Aimee Bench, KPA CTP, LCSW, was taught a “snap-and-release” form of animal training in her first class, at an animal shelter close to 20 years ago. From the beginning, she was not comfortable having to reprimand the small and sweet dachshund in her care, giving the dog a quick snap on the leash and forcing her to perform the desired behavior. “I would cry about the damage that I was causing her little neck. She was such a gentle animal and wanted so badly to please,” remembers Aimee.
In this period of her life, Aimee was transitioning from social work to pet therapy, although she asserts today that her “social work hat is always on!” As social workers dealing with families in crisis and with a caseload of children who were abused, Aimee and her colleagues had long and stressful days. The serendipitous idea of cuddling with a dog to alleviate the stress of the staff led to inviting the dog to the office where young clients got down on the floor, hugged, and played with Foster, the canine visitor. “You could see the kids’ bodies start to relax. With this initial relaxation, they started to let down their guards a bit and allow us to initiate a dialogue and launch the therapeutic process,” says Aimee.
Realizing that “there was something to this incredible bond between people and animals,” Aimee quit her job to enter the field of animal-assisted therapy. “I can tell you that while everyone wished me well, most of them thought I was crazy.” The local course that Aimee tried, described as discouraging above, was her first step in obtaining some dog-training credentials.
When Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City received a grant to initiate an animal-assisted therapy program, Aimee was offered a position in the program, her “dream job.” As she trained animals to work with patients in the hospital, Aimee became associated with organizations such as Pet Partners (formerly known as Delta Society) and the ASPCA. At the hospital, she educated the staff about the wonders of animal-assisted therapy. “I was able to bring therapy dogs to many units in the hospital, including pediatrics, rehab, psychiatry, geriatrics, and more,” says Aimee. While she works primarily with dogs, Aimee has evaluated other animals for therapy work, including cats, rabbits, miniature horses, and an alpaca!
She also studied animal training on her own—learning more and more about the power of positive reinforcement. Shadowing some “wonderful trainers who were utilizing positive techniques,” Aimee heard about Karen Pryor and her work. “I was instantly drawn to clicker training.” She signed up for the KPA Dog Trainer Professional (DTP) program a few years ago and it has been the “best move I made.”
Traveling from Long Island, New York, to Franklin, Massachusetts (including during a few snowstorms!), Aimee completed the KPA Dog Trainer Professional program under “the incredible guidance of Emma Parsons.” Aimee found Emma to be an awe-inspiring teacher and trainer; Emma’s Click to Calm is Aimee’s “go-to” book when she works with many dogs.
The DTP program was both enlightening and challenging for Aimee. One of the most significant lessons from the course was the importance, even necessity, of being calm, clear, and consistent in training. “We need to move our bodies in a calm, controlled manner so that animals can read our signals without confusion,” Aimee says. Referring back to a story Emma Parsons told during the course, Aimee points out that even a change in the handler’s hairstyle can impact a dog that is used to certain cues in a routine or behavior. “I stress this point now when I work with my clients. It’s so common for people to be in motion, talking and moving without realizing that our pets are watching our bodies carefully,” Aimee says.
Initially intimidated “by the talent in the room,” Aimee learned that her KPA classmates who did such an amazing job training their dogs—and other animals, including horses, goats, and even fish—were also “incredibly warm and friendly.” Classmates were open about sharing training tips and experiences and were very encouraging, too. “I left with tremendous respect and fondness for everyone in my training class,” remembers Aimee.
After a move to Long Island, Aimee started her own company Mid Island Therapy Dogs (MI-T Dogs, “pronounced ‘MIGHTY’ because our dogs are amazing!”). She also began to consult for the Bideawee Animal Shelter’s learning center, “training people and their wonderful pets for the work in animal-assisted therapy.” Her business expanded nicely, especially with her KPA credentials behind her, reports Aimee. She sees clients privately to help with a variety of issues, such as working with new dogs, helping resolve issues that arise with older dogs, and training advanced skills to dogs in order to help their owners with disabilities (skills like retrieving items, switching light switches on/off, etc.). Aimee also pursues her animal-assisted therapy work.
Her KPA experience has definitely impacted Aimee’s work—positively, of course! “Sharing the science and psychology behind the clicker training methodology has really helped me deal with skeptical clients.” One client family, struggling with a young yellow Lab that lunged on walks outside and was destructive inside, had no success gaining the dog’s focus with a prong collar or with several other trainers. Aimee suggested that the dog be reinforced for paying attention to his owner, explaining that if the dog understood what was asked of him and was reinforced for doing the right thing, the behavior would be likely to endure. Aimee remembers the clients as skeptical, “but then I pulled out the clicker. As we all know, magic begins with the clicker.”
The Lab was eager to work after that. “You could see the understanding and change that began to occur,” reports Aimee. With a purpose and daily training sessions, with outlets for energy and some home management, there was an amazing change. “We began with foundation behaviors, capturing the calm behaviors, reinforcing the behaviors we wanted. Within a few sessions, we were outside with a calm dog lying at our feet, while cars travelled up and down the street.”
Aimee uses shaping skills, honed through her KPA course, in an Animal Assisted Therapy Prep class she offers. “We shape the behavior of having the therapy dogs rest their heads in patients’ laps, and call this behavior ‘visit.’ When the dogs know what is expected of them, they feel more confident and calm approaching new people.” Successful training of this calm and relaxing behavior allows patients to experience, and benefit from, the gentle weight of a soft dog resting on them.
And, of course, Aimee’s social work hat is always on. “When I work with a new client or family, I always listen and act as a sounding board for them as they navigate their lives with their pets. At least once a week, I find myself comforting, and reassuring harried mothers as they let out all the exhaustion and emotions that go along with bringing a brand-new puppy into their family dynamics.”
After people see the magic of the clicker with dogs, people half-jokingly ask Aimee if she I can clicker train their kids. Aimee’s answer is that she has used TAGteach and even the clicker to help kids. “My own daughter and her friends were struggling with a difficult dance routine and were getting frustrated. Using my KPA skills, I took out the clicker and broke down the steps into small criteria. I shaped and clicked the girls until they were calm, until they understood and were able to master the routine. Crisis averted with some clicker magic!”
When she describes her animal-assisted therapy work, Aimee notes that most people who sign up for therapy prep classes “want to give back in some way to the community. Some have been in hospitals where they were visited by therapy dogs. Others share stories of how their pets have made such an impact on their lives and how they want to share the love.” The two most important characteristics of a good therapy dog are temperament and the desire to enjoy interactions with people. A therapy dog not only needs to be gentle and sweet, but also has to find genuine pleasure in the therapy work. “Many dogs will want to please their owners and will tolerate people petting them, but a therapy dog really needs to enjoy and seek out attention from people,” Amy reports. In prep classes, Aimee helps to fix issues such as excitement jumping, learning to walk nicely on a leash, and staying next to and focused on the handler. “We teach dogs to maneuver around medical equipment, work on perfecting ‘leave it,’ work with children, and help handlers learn how to deal with common situations that arise. Our volunteers visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, psychiatric hospitals and group homes, hospice, rehab, libraries… the list goes on.” Aimee’s dog Puffles, a goldendoodle, is also a therapy dog. Their favorite visits are to colleges to help destress students before exams.
Aimee loves to maintain connections with “many wonderful trainers in our KPA alumni group.” She seeks out recommended books and articles and has completed several online courses through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Forecasting ahead, Aimee would love to build on her experience with children who are afraid of dogs. “I want to use clicker training skills to create fun classes and activities where children can gain confidence and have fun working with their pets.”