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Interview with Faculty Member Michele Pouliot

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Editor’s note:

Great strides are being made in the guide-dog community, thanks to KPA and ClickerExpo faculty member Michele Pouliot. As the former Director of Research and Development for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), Michele led the organization through a gradual changeover from traditional training to clicker training in guide-dog work.

Michele worked with GDB to actively support and assist other guide-dog schools in their efforts to adopt clicker training. In 2016, Michele was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the International Guide Dog Federation (the Ken Lord award). The award recognizes Michele's promotion of and support to guide-dog schools around the world in the adoption of positive reinforcement and clicker training techniques.

As we approach the 15-year anniversary of ClickerExpo, Michele reflects on the most significant training changes in the last 15 years, as well as on how her own training has evolved during this time. She also shares her thoughts on how ClickerExpo has impacted the training community and what she is most looking forward to at ClickerExpo in 2018!

Q: As you look at the current training community, what do you think are the biggest or most significant changes over the last 15 years?

A: I believe that the biggest change is the motivation within so many programs and individual trainers to adopt or expand their use of positive reinforcement in training their animals. I have had the pleasure to watch and share in so many change processes (individuals and organizations) in the past 10 years, and loved being a part of those R+ journeys.

The origins of peoples’ initial motivation to change may differ greatly (pressure from constituencies for kinder methods, a need for dogs to be trained faster, desire to improve performance, etc.). Regardless of the reason they begin a positive reinforcement journey, the majority of people who try it experience results beyond their expectations. Once hooked, people can’t resist learning more about this powerful way of teaching called clicker training.


Q: You have been instrumental in the growth of positive reinforcement use in the guide-dog community. There are other working-dog communities that are still trying to make the transition to positive reinforcement. What did you find were the most effective techniques for making change within your own organization?

A: The guide-dog, service-dog, protection-dog, law-enforcement dog, field-dog, and dog-sport communities are all still in the process of change and transition due to the strong historical (and successful) use of traditional methods in these working-dog fields. Many people in these fields of training continue to be traditional trainers, but, slowly, change is impacting even those who ignore and resist. Working-dog worlds ARE transitioning, albeit slowly in some situations. In some scenarios, change happens after specific individuals retire from a program or when talented young trainers join the organization. It will happen, because R+ training works so well. Positive training is not about being “right” or being “modern.” It’s about techniques that work better than traditional while treating the animal with respect and kindness.

What is the most effective way to create change? Apply positive reinforcement to those reluctant to change. Teach them well so that they experience the power in R+ training, but be patient and understand that they cannot change overnight. It takes time to change skills and apply new skills that feel cumbersome and foreign to someone who is already an expert at another method of training. Traditional trainers do love their dogs, so avoid implying that they are abusive. Instead, just demonstrate a better way that works.


Q: How has your training and/or teaching changed over the last 15 years?


The more you learn about clicker training, the more there IS to learn about clicker training!

Fifteen years ago was around 2002. I had only been playing around with clicker training and using some food reward for a few years. At the outset of my journey from traditional methods to positive reinforcement training, I had no concept of how involved learning these techniques would be. The more you learn about clicker training, the more there IS to learn about clicker training!


Experiencing the incredible power in effective clicker training and well-applied classical conditioning continues to be an ongoing learning process for me. I am constantly intrigued by how much I learn from my students (human and animal). As I teach or train, the responses of my learner guide me to the most effective course of action, if I pay attention to that information.


I am very lucky to have contact and work with very talented positive reinforcement trainers frequently, from whom I learn tons. Each year I recognize modifications and improvements in my technique, applications, and choices I make. Then, I strive to share what I have learned with my students (both human and animal). I believe that my training in recent years has leaned toward being simpler with process (but not necessarily easier), in the effort to be clearer to my dogs, horses, and human students.


Q: Which of your presentations at ClickerExpo do you think is most reflective of the changes that have taken place in the last few decades?


Join Michele at
ClickerExpo 2018
SoCal (January 19 - 21)
St. Louis (March 16 - 18)

I suppose the obvious or expected answer would be my presentation on being a positive change-maker to assist traditional trainers in adopting R+ methods, but I am going to select another one.

Presenting Clicker Training Collar Cue Behavior has been a fascinating experience, one that I believe demonstrates growth within the positive reinforcement community. When I first presented on Collar Cue training (in 2012, I believe), there were some disapproving reactions due to the fact that the training process used negative reinforcement initially. It was as though the label of negative reinforcement meant there must be a level of mistreatment to the dog. I remember being surprised that anyone could watch the many videos and feel like those dogs were upset in any way. Visuals of happy dogs offering the collar-cue behavior after a few repetitions of light applied pressure did not seem to mean much to some in the audience, because they were so emotionally charged by the words negative reinforcement. Many Expo attendees loved the presentation, but I was surprised by the few that reacted adversely.

Fast forward about four years when we brought the presentation back to ClickerExpo. I hope that my updated version of the presentation was improved and that I did a better-quality job of explaining the process, but something was different in the audience, too. There was a more realistic attitude about the facts that 1) negative reinforcement is a part of everyday life, and 2) the level of pressure being used to initiate the collar-cue response was at a low-annoyance level. There was more open discussion of the quadrant itself and how it impacts daily lives and how it may be present in a lot of training (accidentally or on purpose). The community’s ability to discuss a behavior prompter with an open mind without being judgmental has definitely grown. That was a wonderful realization to add to the enthusiasm of all the learners in those Collar Cue Training presentations and Labs.


Q: In what ways do you feel ClickerExpo has impacted or influenced the training community?


Expo provides an environment to immerse yourself in marker-training skills, practices, behavior science, and theory.

Expo provides an environment to immerse yourself in marker-training skills, practices, behavior science, and theory. It draws likeminded trainers and new trainers to clicker training with a spirit of positive reinforcement extended to all who attend. Faculty members and speakers are a conduit to the “Expo Atmosphere” where egos are put aside and respect for one another is obvious.


The first modern training methods conference I attended in the 1990s was not very friendly. It was, in fact, quite punishing to me because I wore my guide-dog logo shirt that branded me as a traditional trainer. The atmosphere was like a club that criticizes all who do not use food-reward methods. I left that conference after being punished all day, and it took me a few years to get enough courage to attend another conference. Luckily, I attended a ClickerExpo and received the support and the information I needed.

I know that Expo has impacted many others starting out in R+ training, and has provided a feeling of inclusion. ClickerExpo conferences have assisted in the adoption of clicker training and R+ methods in the traditional training world. Besides the atmosphere, the presentations and Labs are incredibly informative with exceptional speakers who are great practitioners of positive reinforcement with humans.


Q: When you look at the schedule for ClickerExpo 2018, can you name one of the Sessions or Labs that you are most looking forward to attending and tell us why?


I am happy to be teaching five Sessions at each Expo in 2018, but that does result in fewer time slots I have free to go to other faculty presentations. It looks like I will be able to attend Kathy Sdao’s The Seductiveness of Shock, which I’m looking forward to. From my selection science heroes, I want to see Dr. Susan Friedman’s Ideas that Should Die and hear Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz speaking on Effective Affection.


I also cannot wait to see the fabulous Swedes present Progress Guaranteed: Never Get Stuck in Your Training Again and I am hoping to see Alexandra Kurland’s Riding with Clicker Training presentation, along with more horse-focused presenters. Hannah Branigan’s Not Quite Right Behavior sounds great…oh, heck…I am excited about all of them!

Michele, thank you for sharing your insights about ClickerExpo, as well as your valuable experience with training and effecting change. We look forward to hearing more at ClickerExpo 2018 in SoCal and St. Louis!