass, C., Wagner, A.D. (2009) Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106(37)15583-15587.
  4. Landin, D. (1994) The Role of Verbal Cues in Skill Learning.QUEST (Journal of the National Association for Physical Education in Higher Education) 46:299-313.
  5. List of references for published studies, books and presentations on TAGteach.

TAG! Not Just Another Game At Camp

TAG at camp

By Karin Coyne and Abigail Curtis DVM

Twelve teenage girls, twelve dogs, four days and three nights. How does one manage that without yelling, nagging or feeling frustrated? Seven years ago, we started a 4-H dog camp along with another friend. Teenagers and their dogs come to camp and try a variety of activities: agility, obedience, tracking, nosework, flyball, and anything else we can imagine. Teaching the activities is the easy part, but how do you manage that many campers and dogs? TAGteach to the rescue!

The first few years of camp, we attempted to use TAGteach based on what we had been able to pick up on the internet and applying the principles of clicker training to people. It went… okay. There were parts that didn’t seem to work and we had a hard time implementing it. The campers still had a good time, but it simply didn’t work as smoothly as we wanted it to.

We Went to a TAGteach Seminar!

Until we went to a seminar. That’s when it all clicked for us. We came out of there simply bursting with ideas. It changed the way we taught, the way we managed campers, and most importantly, it changed the way we THOUGHT.


How to Motivate and Reinforce Teens at Summer Camp

teen camp2

by Kristen VanNess

Reprinted with permission from the KPCT blog

I’m part of a group that runs a 4-H dog camp each summer called The Ohio 4-H Teen Dog Experience. A group of teens from all parts of Ohio spends several days with their dogs and new friends in an intense dog-training environment. Eleven 4-H’ers and their dogs attended the four-day camp in June, 2009.

Kids come from different areas of the state, and have varied experience levels coming into camp. Some campers are from 4-H clubs that do not even offer obedience or agility, and other campers compete extensively outside of 4-H. Most campers belong to clubs that do not use clicker training. However, all of the campers were enthusiastic about dogs, 4-H, and learning how to be a better dog trainer.

Tagging at camp

For several years, we have worked on ways to reinforce the teens attending the dog experience camp. After attending TAGteach seminars and working hard to strengthen our plans for camp learning, things went even better than we expected this summer.


TAGteacher Tale: Helping Animal Shelter Volunteers Have a Great Experience

Train yourshelter volunteerswith TAGteach!

By Marissa Marino

Volunteers are one of my favorite parts about working for animal welfare non-profits. The community that is generated for a single mission can sometimes be astounding. There are a variety of reasons why people engage in volunteer activities. Some people volunteer to give back to their community, others volunteer since they cannot have pets of their own and others hope to develop friendships along the way. One common thread I see is people longing to learn new things and expand themselves.  So let’s give them what they want! My philosophy is to empower volunteers through education in order to develop a dedicated and helpful team for the staff as well as the animals.


Interview with a TAGteacher: Occupational Therapist Mary Handley on Handwriting Instruction

Interview Mary


Check out the latest in our Interview with a TAGteacher series. This time we talked to Mary Handley, a school-based occupational therapist who is working with a 3rd grader to improve his handwriting. Noah’s handwriting skills were not functional and this was affecting his grades and his attitude at school. Mary explains with several video examples how she helped Noah to improve significantly in just four sessions using TAGteach applied with her usual method of teaching.

“At that 4 week point I was amazed beyond my expectations. I knew this would work in the right circumstances, but it worked better than I anticipated. I just don’t see that in my week to week therapy. The retention was pretty amazing. His teachers were amazed. Even the librarian made a comment. This has positively impacted his whole attitude toward school.” – Mary Handley.

Here is a sample of Noah’s handwriting before the intervention. He is so frustrated because he can’t even read it himself that he scribbled it all out.




TAGteacher, You’re My Hero! A Letter Every Teacher and Coach Wishes to Receive

How many tags do I have-

You’re my hero! Wouldn’t you love to hear that from your students? We think you’ll agree that receiving something like this makes all the work, the dedication, the blood, the sweat, the tears and the dealing with the criticism from the doubters completely worth it. This is an essay that 10 year old Irene Kim wrote for a 5th grade assignment. She chose skating coach and TAGteacher Lynn Loar as the subject of her essay. Thank you Irene for sharing your thoughts and shining the light on Lynn, who is an inspiration to all of us.

The Skating Hero

by Irene Kim

I skate freely around the bitter cold ice rink with my hands in my pocket. I glance up and see a bright shiny smile that seems to light up the room. It’s from Lynn, my hero.


Interview with a TAGteacher: TAGteach for Special Needs Tennis

Copy of Interview with a TAGteacher

Have you wondered how to apply TAGteach in a group sports setting with special needs kids? Will it be too noisy for the learner to hear the tags? Will the learner be too distracted by everything else going on the room? How do you handle the reinforcers? Can you use TAGteach to manage behavior and social issues? Do coaches really think that kids taught with TAGteach learn better? Listen to this month’s interview with a TAGteacher and watch the accompanying videos to get answers to these and more questions.


TAGteacher Spotlight: Jane Jackson, Riding Instructor

bookends farm

By Jane Jackson

I was at a clinic with Alexandra Kurland (I had been clicker training horses for many years) when she mentioned that since I taught kids as well as adults, I should try TAGteach. When I asked what that was, she used the following example, “you ask them to keep their position around a 20 meter circle and if they do, then click them and they can go jump the cross rail”. I think my jaw dropped. What a brilliant idea. I remember saying that I could have left the clinic right then and there and I would have gotten my money’s worth (but I’m glad I didn’t because there was more great stuff to come). My mind went wild with the possibilities. I couldn’t wait to get home and try it. Kids love to jump – they don’t like to work on position so much. There was a perfect way to work them together.


TAGteacher Tale: A Winning Approach to Transforming Your Instructor

tennis 32


TAGteacher Joey Iversen has successfully introduced TAGteach to the tennis world, although she said it’s for selfish reasons. “I want to be the best tennis player I can be and that will happen faster if my coach uses TAGteach!”

“I explained a few of the tools to my coach Grant Grinnell (USPTA) and he was willing to give it a shot. After just a few tries, he was totally sold on the value of TAGteach and the powerful learning it facilitates. He commented that there was more improved play in my game within a single lesson. He also noticed that although it was easier to get information to me with the marker, it also required a different focus. In a group lesson he is usually trying to take in what each of the players is doing. To tag me for the skill, he had to momentarily keep his focus on just me or he would miss the marker timing. Both of us had complete focus and that brought about immediate improvement.”


Riding Instructors: Boost Student Success with These Three Critical Steps



By Jane Jackson

Once I had a student come to me late in the season, having missed some of the lessons due to an injury. She was a pre-teen, self-conscious about her weight and worried about her sore leg. I had lots more to deal with here than just teaching riding skills! I needed to help her boost her confidence, overcome her fear, and proceed slowly and carefully.

In my pursuit of excellence for myself and my students, I discovered TAGteach. TAGteach is a leading edge science-based teaching approach used in many disciplines, including training for elite orthopedic surgeons (as reported by Scientific American). This teaching approach will add many effective new tools to your tool box and provide you with ways of becoming a better instructor. TAGteach helps elite surgeons learn faster and better and it can help you teach your students faster and better too. It certainly prepared me to better help learners like my stressed out pre-teen student.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You tell the student the goal (a very narrow and specific action for the next turn)
  2. You mark the correct action with a sound (a click sound or a word)
  3. The student self-assesses based on this very clear and immediate feedback

The first three (of many) things which pop into my head when I think about how TAGteach will help you expand as a instructor are:

  1. Improving your observation skills
  2. Encouraging you to break skills down into manageable pieces
  3. Improving your timing in reinforcing successes effectively

Find out more in this 1 hour webinar with Level 2 TAGteacher and riding instructor, Jane Jackson. For less than $20 you will get knowledge to change your life. Money back satisfaction guarantee!

Tell me more about the Webinar