, Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP), uses the skills and training from her KPA education not just with dogs, but in educating children and adults—including salsa dancers! A volunteer at the Humane Society of Missouri, Hope also has a “day job” as a . She is looking ahead to volunteering and, one day, conducting private, in-home dog training services.
A recent KPA Dog Trainer Professional program graduate (2015), Hope first heard about KPA from another Academy graduate, . “In 2011, my mom hired Lucy Bailey, a lifelong dog trainer and 2008 KPA grad, for private lessons for her new dog. I sat in on the training one day, was quickly entranced, and took over the training of my mom’s dog,” explains Hope. Hope took lessons from Lucy and at the Greater St. Louis Training Club. She reports that the Greater St. Louis Training Club was the first in the St. Louis area to use only positive reinforcement! Club Director Lucy Bailey elaborates, “We were the first to go to positive reinforcement with lure and reward in 1997, and then we transitioned completely to clicker training in 2010 after Karen Pryor visited us on her book tour for . I believe we are still the only club in the area that does clicker training.”
As she completed the KPA Dog Trainer Professional course with her bichon frise Heidi, Hope found certain parts of the program more challenging, and other parts very illuminating. “Learning about how and why chains work was one of the most illuminating parts. I knew that a cue with a good history could be both a conditioned reinforcer and a marker when given during a behavior at the exact time you would normally click. But, a light bulb went off in my head: I could give the cue for one of Heidi’s favorite behaviors in the first half of our 10-part chain to reinforce her and keep her excited about moving through the chain.” Earlier, Hope discovered that Heidi performed behavior chains with more gusto, strength, and speed than when she was asked for behaviors individually, because the rate of reinforcement with chains was higher than Hope could hope to achieve by clicking and treating one behavior at a time.
One of Hope’s challenges was to adapt her training style to ensure success for Heidi. “I was used to my mom’s dog, a dog that was laser-focused on me and loved to train.” Hope discovered that Heidi sometimes values fun, playing, and squeaky toys more than treats. She had to learn to work with all types of reinforcers. Another important lesson for Hope was when to stop training sessions. “With Heidi, I needed to cut off shaping sessions long before I would with other dogs I’d worked with.” Practicing shaping at home, Hope saw that Heidi would quit and walk out of the room, seemingly devastated, if she offered more than one or two behaviors without receiving a click. “I had to learn to make my criteria extremely incremental. I also had to be on my toes and keep sessions short—or switch gears to something she knew better for a while—in order to keep her in the game.” At the first KPA workshop, instructor Laurie Luck provided some wonderful tag points for standing still that helped Hope work with Heidi’s shorter attention span. “Laurie gave me so much fantastic feedback, both at the workshops and via e-mail. She also offered feedback from looking at my training videos.”
Hope employs many skills from the KPA program in her education work with the Humane Society. Since that summer camp, Hope has continued volunteering with kids visiting the organization. Recently, Hope and Heidi hosted 100 5th-graders. “Heidi and I demonstrated our tricks and behavior chains to help the kids understand the benefits of positive reinforcement, giving Heidi something she likes and wants, such as a treat, when she does the behavior I’m looking for.”
Some of the chains Hope made up on the spot, with a few chains requiring props like a hula hoop! She reports that the “kids went crazy. They loved how Heidi was like a little circus dog.” The behaviors that were the biggest hits included Heidi jumping over Hope’s leg and Heidi moving her paws like a bear when Hope said, “Do you see a BEAR?” The schoolchildren loved when Heidi sat down as Hope held up a large black-and-white card that that said SIT. “She can read!” they giggled.
When children ask about the “clicking sound,” Hope happily explains the clicker as a sound she uses to communicate to Heidi that she’s done the correct thing and can expect a treat. “If Heidi doesn’t hear a click, it tells her to try again.” In school sessions like these, Hope always makes clear that she will not punish or scold Heidi if she does not perform a desired behavior. “I will just ignore it and let it pass, moving on to ask Heidi to do something easier so that she can earn her click and treat.” Hope explains that “punishment is just not necessary. You can teach what you want with positive reinforcement.”
After some presentations, Hope teaches interested kids how to give the cues for Heidi’s behaviors—a wildly popular activity. At times, she includes student volunteers who hold the target stick, hold the hoop, hold the clicker, and hold the treats. “It is remarkable how well the children understand. They click at the right time and they give treats promptly.”
Hope’s goal is for school-age children leave her and Heidi’s sessions to spread the positive reinforcement way of thinking and acting to other children and to parents. In this way, fewer animals will be mistreated and more will get a click and a treat!
The salsa teachers thought about Hope’s suggestion for a week and came back to say that it was an unconventional, but sensible, idea. New students who joined the salsa group were taught via back-chaining. The instructors reported back to Hope that the new people who learned salsa dancing “backwards” first learned it much more quickly than members who learned the first part first! Hope reports that when she herself learns new routines through back-chaining “each time we practice the routine I can feel the different points where I get increasingly happy and relieved as we progress through the dance. I think ‘Oh, I know this part…I got this…no problem… I’m home free now.’”
Hope draws on positive training lessons in other daily-life situations, too. “I usually have a very patient and nice demeanor, but sometimes when my mom needs help on the computer I find myself getting frustrated. Not frustrated with my mom, just with the tediousness of computer coaching. I used some TAGteaching exercises with her and it worked so well! I gave simple, short instructions and tagged her when she would click her mouse on the right area or move something to the right folder. It made us both feel reinforced and successful each time she got a tag.” Hope claims that the reinforcement helped her the most. “Not too long ago I found myself slipping back into frustration and realized I wasn’t using TAG principles. When I went back to giving simple and short tag points, my frustration definitely eased up.”