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Clicker Service Dogs Learn to Dance

From Debi Davis, service dog trainer:

Karen, your heart would have soared if you'd seen the group who met in Delaware for a week last month. It was the very first clicker service dog conference, and it was out of this world wonderful. You would have loved seeing all the service dogs offering behaviors, all the upbeat handlers and happy dogs having a total blast learning. Having attended many service dog conferences, I can assure you this is NOT the norm. Force and coercion is still the mainstay in service dog training, so seeing this gathering of like-minded people all enjoying learning with their dogs just was too cool for words!

Virginia Broitman and Sherri Lippman did some really fun exercises--they set up "run the gauntlet" where there are two long lines of every possible distraction, and an aisle between the lines where people would walk their dogs through the gauntlet of distractions while working to click their dog's attention back to the handler. It was most impressive--there were a dozen distractions on each side of the aisle, squeaking toys, piles of sumptuous treats, bouncing balls, flapping blankets, people slapping hands on the floor, people mewling like kittens while lying on the floor covering their faces, etc. Every dog did So well!

And we had Carolyn Scott (she's incredible), one of the top freestylists in the world---come to do a demo and lead a clicker freestyle workshop for service dogs. She jumped into a wheelchair and started clicking all sorts of great behaviors--side passes, pivots, jumps, spins. Then she helped others teach their dogs these movements. It was awesome!

To see Carolyn working with her own dog makes people cry--there is such joy between them, such poetry in motion--and you sense while watching them that there is no place else either of them would rather be, nothing else they would rather be doing. And what's so extraordinary about this team is that Carolyn has never forced or coerced Rookie to do any movement--she has just let HIM pick the movements, and then shaped it to refine it and to put it on cue. It shows in their performances so much. There is nothing mechanical about their movements together--it's a flow of pure joy, with the dog doing the movements it most enjoys, along with the person he most enjoys.

This is indeed my new focus--to bring freestyle dance into the service dog world. So many service dogs are bored to death, or under-exercised. This is a way to exercise, to have FUN with a dog,even when the human can't move very much. All the steps can be taught from a stationary position, with the dog moving around the handler, or moving at a distance. And even distance training is possible,thanks to the clicker!

Sue Ailsby's protégée, Laurisa Osheski of Regina, Saskatchewan, has a service dog training program and teaches all her service dogs to do freestyle [dancing] as well as service dog tasks. So many of the movements can be used in a practical service dog manner--such as side passing, circling and pivots--for when the dog needs to reposition itself in crowded environments. So freestyle is not just FUN, it's also immensely practical for service dogs to have these behaviors in their repertoire.

Anyway, Laurisa has done some extraordinary shaping for attention and focus, and now is able to use this attention to teach new behaviors at a distance. I call it her "eyeball targeting." She spends so much time getting the dog to offer eye contact, to find her eyes no matter what position she's in. Then, (this still blows me away) she uses the subtle shift of her gaze to capture muscle twitches and slight movements, as the dog shifts his balance to find the center of her eyes again. It's fantastic stuff, and she's an artist at shaping at a distance in this manner. Most people teach the behavior up close then add distance. Laurisa just shapes at a distance from the get go. It's quite impressive how much she's able to do without using a target stick, just free shaping with the clicker.

About the author

Debi Davis is an award-winning service dog trainer, and a former member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.