Valeria Cascaddan, KPA CTP, owns and operates a dog-training business in Michigan called Drop the Leash Dog Training. Living with and interested in dogs her entire life, Valeria became involved with training in the early 1990s. Her first foray into training was on behalf of her dog, Abbie, working on fear and separation-anxiety issues stemming from abuse in Abbie’s past. In the years since, Valeria has sought out every publication and educational training opportunity. Her aim has been to find and learn better ways of relaying information to pet owners, including the normal ethology, biology, behavior tendencies, and social patterns of dogs. The ultimate goal? To help others understand how to have a great companion dog.
Originally trained professionally in compulsion-based methods (like most people in the 1990s), Valeria says, “I was very good at it, but every time I gave my spiel about how the ‘training collar’ didn’t hurt the dog, or the prongs on a prong collar just applied even pressure, it wore down those beliefs inside of me.” While she watched a well-known trainer use compulsion methods with Abbie, Valeria soon realized that when she was the “authority” in a classroom she wanted to teach differently. A friend who was involved with avian rescue told Valeria about clicker training. Valeria’s first reaction was to say, “That is great for birds, but it would never work with a dog. They need to know who is the boss.” However, “the seed was planted” and Valeria purchased Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot the Dog.
Researching dog training and behavior inevitably led Valeria to Karen Pryor Academy! She explains that she “had been following everything Karen Pryor since the late 90s, and was aware of the KPA Dog Trainer Professional (DTP) programas soon as it began.” The logistics of her husband’s military career and requisite moves, along with two young children, kept Valeria from KPA until a move to Texas. There, a DTP program offered workshops within driving distance (a rarity!), and Valeria “leapt at the opportunity.” She completed the program in Magnolia, Texas, in October 2015 with Debbie Martin, “a fantastic and inspirational teacher!”
“My experience with KPA has greatly improved both my ability to translate knowledge in a way that clients can understand and my ability to help them achieve their goals of creating a great companion dog,” says Valeria. The DTP program did produce some challenges, however. “I attended KPA hoping and expecting to improve my teaching skills and ‘fill in the gaps’ of what I had learned on my own about clicker training.” But, the program far exceeded her expectations. “Mind blowing!” is how Valeria explains it to others. The most challenging part of the program, according to Valeria, was learning new things about her animal partners, her then ten-year-old bull terrier Rippy and fourteen-year-old Manx cat Jynx.
“I always thought Rippy was a slow learner, until Debbie said to me during one training session ‘I think he’s got it and is ready to move on to the next step.’” Rippy was much more intuitive than Valeria had given him credit for, and turned out to be a fast learner at KPA. As for the cat, Valeria says, “My finicky old cat taught me how to be creative with reinforcement delivery and rewards (hint: tuna juice in a syringe).”
Valeria learned so much through the DTP program that it is hard for her to narrow it down to a few “best” or “most important” lessons. “I loved devising a training plan, breaking an existing behavior down into all of its components, opportunities, triggers, and reinforcers, and then building it back up into a plan for the desired behavior.” Since, Valeria has “given up my membership to Lumpers Anonymous” and refined her shaping skills.
“I think the most illuminating thing about the DTP has to be that it taught me to look at things from a different perspective. Instead of stating what I don’t want from anything in life, I rephrase it into ‘What do I want?’ Then I devise a plan headed toward that goal.” Learning TAGteach was another bonus to Valeria professionally. “I teach others the skills needed to be effective clicker trainers.” In the past, Valeria felt like she overwhelmed students with too much information. “Now, I break down training into simpler steps and progress at a pace that is appropriate for my clients to learn successfully.”
A less tangible benefit for Valeria was finding out about the positivity of the KPA community. “Over the years I have discovered how competitive trainers tend to be.” Conversely, the KPA training community exhibits strong fellowship, and that is a draw for Valeria. “One person cannot have all the answers; it is great to have like-minded people with KPA language and training to call on.”
Over the last thirty years, Valeria believes that she has “worked successfully with just about every behavior problem out there, and with every age dog.” She has encountered many dog-sport people, trainers, hobbyists, and others with a vast array of skills as well. “But the overwhelming theme I encounter among everyday pet owner is the illusion of getting results in an hour—as seen on TV.” Valeria does not try to compete with dog training TV idols. “I just tell clients that I train differently. When they see that I can get results without confronting aggression aggressively, that their barking dog will sit as soon as it sees my face in the window, or that their puppy will run willingly into the crate—and when I tell them that I can transfer those training skills to them—pet owners are amazed.”
While Valeria does deal with fear (like Abbie), inappropriately or misunderstood aggression, and other severe behavior issues, she considers herself more of a family dog trainer and “specialist.” She encounters a lot of the more-common challenges like poor household manners, vocalization, inappropriate elimination, and communication, among others. “I want people to know that having a family and their dog live together in harmony is my top priority.” The concepts and methods of clicker training are the best tools to accomplish this goal, according to Valeria. When she is talking with clients, she emphasizes something that was said to her during her KPA interview: “I want you to be your dog’s advocate.”
Looking to provide more education for her clients, Valeria plans to expand her group-class offerings this spring. Some of the new classes may include Beginner Nosework, Intro to Agility, and CGC prep.
A lifetime learner herself, Valeria is always continuing her education. “I’m interested in how other trainers teach and create lesson plans, and I value additional creative thinking.” Much of Valeria’s continued education is online due to geography restrictions. “Since I live in the middle of the boonies, large towns miles away, I am very thankful for the internet. Competitions, seminars, or other dog-related venues are hours away.” Recent education includes Denise Fenzi’s classes for nosework and Susan Garrett’s Puppy Peaks and Handling360 courses. “I just received my Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator certification and sent in my registration for CCPDT-KA testing for this spring,” says Valeria. She hopes to attend ClickerExpo in the near future.
Valeria says that clicker training “just fits with many of my other core beliefs.” Her diet is whole-foods and plant-based, and she practices self-improvement. “I am on a constant journey to become a more effective, efficient, and compassionate teacher of all beings. My life goals are to do no harm and to alleviate suffering. Clicker training and the philosophy behind it help me along that journey.”