Category Archives for "trainer stories"
I’ve been assisting with a puppy class for the last few months and we often get questions from dog owners after class about “other equipment” they could use to solve problems. Most of the questions are about heeling, “What magic piece of equipment can I buy that will stop my dog from pulling me down the street?” This past week was no different. A woman with an adorable 4 month old lab asked about choke chains. Since the lead trainer was right there, I just answered, “I train differently,” and stepped aside for the trainer to answer the question. It’s not my class, so it wasn’t the time or the place to discuss my “equipment.”
My quick, blurted response started me thinking. I do train differently. I train differently from most of the trainers I know, I train differently from most of the trainers I see on TV or who write books, and I train differently from how I trained 20, 10 and 5 years ago.
The “equipment” I use is a clicker. The definition of “clicker training” is, “Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it.” It sounds simple, and it is, but the click is so much more than a marker for desirable behavior. It is an agreement between the animal and the trainer, “I’ll be good.” The animal will be “good” by giving a behavior and the trainer will be “good” by giving the animal something it wants. This is a purely mechanical skill. You don’t need to have a relationship with the animal for it to work.
The click turns into so much more when you do have a relationship with the animal. It becomes language, trust, giving, sharing, and joy at spending time together. It’s also incredibly addicting, like two really good friends that can finish each others sentences. You want to spend more time with that person because you “click.” But, we shouldn’t forget that we are having a relationship with a different species; one that has its own instincts, behavior, phases, and learning abilities. Although, when we remember that it’s even more addicting.
Most dog training is based on the Victorian idea of man’s superiority and that humans are obligated to demonstrate that superiority (stuffed head on a wall, anyone?) Humans are at the top of the species chart and all other species should bow to our greatness and allow us to control them. If they don’t allow us, we should make them obey. You can try explaining this to someone training a tiger, elephant or dolphin, but you’ll probably get laughed at. You can’t “correct” something that can smash you or run or swim away. And while that’s a problem that humans are intelligent enough to solve, it doesn’t answer the question about why we’re still clinging to the idea that we have the right to correct animals at all. After all, they have their own instincts, behaviors and learning abilities that have developed by either evolution or God, (you take your pick on which one you follow.) Who are we to say that evolution or God is wrong?
If we look at evolution theory, dogs started hanging out with humans because of our trash. The village trash heap provided freebie food if the animal was willing to leave the comfort of the forest. For those more adventurous animals, if they allowed humans to approach, they’d get the freshest trash. Thus began the long relationship between dogs and humans. It started with the food, but it was built on trust, “If I approach, I’ll get better food and you won’t hurt me.” With a full trash heap, I’m not sure the dogs would have kept approaching if they were hurt by the villagers.
Which brings me back to why I train differently. Correcting dogs breaks that first agreement, “If I approach, you won’t hurt me.” While training is about getting our dogs to fit into our human world (excessive barking is a problem when it’s done 10 feet from a sleeping neighbor and stealing items off the kitchen counter can be deadly,) we need to remember why we have dogs in our lives in the first place – companionship. Would you accept a public scolding or face slap from your best friend for doing something they considered wrong? When I look into the face of a dog getting corrected I see the confusion and despair from the break of trust. Traditional / Leadership training has changed the relationship to, “I’ll endure your corrections to get food.” This may be why we have so many behavior problems with dogs. We’ve confused dogs with weird rules, inconsistent rewards and punishment, and moved them to a state of learned helplessness so they can’t do anything without our permission. When they rebel and try to get something, anything they can control, we correct them more. If we were talking about a relationship between two humans we’d label it “toxic.”
I have 3 dogs and I’m not the “pack leader,” meaning the mantras of “You must eat before your dog,” “Never let your dog go out the door first,” or “Never let your dog sit on you,” don’t exist in my house. I do need to be a teacher. I help them when things are scary, I help them understand that my human world has bad things they need to leave alone, and I help them when we’re playing the “click” game and they’re confused. When a lesson isn’t learned it’s my fault for not explaining it properly or rushing the lessons, which led to confusion. My girls are my best friends, travel companions and partners in crime and I’m thankful for their company, so much so that my praise cue is, “Thank you.”
After getting laid off from my job in August 2012, I was presented with the, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” question. I’d spent 20 years in Corporate America and this was the second layoff in 4 years. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – to be at the mercy of an economy and business I didn’t control. I love training dogs, have put Rally and Obedience titles on some, but you can’t major in Dog Training at your local community college. It doesn’t exist. So I decided to use my severance money to enroll in the Karen Pryor Academy and make the commitment to travel to San Diego every 6 weeks for 6 months.
The format of the Academy is to do the learning modules, essays and quizzes online for 6 weeks, then go to a 2-day workshop for practical education and testing, then move onto the next section and repeat the process. There are 4 workshops, with the last workshop being the two final practical tests. During the 6 weeks of home study you will need to complete approximately 5 essays, train 8 behaviors and score an “A” on 6 multiple choice exams. The behaviors you train are demonstrated at the workshops in front of your instructor and your classmates. Since the training methods work for any animal, you must train a species other than a dog to do two different behaviors before you graduate. The Final Exam is to demonstrate a 10 behavior chain you’ve trained your dog to do (no clicks or rewards in between behaviors,) and a Training Exam, where you’re teaching a complex behavior to a class from hell. Ok, it’s not really that bad, but imagine having three of your worst students integrated into a class of six, that will give you an idea.
Honestly, the most difficult part of the process was finding a second species to train. My friend’s dad offered me his cat, but I had to agree to also teach the cat to stay off the dining room table. After 15 minutes of training the cat to nose touch a target he asked when I was going to start on the dining room table because that was the priority. It was obvious he was looking for a quick fix and wasn’t really open to me spending time experimenting on his cat. I started thinking of animals I could bring into my home that wouldn’t create havoc. One of my dogs is a very effective bird catcher, one is a very effective mouse hunter, one has about six possum kills to her name, and I have a long history of killing fish. After some googling, I decided to try little Red-Clawed Crabs. To cut the story short, do you know they molt? Do you know that before and after they molt they don’t eat? Do you know that it’s impossible to know when they’re going to molt? On the plus side, I have trained them to stop hiding when the top to the aquarium has been lifted, but for being able to plan a training schedule they were a disaster.
Thanks to a new friend who had a miniature horse, I was able to complete the second species requirement, but it was close to 1/2 way through the program before that got started. Here’s Flicka learning to kick a soccer ball.
Don’t get me wrong. The rest of the course is challenging. I think only one essay didn’t get sent back for a rewrite and the business lessons required quite a bit of math and staring at Excel spreadsheets. There are a lot of topics covered other than just clicker training. You learn TAGTeach (clicker training for humans,) and business structure and marketing right along with the in-depth process of training.
Would I do it again? I graduated a week ago and I’m having withdrawal symptoms, so not only would I do it again, I’d have kept going. Imagine a supportive place where your endurance and attention to detail is tested, improved, and expanded. A place that’s safe to try things and the “corrections” are like the hints and prompts we give our dogs to set them up for success.
If you’re thinking of going to the Academy, just do it. It will challenge you in ways you can’t imagine, make you form terrific friendships with your fellow classmates (which is great, since you need someone to take a well deserved drink with after the Saturday workshops,) and will give you an incredible sense of achievement. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and your chocolate intake will increase, but it is the start of an amazing journey.
I’ve been really busy working on my KPA certification and have been training all 3 dogs quite a bit. I played with treat values (hot dogs rule!) and training 3 very different dogs the same behaviors using the same methods. It’s been fun, but it appears I over-stimulated Paisley.
Last week, after the introduction of hot dogs and a very good training session, I opened my bedroom door (we’re working on scooting backward, so the bed is helpful,) and Paisley flat out attacked Shira. The thought went through my head that maybe it was a food guarding issue since the hot dogs were new. I separated them, got everyone settled down and everything was fine until the next training session.
This time I downgraded treats to our normal Zuke’s and made sure I hadn’t dropped any on the ground that could instigate food guarding. After Paisley’s session I opened the front door and BAM! Paisley again attacked Shira. This time it took Paisley a lot longer to calm down. Time to call for help.
There are times when you just need an extra set of eyes, the benefit of someone with more experience, different experience or just someone to say, “I had a client that….” I could have spent the time trying to figure out what the trigger actually was (it evidently wasn’t food,) through trial and error, but in this case, since dog to dog aggression isn’t my specialty, I called for help.
What a wonderful experience! Sarah Owings at Bridges Dog Training asked a ton of questions and a few days later came by the house to meet the girls. We talked about the specific attack instances (since there were only 2 and under very specific circumstances,) and determined that Paisley probably needed a little more time between training stopping and reintegration with the other dogs. She’s a border collie, she loves work, and she was getting pretty upset about training stopping and taking it out on Shira. The conditions of reintegration weren’t ideal either. The doorways are rather narrow for 2 dogs on one side and 1 dog on the other and the dogs couldn’t see each other before the door opened. Deciphering the problem allowed us to find the solutions.
1. Give Paisley more time to calm down after training. 2. Reintegrate at the side gate where the dogs could see each other and there is a larger area on both sides. 3. Give Paisley some more work to do while we’re integrating. 4. Give the other dogs something to do while integrating and giving Paisley treats for their work.
There hasn’t been another attack.
A few things I want to reiterate about what went right.
Sometimes you just need a little help.
Don’t wait for the problem to fix itself, because more than likely it won’t.