Here's how it worked: The banquet room was set up with chairs, tables, and a live video feed to Clicker Expo in Norfolk, VA. The Taste of Clicker Expo got us access to five sessions of Clicker Expo: Michele Pouliot, Ken Ramirez, Kay Laurence, and Lindsay Wood, plus a panel discussion with Clicker Expo speakers. (For a link to the day's schedule, click here.) It was a long day, starting at 9:00 and going till 5:45, but totally worth it.
Michele is one of the superstars of the guide dog world but also of the dog world outside of guide dogs. She is internationally famous for the freestyle obedience routines she does with her Aussie and her Springer. Freestyle obedience is a dog sport where the dog has to learn insanely complicated routines of intricate behaviors set to music. That stuff is very impressive, but not as impressive to me as her accomplishments with guide dogs. She works for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the school that I started raising puppies for as a kid, and she is the person most responsible for incorporating clicker training, and more positive training in general, into guide dog training. Not only that, she is a very nice person. I remember when I was working at Seeing Eye and she was visiting for some reason. I hadn't been there that long, less than a year. We were working in Manhattan and I had this golden that wasn't doing very well. (She was highly distractible and also very much lacking in soundness.) Somehow that ended up being the dog I worked when Michele followed me through Manhattan. At the end of a lousy trip, when I felt like curling up in a ball of shame and dying of embarrassment, as I braced myself for a scathing and well-deserved critique of the trip, all Michele said was, "Well! She sure tries hard, doesn't she!" She is one of my heroes and I was ecstatic that she was the first presenter of the day.
Michele's presentation was called Pace, Place, & More: Strategic Reinforcement Delivery, and it covered the importance of having a plan and reasons for the way you give reinforcements. A lot of this was stuff I already know... but it was good to be reminded of the importance of being mindful and purposeful with every single aspect of your training. (If you want to be a great trainer, that is. Dogs are forgiving enough that if you want to be a mediocre trainer, you don't have to put much thought into it at all, just a lot of repetition, and the dog will still appear to be a trained dog at the end of the day in most situations. I want to be a great trainer, and even though I am so far away from that, I want to put as much effort as possible into trying.) I took three pages of notes from Michele's presentation and my hand was sore and cramped by the time we got to the break.
Ken Ramirez was next. He is one of the top people at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago but has such a lengthy and extensive history working in so many different types of animal work that it would take ten pages to list all of them. His presentation was called Missteps, Myths & Mantras: Keeping Your Training on Track. It covered some common beliefs in dog training that have sort of become entrenched as gospel, and, if adhered to religiously, can get in the way of your training. Things like, "Dogs are really just domesticated wolves". He then went on to talk about the most common mistakes trainers make. Some examples: Judging other trainers, not breaking criteria down small enough, asking for a "trained" behavior before it's fully trained, assuming that something is acting a reinforcer without really making sure that it is... I knew about most of these (just because I know about them doesn't mean I don't make them!) but it is always good to hear them so, again, I can be more mindful of not making them. My favorite training mistake: Blaming the dog. Any time I find myself saying, "Why can't this dog learn this?" I should switch it to "Why can't I teach this dog?" Point taken.
We broke for lunch after that and I took the dogs for a walk outside under grey skies and ice-cold wind. Michigan in March, I am so tired of you. Then I took a nap on the couch while waiting for the third presentation. I was dozing off in Ken Ramirez's presentation, NOT because it wasn't worthwhile (it so was!) but because my body knew it was Saturday and knew I should be getting hours of naps.
The third presentation was by British dog trainer Kay Laurence and was called The Art of Practice. This one may have been designed just for me. I am so guilty of the biggest practice mistake ever: repetitions without planning for improvement. I do this in everything -- dog training, swimming, biking, writing. I never take the time to plan out practice sessions (unless I am working a dog who is on an Action Plan where I am required to plan them out) so it is no surprise that I get stuck in mediocrity so often. I also appreciated the suggestion given in this presentation to videotape yourself training and then critique one thing at a time. Say, hand signals or footwork. This suggestion is hardly unique to Kay Laurence but it really does make me wonder, if we want to get better at stuff, why do we not put more effort into self-improvement? Why NOT use a video camera more often? I bet we would all be so much better trainers if we did.
The last presentation was by Lindsay Wood of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, and was called On Guard! Modification of Food Guarding. It was directed at shelter dogs and I admit that when I saw it on the schedule I was, like, Oh, please, we don't need that. If resource guarding dogs come in to Leader we just career change them, and there are so few of them and it's such a potentially dangerous behavior for a guide dog that it really isn't worth investing time into developing a protocol for fixing it, in my opinion. But this turned out to be a great presentation. She has designed a method that is simple and, best of all, structured. There are clear steps to follow, clear yes/no criteria for advancing to the next step, and, best of all, structured follow-up steps to make sure the new behavior sticks. It was all about creating a joyful Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to the action of person-reaching-for-dog's-food-bowl to replace the negative CER that the dog formerly had. I can't imagine in what circumstances I would ever need this protocol, but you never know where you're going to end up in life and even if I don't need this particular thing, I might some day be in a situation where I might have to modify some other behavior where this could be helpful as a reference.
The last session, the panel discussion, I didn't really pay much attention at all. I was too busy transcribing my eight pages of scribbled notes to my computer, and there were so many people on the panel that I figured we would not be having nuts-and-bolts discussions of training mechanics.
I left Leader yesterday feeling both exhausted and totally inspired. I am not completely committed to clicker training or positive training in general, but I am completely committed to GOOD training that produces good results, and to making myself a better trainer so that I can do a better job of giving people good guide dogs. Anything that helps me in pursuit of that general goal is a good thing.