Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011

clickerexpo2011 “What the hell is wrong with us anyway?”  Patricia McConnell joked in this, her opening line, as she gave the closing comments at Clicker Expo 2011 on Sunday, wrapping up an amazing three days of top-notch education on animal training, behavior, and cognition.  

cadence hotel bed Certainly, I’m sure that is what many people wonder about us.  Trying to explain that we are spending good money on travel and registration costs, and taking a vacation to attend an educational conference probably doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.  When I tried to explain to others what Clicker Expo was, I basically just summed it up as another dog training conference, but it is so much more than that.  The faculty at Clicker Expo are leaders in their understanding about training all animals (including humans), and are perhaps the best assembly of presenters and educators I’ve ever seen – and I say this having spend my graduate and undergraduate years at a top-rated university! 

maebe learning lab So, what did I learn about this year at Clicker Expo?  In Learning Labs, Cadence and I and Lowell and Maebe heard from Kay Laurence about when and how it can be appropriate to use luring in training, and how to “microshape” behaviors by slicing them down into the finest details, allowing the animal to have higher rates of success throughout the learning process.  We were able to work on training reliable cues with Kathy Sdao, and Lowell and Maebe gave an amazing demonstration of the progress they made just during the course of the lab.  We practiced the mechanics of treat delivery and leash handling skills with Joan Orr and Alexandra Kurland, and learned the “Tai Chi” of leash handling skills.

In lectures, we learned about setting up efficient training sessions with Cecilie Koste, conditioning positive responses to noise and movement (especially good for the agility dog) from Emilie Veigh and Eva Bertlisson, and developing good observation skills from Kathy Sdao.  We heard Karen Pryor talk about changing the public’s view of punishment as a training method, and saw Patricia McConnell talk about animal cognition, and later in the closing comments, about animal emotions.  I took away from every session lots of great notes, and always at least one key “AHA!” point that I know I will carry with me as I continue training my dogs.  The sessions are fascinating, intellectually stimulating, and we left motivated and excited to try out all our new ideas.

chicago running In addition to being a great learning experience, the whole weekend was a blast.  Our hotel was located north of Chicago, and bordered a 30+ mile multi-use trail network along a river.  We were able to start every morning with a 4 to 5 mile run with the dogs, and close every evening with a more leisurely walk together along the water.  The dogs were on their best behavior.  It gave Cadence good opportunities to have to think and work with high levels of distraction, and while his brain was usually starting to melt by the end of the learning labs (so were ours, after all!), he always was a perfect gentleman.

cade learning lab2What I love about Clicker Expo, and clicker training in general, is how beautifully you see that what inherently FEELS right – training with positive reinforcement instead of punishment – is repeatedly backed up by sound scientific evidence.  As a social worker and a researcher, I love to see this harmony: when doing good is backed up with data-driven proof.

Lowell and I are fortunate to say that we are not “cross over” trainers (trainers who previously had been taught to use punishment), as we became dog owners just as the clicker training movement was gaining wider popularity.  When we brought our first dog, Jade, home, we had been reading a Brian Kilcommons book advocating choke chains and collar corrections.  We bought a choke chain, brought Jade home from the rescue organization, set out for a walk together, and realized quickly that we were NOT going to pop our happy, wonderful new companion on the neck with that damn chain.  That isn’t how I treat my friends and family members - there had to be a better way.  We turned around, immediately drove to Borders and sifted through the Monks of New Skete and Barbara Woodhouse books until we found a thin little book on clicker training.  Finally, someone was talking in terms that made sense to us.  We were fortunate to have a good veterinarian who referred us to positive trainers in the area for companion obedience classes, and the rest was history.

At the opening session on Friday, Karen Pryor asked the audience how many people were cross-over trainers.  Many hands went up, as usual, but many did not.  How exciting that we are now seeing a new wave of trainers, a wave who never had our heads filled with nonsense about dominance theory and collar corrections, but have learned how much more fun it is to use scientific principles and positive methods to train our companions!  While they still have a few remaining figureheads, I think the compulsion trainers are losing the debate.

cade and me hotel roomSo why do we do this?  Why do some of us spend so much time, energy, and money on these furry family members that can’t talk to us?  How is it that they make us so profoundly happy, and that we mourn their loss so deeply?  These were the questions Dr. McConnell posed in her final comments.  She theorized that there are two types of people in the world: those who are warmed and comforted as we learn how similar and connected humans really are to the rest of the animal world, and those who find that concept terrifying.  And, ironically, many tend to label the first group as being somehow emotionally damaged and unable to connect with other humans and form real relationships.  But what I find is that animals help us learn on a deeper level about empathy and emotion and connections with all living things.  I tend to be introverted by nature, but through my dogs I have met wonderful people and formed great relationships while challenging myself to learn and try new experiences.  My world has expanded exponentially, and I am a very happy person and am never bored.  Jade changed our lives, as I always say.

So, proudly count me in the first category – with those who cherish and celebrate our connection with dogs and all animals, both those who are four-footed and two-footed.  As Dr. McConnell ended her closing remarks on Sunday, she reminded us:

“Don’t ever apologize for how much you love your dogs.” 

Cade learning lab1

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