In this second of a two-part series, Kate and Don interview dog trainer and author Linda Case about her book Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog. In the last episode, we focused on foundational material covered in the book. This week we get into the nitty-gritty of dog training and talk about:
The benefits of working with a professional dog training instructor.
Qualities to look for in a dog training instructor and what to avoid.
Why it is so important to teach students how a dog learns and the most important things we can teach them on this topic.
What is clicker training and why it is so useful when training a dog?
The power of using food as a reward when training a dog.
How we help students address undesirable behaviors, they experience with their dogs.
The four most valuable behaviors we teach our students to train their dogs.
If you want to learn about your dog and how to live together happily, you will want to listen to this show and read Linda’s book.
When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning – broadcast on NPR on June 4th, this podcast discusses how clicker training helps people and animals learn. It includes an interview with Karen Pryor and how she became involved with operant conditioning and clicker training. –
< A version of this article was published in the October 2015 issue of Down East Dog News>
On October 11th, it will be twenty years since my wife Paula, and I closed on Green Acres Kennel Shop, becoming its third owner. Most of the time it seems like that was only yesterday. However, when I pause and take the time to look back, I can list many changes in our profession. Our products and services have changed as have the standards that we follow. Societal attitudes towards pets have changed, and of course, we have also changed ourselves. For my next few columns, I’ll be sharing my perspective on some of these changes.
As we planned our move to Maine and Green Acres, I was looking forward to becoming more involved in dog training. We had taken our dogs to several dog training classes in Wisconsin, and it was something I enjoyed a great deal. Gus, our Cairn Terrier, had several behavioral issues and dealing with those piqued my interest in this companion called the dog.
We arrived in Maine in the middle of October 1995. At that time, Green Acres training methods involved lots of verbal encouragement and praise, little or no food rewards, and the use of choke collars and corrections. It was the era of dominance and proving ourselves to be the superior beings and with this attitude, the book we most often recommended was by the Monks of New Skete. The premise of the time was that since we were superior, dogs existed to serve us and do our bidding out of respect (read fear). Science has spoken, and we now understand how erroneous much of the information upon which we based training was; our profession has come a long way in these past 20 years.
Early on we recognized the importance of further honing our training skills. I joined the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in 1996, and Kate and I attended an Ian Dunbar training seminar in the summer of 1996. The methods we learned were so very different, and we came away from that seminar excited about incorporating games into our classes and with an interest in trying to use food rewards.
In 1997, with the encouragement of Dr. Dave Cloutier at Veazie Veterinary Clinic, we expanded our classes’ offsite to the Veazie Community Center. This meant we could offer even more classes each week, as we had previously been working out of the retail area after hours. It was at this time that we took on our first assistant trainers; we were now offering more classes than Kate, and I could teach on our own.
At the same time we were teaching in Veazie, we began the remodeling of the loft above the store into a training room at Green Acres. Our training room is far from ideal; it is smaller than average. However, working with what we have has kept our class sizes smaller than average and our instructor to student ratio higher than average. Both factors have been of great benefit to our clients. Today we teach as many as 14 classes per week, both inside and outside, the latter dependent on weather.
In early 1997, I attended my first seminars on clicker training. These seminars got me experimenting with my new Golden Retriever puppy, Tikken. In June, Tikken and I traveled to upstate NY to attend a Volhard Top Dog Instructor Camp for a week. Their focus was on motivation; not with rewards, but with corrections via a choke collar. It was a frustrating week for me as I was being taught things that I had recently rejected. I learned what I could about student management and instructional techniques, and while I learned a great deal, at night I found myself working with Tikken using my clicker and food rewards.
Gus and I continued to train and that summer we were enrolled in one of our advanced classes that Kate, our Operations Manager, was teaching. During recall work, we were to put our dog on a stay at one end of the training field, walk to the other end of the field and call them to us. Gus remained in place, and when I called him he came, but at a snail’s pace. As I recall, we did that exercise twice with the same result. At the end of the class, Kate took me aside and asked “Do you and Gus do anything that’s just fun? He’s clearly not enjoying this, and I can see that you’re disappointed in him. Why don’t you take some time off and stop classes with Gus?” Yes, I had just been kicked out of class by my employee. I am so grateful that Kate had the wisdom and the courage to make that suggestion as it was the best thing that could have happened to the relationship between Gus and me. That was the last training class Gus ever attended. Instead, we played fetch, and I taught him how to do silly things like spin using the clicker and a target stick.
After the Volhard experience, I attended another clicker training seminar, and my mind was made up. I was a bit concerned about the reception that I would get from the public, as this was a major shift away from the predominant training methodology in the area. However, in August of 1997 I sent out a press release and received coverage from our friends at the Bangor Daily News. When an article is on the first page of a section, above the fold with a color photo of a dog, people read it. Before the day was over I was getting calls; “How do we sign-up for your clicker training classes?” Still testing the waters, I quickly developed a clicker based curriculum and opened enrollment in Green Acres’ first two clicker classes. At the end of those classes, I no longer wanted to train with aversives; however, from a business perspective I was uncertain that our market would support this kinder and gentler form of training. I knew two other trainers, Gail Fisher and Carolyn Clark, that had made the switch, and they inspired me to do the same. I am glad to say that many years later I had no need to worry. Our training program has grown by leaps and bounds precisely because of our focus on science, kindness, and getting results.
In November of 1998, I attended my first APDT Educational Conference and Trade Show, five solid days of learning and networking opportunities. One month later I was invited to join the APDT’s Education Committee by APDT’s founder Dr. Ian Dunbar. The committee developed and implemented the profession’s first certification exam. This was a significant step forward for the dog training industry. The practice of dog training is unlicensed, mostly unregulated and until the release of this examination there was no universally accepted standard of what a dog trainer needed to know. In 2001, I was one of the first Certified Trainers. Since then a total of seven Green Acres’ trainers has been credentialed as Certified Professional Dog Trainers. Four have since moved on to different career paths, but that does not diminish their accomplishment. More and more people are taking steps to ensure that a trainer has a CPDT credential before enrolling their dog in a class. Just the idea that we now have a credentialing body for our industry, where none existed 15 years ago, shows significant growth in our field.
So in summary how has dog training changed in the past twenty years? It has become less about art and “secret” techniques and more about evidenced based science. Science has refuted the dominance construct that prescribed the need for having an adversarial relationship with your dog and replaced it with the concept of cooperation and positive reinforcement. The majority of trainers no longer use or recommend harsh punitive-based methods like alpha-rollovers, choke collars, and shock collars but instead use management, clicks, and treats. There are now several independent certification bodies that credential and ensure that those in the profession keep learning. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has recognized the importance of behavior as part of animal wellness and has taken a very public stand against the use of any aversive tools in training. The Pet Professional Guild is building an organization of pet care professional and pet owners committed to “No, Pain, No Force and No Fear” pet care. Dog trainers, scientists, and veterinarians recognize that the dog, as well as other animals, are pretty amazing and more like us than we ever could have imagined. We are moving away from an egocentric understanding of their behavior to one that is more animal-centric, In other words, we have finally realized that as humans, it is NOT all about us.
All of us in the dog training profession still have much to learn and to me that is what keeps me going. I cannot wait to immerse myself in the next amazing discovery about the delightful companion that we generically call the dog.
Lastly, remember that story about my Cairn Terrier Gus, his unenthusiastic recall, and Kate kicking me out of class? I am happy to say that my current best friend Muppy has a most remarkable recall thanks to what Gus, Shed, Sandy, Dulcie, Crystal, and Tikken have taught me on this journey. Muppy thanks you all for being so patient and kind with me.
Other Posts You May Find Interesting
Trends in Training – The Evolution of a Pet Care Professional – <Click Here>
Dogs-Dog Training: A Holistic Approach to Dog Training (Parts 1 & 2) – <Click Here>
Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – Green Acres Kennel Shop’s “Pet Friendly” Philosophy – Part 1 – <Click Here>
Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – The PPG – Part 2 – <Click Here>
Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – A Veterinary Perspective – Part 3 – <Click Here>
PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1 – <Click Here>
PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2 – <Click Here>
PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3 – <Click Here>
Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at http://www.wzonradio.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.
Clicker Training uses an event marker or signal paired with positive reinforcement to train the dog each desired individual behavior. The reinforcement may be food, play, or even freedom; whatever is most motivating to the dog and applicable for that specific training session. The marker signal, in this case a “click”, is used to precisely indicate the instant the dog performs the desired behavior. For example, if I’m training a dog to sit, I click at the exact instant the dogs butt touches the floor and then reward them with a small treat. There is nothing magic about the clicker it is just a signal. Marine mammal trainers typically use a whistle as their signal or event marker. The clicker is used as a training tool only, and once the dog has been trained the behavior the clicker is no longer used for that behavior.
Clicker Training is not a novel new approach to training for dogs. It is a form of Operant Conditioning first outlined by behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner. It has been used since the 1940’s for training a wide variety of animals and has been increasing in popularity for training dogs since the 1990’s. It is also used at marine mammal parks like Sea World as well as at many zoos throughout the world.
I groaned in disgust when my mom came home and announced I would be attending an obedience class. Wasn’t she aware that I already knew everything? Why was this insane woman putting me through these nonsensical commands all over again? She even seemed convinced that this “new style” of training was going to be fun! UGHHHHH…Oh well, I realized that mom was determined. At my age, I was going back to school.
The first day of class arrived much too soon. Mom packed me up in the car and off we went. The previous group was just finishing up as we arrived – a bunch of immature pups. I could comprehend the logic of their being in class, but surely not me! My class was up next. They called it “Click N’ Trick.” I found it unbelievable that these humans thought they were capable of teaching me anything new. Aside from all of the basic commands, I had already taught myself to open windows, doors, even kitchen cabinets. And they thought they could train me to do more! Well, I decided to show them. I made the decision to do a perfect down stay for the duration of the class. That would definitely teach everyone that I had nothing left to learn. Maybe then mom would give up this ridiculous idea.
Everything got quiet as the instructor started explaining to the people about animal training and some weird device called a “clicker.” (Humans need lots of explanations!) This clicker thing was made of metal and plastic and the instructor was periodically pressing down in the center of it. The clicker made an interesting noise. Against my better judgment, I was actually beginning to get curious about it. SNIFF SNIFF SNIFF, I smelled food!! I am blessed with a very sensitive nose, among other things, and knew for a fact that it was good stuff. All of sudden looking bored was not so easy. I HAD to figure out how to get that food!! Thanks to my extreme intelligence it only took me a couple of seconds to make the connection. When I heard the click that the piece of plastic made, I knew food might follow. Now, if only I could discover how to make the clicker work…
The next step was the hardest. I wanted my mom to make that plastic thing click, but she was not telling me what to do. I tried sitting – that did not work. I tried laying down – that did not work. I even tried speaking – still no click. In my confusion, I started to walk away and all of a sudden CLICK! What was going on here? Mom was clicking me for going away? That couldn’t be. Then I saw it. There in front of me was a ladder. Now I understood. I was being clicked and rewarded for going to the ladder. Next I decided to see what she would do if I put a paw on the ladder. CLICK! It was unbelievable. My mom was actually encouraging me to climb ladders. I had never been to such a weird dog training class before. It was actually kind of cool!
I really like this new style of training. Nobody is telling me what to do or placing me in awkward positions. Instead, I have to figure it all out for myself, and as we all know, us hound dogs are independent thinkers.
Mom is now teaching me how to shake my head “NO” and to walk backwards (Mom is a bit of an oddball.) My sister learned how to close the refrigerator door and sit in chairs (The sitting in chairs helps her when visiting people at the nursing home.)
By the way – mom got really well trained in this class- now she has to always look to make sure there are no ladders for me to climb on when she is not around.
Originally published in Green Acres Kennel Shop Paw Prints, Winter 1997.