Toni Lynn Mark, KPA CTP, found her way to clicker training following her own instincts and the “leadership” of her rescue puppy. With little dog-raising or dog-training experience in her background, Toni went with what felt right to her and Sadie, a smart collie mix. Opting for play, exercise, praise, and treats over more traditional training methods, Toni found that Sadie blossomed.
After spending more time with dogs, Toni took a job with PetSmart, her “first step into professional dog training and behavior.” PetSmart trainers utilize clickers and positive-reinforcement methods, mirroring Toni and Sadie’s efforts and inclinations. As Toni moved through her PetSmart training she found a new language and community. “All that stuff that came naturally to me had terminology associated with it: positive reinforcement, mental enrichment, marker training, clicker training, and more! At first I was just doing what worked for me and Sadie; later I discovered a population of people who were doing the same thing.” When Toni described a training method she used to teach Sadie a fun behavior, a colleague explained that she was shaping. “At that moment, it occurred to me that I had stumbled into science-based training methods,” says Toni.
When Toni joined the PetSafe Brand as the Training & Behavior Education Specialist, she was able to complete the KPA Dog Trainer Professional (DTP) program. “I was excited to enroll in the DTP program so that I could fine-tune my clicker training skills and learn how I could be more skilled, efficient, and successful,” explains Toni. She completed the “phenomenal” DTP program in Maryland with Laurie Luck. Toni praises her instructor as “one of the most enthusiastic and supportive people I have ever met!” Similarly positive about her classmates, Toni found that the other students became “family” to her. “We succeeded, fell apart, laughed, and stressed out together. If that doesn't make you a family, I don't know what does!”
Different parts of the Dog Trainer Professional course were highlights for Toni; other segments were more challenging. Strong confidence was an important takeaway. Upon completion of the program Toni says, “I felt like I knew clicker training inside and out, like I could do it in my sleep, with my eyes closed, or in a tornado.” Breaking behavior into pieces was another valuable skill mastered through the DTP. The overall atmosphere of the class was encouraging and fun. Toni remembers thinking to herself, “This is the group I am meant to be with.”
While Toni felt some natural apprehension completing her final test, a behavior chain, what was more difficult turned out to be working with Sadie on a shaping exercise. “Sadie would not get into a box, even just one foot!” Toni discovered that she needed to break down the behavior into even smaller increments for Sadie and change the environment so the box wasn't as intimidating. This struggle helped Toni learn to “look at a challenge from my dog's perspective.”
Toni finds tremendous value in being a KPA CTP. “For clients, my credentials and style establish the type of person and trainer I am. There is an immediate understanding that I will be working at the dog's pace and comfort level, and that I will examine the dog's perspective.” Her training helps Toni engage her human clients as well. “Clients list all the behaviors they don't want (stop chewing! stop jumping! stop pulling!); offering owners new behaviors to teach gives them a place to go. It's a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Explaining to clients that clicker training isn't just about DOG learning makes Toni’s points as well. “It's about all-creature learning. Providing examples of positive training methods working successfully for dolphins, whales, butterflies, children, CEOs, surgeons, cats, and chickens helps Toni convince clients to try out those methods.
In addition to training with private clients and their pets, Toni works in shelter environments. She completed the KPA Shelter Training & Enrichment courseand really enjoyed the experience. “In an ideal world, the best training is done with time and consistency. But, in a shelter it's hard to find those two things,” explains Toni. She uses clicker training skills in shelters, especially to train “superstar” behaviors that help hard-to-adopt dogs stand out and get adopted. In her role with PetSafe, Toni travels the country, “offering lectures to shelters and students in university classes and clubs about how to incorporate clicker training and low-cost enrichment programs in a shelter environment.”
“Clicker training has greatly influenced the way I work with all creatures, including people,” Toni shares. She says that there are two primary reasons, the first of which is how clicker training focuses on empathy. “Clicker training is all about developing an understanding of where your learner is so that you can develop a training plan. This means examining the scenario from your learner's perspective, which sets the stage for an empathic approach, something that is crucial when you're dealing with behaviors that stem from fear or anxiety.” The other element of clicker training that influences all of Toni’s interactions now is finding what motivates a person. “It’s one of my favorite things to do—figure out what a person loves!” Finding out what a learner values, and finding ways to reward the learner, is satisfying for Toni. “It's best if we can use motivation to develop good behaviors and habits.”
As a mother of two young children, Toni uses her clicker training skills often. “When I tell people that, they probably think I’m a crazy person chasing my kids around with a clicker, but that isn’t the case. I use the foundations of empathy and motivation all the time, both to get through particularly difficult days and to teach new behavior.” Toni tries to work with her kids at their level. “They trust that I will acknowledge their struggles, not trivialize them, and that we are on the same team,” explains Toni. Whether it’s potty training or dealing with a meltdown over a broken banana, Toni finds that remaining consistent and patient is what works. “My clicker training background has shown me that things don’t happen overnight. A consistent, positive training plan eventually gets the puppy peeing outside and the little boy peeing on the potty.”
Happy using her skills to help shelter dogs, client dogs, and her own children, as well as positively impact others around her, Toni still searches out more education. Conferences like ClickerExpo and webinars offered by training organizations supplement her reading. “Reading about training is truly an investment in life, not just in dog training.”