The way Michele talks about convincing traditional trainers to try R+ training is a lesson in itself about how to be tactful, sensitive, and diplomatic. I don't need convincing, and was never really that opposed to the clicker because I hadn't been doing the job long enough (or well enough) when the clicker started becoming popular to be sure that the way I was already doing it was THE RIGHT WAY. But I am pretty sure that even if I was hardcore opposed to anything new, I would still be willing to listen to Michele. Why? Because she gets it. She was a traditional trainer herself. She totally understands all of the objections -- "Change isn't needed", "Current methods are successful", "Food rewards create a dog that is too interested in food", "Don't tell me my training methods aren't fair to the dog", et cetera. She points out that the best way to approach change is NOT to start with "We're doing it wrong," but rather, "We're doing a good job... but is there a way we could do it better?" It is a lot harder to argue with "Could we do it better?" than it is to argue with "We've been doing it wrong."
She also points out that success with positive training methods sells itself. This is also true. Just as one little example, I will point to curbs. My dogs at Guiding Eyes and Seeing Eye stopped for curbs, of course, but they did not have the drive to the curbs that my Leader Dogs do. My dogs that were trained using correction and praise understood that walking over a curb without stopping would have unfortunate consequences, but for all but the most praise-motivated dogs, there was no real great reason to get to the curb. And with a lot of dogs in class, there was some ambivalence about curbs, especially up curbs, especially when the dogs were newly matched with clients. I know that instructing clients on alignment at down curbs used to be a significant part of most lessons -- check with your foot, hup the dog over to the far side of the ramp if necessary, confirm with traffic sounds that you're aligned correctly -- and now I very seldom need to do that. Even if the person is misaligned, the great majority of my dogs will dig in and drag them to the up curb. Why? Because it's been so heavily reinforced and has never been anything but a good place to the dog. (This is not to say that bowing and veering problems have disappeared. They definitely have not. But they are much less commonplace than they used to be, and I am sure it's because of clicker training.) This success by itself would have been enough to keep me wanting more and wanting to get better at getting the same awesome results with teaching different skills to the dogs.
After discussing culture change, the remainder of the morning is spent on use of R+ in two different areas: avoidance behaviors and care and management (for the people who work with breeding dogs and the people who care for the dogs in the kennel). I get a lot out of the avoidance behaviors discussion because it addresses the issue of body sensitivity.
Body sensitivity refers to the dog's reaction to equipment like the harness, and also possibly to an aversion to being touched. It manifests in a few different ways. Some dogs react to the sight of the harness approaching their heads by ducking or trying to back away but are fine once the harness is on. Some don't mind having it put on but drop their back ends low to the ground when they feel the handle resting on their back. Some are okay with the feeling of the handle on their back once they've worn the harness for a few minutes -- it's like they need to "warm up" and then they're fine -- while others react every time you set down the harness handle no matter how long they've been wearing the harness. Some have other weird behaviors that go along with the body sensitivity, like really strong left tendencies or crab walking or discomfort with being close to obstacles on their left sides, while others don't show anything weird other than sensitivity to the harness itself. Body sensitivity has been a problem to about the same extent at all of the schools I've worked at, and until now I have never really had a good method for dealing with it. You either career change the dog, if it has too many other undesirable behaviors that go along with the body sensitivity, or else you find a client who isn't bothered by that quirk in exchange for having an otherwise solid working dog, and you maybe modify the harness a little bit and put the dog out anyway.
GDB has a whole protocol for introducing the harness (body first, then body-with-handle later) and determining whether a dog has body sensitivity or not. If it does, the whole acclimation-to-harness process is done very gradually and with lots of reinforcement for desired behavior. One important point is that you have to mark the desired behavior before the undesired behavior appears. So if, for example, I have a dog who backs away when I begin lowering the harness body towards its head, I have to start with clicking and rewarding the dog for sitting still when I touch the harness body, without ever moving it towards the dog. Once the dog has enough reps of this and is beginning to look excited about me reaching for the harness body, then I can try moving it a little, but not directly toward the dog's head. It might require a lot of reps and high-value food, but if I am patient I may just be able to get the dog to be fine with the harness, and minimize the body sensitivity.
I am very happy to have this protocol to follow. With this current string of dogs at Leader I did introduce the harness body without the handle first, just because if any of my dogs didn't like it, I wanted to know before complicating everything with the addition of the handle. They were all fine with the harness body. But then when I added the handle, I had one dog who really didn't like the feeling of the handle on her back. I figured, oh well, I can just modify the harness so that the handle doesn't rest on her back. And I did that... but not before she had acquired an aversion to the whole harnessing procedure, so that now she reacted to the sight of the harness coming toward her when originally she had not reacted to that at all. Oops. Trainer error. I didn't know what to do about that, before this conference, other than hold her in position while harnessing her and give her a treat when she let me put the harness on. Now I had something to try -- and it has been even more effective, more quickly, than I could have hoped for with this dog (who, by the way, has been successfully practicing the "try to get away from harness approaching my head" for quite a while). So I am a little excited to see this dog looking happy and moving toward the harness when I bring it out now; wouldn't you be?
I have to say that I am very impressed with GDB for so many reasons. One, for being as progressive as they are, but not out just of idealism. They would not be doing any of this stuff if it wasn't resulting in better success rates for their dogs and clients. Two, for creating a culture at GDB where it is understood that protocols will always be evolving in the quest to get better and provide better service to their clients. Three, for sharing their findings with anyone who is interested. It would have been so easy -- and totally reasonable -- for them to be proprietary about their information, and to keep all their hard-earned work to themselves. It's not like other businesses go out and release their trade secrets into the world. But instead GDB opens itself up to the world, in the interest of elevating the whole field to a higher level. Good for them, for acknowledging with their actions the fact that we live in an open-information society. I am also impressed with every guide dog school, including Leader, that took advantage of the opportunity and didn't turn up their noses and say, "WE don't need this stuff; we're doing fine as it is." The only way we will continue to get better at what we do and provide better service is for all of us to get the mindset of "How can we do this better?"
To anyone reading this who is a GDMI, if you ever get a chance to go to one of GDB's clicker conferences, don't pass it up. Even if your school won't pay for it and you have to pay for it yourself, it's worth it! It's better than a trip to Cancun or a cruise. No matter what you think about the clicker, no matter how good you think you are (or no matter how good you actually are), it will expand your mind and give you a different view of our field. And it will also give you a chance unlike almost any other (aside from IGDF seminars) to meet and talk to your fellow guide-dog geeks. It is the most fertile ground for exchanging ideas and motivating yourself and others to improve that I have ever experienced; don't miss out!