Written by Amie Chapman
I have been involved in puppy raising for almost sixteen years now and over those years I have been able to watch the evolution of dog training.
When I first started raising, it was for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and only the “difficult” puppies were put on a food reward protocol. Now all their puppies are being raised with positive reinforcement. The last baby puppy we raised for them was in 2013, and their protocols were that food rewards were used for every puppy for only certain commands and then used for other things on an individual basis. I never really got help learning the ins and outs of positive reinforcement training. I had some idea from working with one of my first puppy raising leaders on the side, and from learning how to shape certain behaviors for our GDB puppies, but nothing formal. So when I took on Penny and Brigadoon’s protocol of positive reinforcement and clicker training, I knew it would be a learning experience.
My only experience working with clicker training a dog was teaching our career-changed dog Eli fun tricks like wave, roll over, high five, crawl, spin. He loved the clicker and learned things really fast with it. But even though I had successfully taught him with a clicker, I was still very much a novice at training Penny with it. I understood the basic concepts of how to do things, but I still had so much more to learn. That brings me to our latest adventure with Penny, when Matt and I attended the Karen Pryor Clicker Expo recently.
I knew that I needed more training with clicker, and unfortunately we are too far away from Brigadoon Service Dogs to get regular assistance in person from the trainers there. I knew about the Clicker Expo because some of my former puppy raising leaders have gone and Denise from Brigadoon had told us about it as well. I felt like Matt and I would really benefit and should go this year. I needed some more clarification and training and Matt really needed a better introduction to clicker training in general. Everything he knew about it was from me, and I probably wasn’t really ready to teach anyone on this subject. So off to the Expo we went, and boy, am I glad we did!
We decided to only go for two out of the three days of the expo.
I knew from attending veterinary conferences that at these events a lot of information is given to you in a very short amount of time. I wanted to make sure we didn’t get information overload and we could retain what we learned. I also debated whether or not to bring Penny along with us—after all having a puppy with you can be very distracting and her needs always come first.
After going back and forth about bringing Penny, I decided that she should come. Just before she started her heat cycle last month, Penny started being fearful of people that she didn’t know very well and even people she does know. Even though that has gotten better since her cycle has finished, she is still wary and not comfortable with some people. The only time Penny has been away from us was back in September when she spent a couple of days at Brigadoon and since then she has grown very attached to me and more wary of people that she doesn’t know. I knew that I couldn’t just leave her with anyone, she needed to be with someone who would understand that she was still having some nervous tendencies and who would be able to handle her. Most of the people I was comfortable asking to watch her would be attending the expo as well. I still feel like this fearfulness is partially hormonal and hope it lessens as her hormone levels continue to change.
Bringing Penny along was actually helpful for her.
This is the first time she has had multiple days with us, just one-on-one, without really having interactions with other dogs. Yes, there were a lot of other dogs at the expo, but she didn’t interact with them. She had a lot of firsts on this trip.
This was her first time staying in a large hotel where she couldn’t just walk out the door and have a convenient potty spot. Our room was at the end of a long hallway on the third floor, so she had to walk down the hallway, wait for an elevator, ride the elevator, walk through the lobby, and then out the door to the designated dog relieving spot set up by the hotel. It doesn’t sound like much, but when your body has been accustomed to just hold it in the morning for a short walk down the stairs and outside, it can be really hard to hold it that long.
The other challenge for Penny is that she really doesn’t like to potty in new, strange locations.
She was perfect at the hotel, not one accident. It took her a while to go the very first night we arrived, but after that it was smooth sailing. Relieving at the expo was a little more challenging, since there were lots of distractions and it was hard for her to go. But she only had one time the whole trip that she went without being given the cue to go, and at least it was outside on a walk back from going out to lunch.
Penny also had to work around big crowds and other dogs for multiple hours for the first time. Most of her training outings haven’t been more than a couple of hours. So starting the day at the expo at 8:00 am and not getting back to the hotel until around 7:00 or 8:00 pm was a very long day for her. We did give her a few breaks where she could romp on the grass with her toys and she received lots of treats and hugs throughout the day. She did so well!
The other dogs didn’t faze her at all.
Yes, she was a little distracted by them, but there was no barking or lunging at them, just looking. She walked past all of them with good manners. I have to say though, it was so nice and refreshing to be around so many other dog handlers that were paying such close attention to their dogs and being courteous to the other handlers there. And all the other dogs were so well behaved! I think only other service dog handlers and puppy raisers will really understand how significant this is. We saw a few other puppies in training and service dog teams as well.
The only things that Penny showed that we need to improve on is the slight pull on leash when other dogs are walking in front of her and when she is ready to go and she sees the door. The other is being comfortable around people who seem odd to her. She was really good and settled for most of the lectures but she did have one barking episode when someone entered the room during one of the lectures walking crouched down so he wouldn’t walk in front of a camera taping the session. This type of movement didn’t sit well with her and she made it known that it made her uncomfortable. Luckily being in a dog training lecture everyone was very understanding and supportive. She had one other barking outburst when it was late at night and we went to take her out to potty one last time before bed. A man popped out from around the corner in the hallway of the hotel and she was startled. Once again, this is her fearfulness coming out and we will continue to watch her and see if it continues or gets worse.
Penny wasn’t the only one who benefited from going to the Expo.
Matt and I learned so much in two days. We still have a lot more to learn, but this was a great start. I now really understand the difference between a command and a cue, understand better how to shape different behaviors and more. Now I just need to practice and retrain my mind and body to do the proper mechanics. But with time I will get there.
After attending the expo and learning more about this method, I really like it. I do now wonder, looking back at the way some of my previous puppies were raised, if they could have turned out differently. Patrick is one of them. I know that his dog issue would have been there, but maybe I could have made more progress with him. Corrections with him were not the best way to communicate with him. I saw that he was frustrated with them and so was I.
I remember some of the hateful comments we received from people on one of our episodes when I corrected him for barking and lunging at another dog when he was a younger puppy.
I was made out to be a monster by some people. It was shared with the caption of “This is exactly the wrong way to train a puppy.” But that was how I was instructed to handle him. I knew that there were other ways that we could have worked with him, but I wasn’t really allowed to explore those. We had made really good progress with him at one point and then he was rushed up upon by an off leash dog. After that it was like we took one step forward followed by two steps backwards. All I can do now is learn from each puppy raising experience and keep moving forward.
There are many ways to train a puppy or dog and there will be debates about different methods being right or wrong for many years to come. I am lucky to have the opportunity to experience different methods and I am very excited to have chance to learn yet another new method and grow as a dog handler.
Clicker training is so different from the way I was originally taught to train dogs and it is going to take time to get it down. I know that I will make lots of mistakes along the way. But more and more service dog organizations are moving towards this method of training, if they are not already there, and it is important for me to learn and understand this method.