As we reach the 15-year anniversary of ClickerExpo, we asked Ken Ramirez, Executive Vice-President (EVP) and Chief Training Officer of Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT), to reflect on the most significant training changes in the last 15 years, on his own training evolvement, and on how ClickerExpo has impacted the training community during this time. Ken has been involved with Expo since its inception, leading Sessions and Labs and now driving conference programming in his role with KPCT. A 40+ year veteran of animal care and training, Ken is a sought-after consultant and expert in his fields.
Q: As you look at the training community, what do you think are the biggest or most significant changes over the last 15 years?
A: Wow, that’s a tough question. I think the training community has evolved and changed dramatically, at least from my perspective. Fifteen years ago I was just coming back into the dog training world, having been primarily focused on the zoo community before that. It seems to me that now trainers are far more aware of the science that underlies the training that we do. I think modern technology has made the science far more accessible to us and, thus, more relevant. The awareness of positive reinforcement and the benefits of its use are far more widespread, too. Finally, social media has really connected the community and given us the ability to keep in touch with other trainers all over the world, maintaining an awareness of what other trainers are accomplishing.
A: Differences: Use of positive reinforcement (R+) has been a given in the zoo world for a very long time. It’s not easy to punish large exotic animals and the ramifications can be deadly for the trainer. It is far easier to use punishers with dogs; they are more forgiving, so it allows trainers to get away with its use. As a consultant in the zoo world, there is never a question about whether the organization asking for my help has embraced positive reinforcement, so we start the training conversation in a very different place than many of the consulting jobs I take on in the working dog world.
Similarities: Many of the working dog programs I consult with (law enforcement, search and rescue, guide dogs, and service dogs) have the same challenges that most zoos face working with large teams. It is difficult to operationalize training protocols and get consistency with a large staff. It can be difficult for large organizations to monitor and track training progress. Overall, training and operational challenges are similar for many organizations; those difficulties are not related to the species.
Q: How has your training and/or teaching changed over the last 15 years?
A: This is a timely question for me. I taught a graduate course on animal training for 20 years. This year I have adapted that course for new programming taking place at The Ranch (Karen Pryor National Training Center). I decided to go through my curriculum and completely update it, and I was able to see how the course has evolved over the last 20 years. I update and make changes to my PowerPoint slides regularly, but I maintain the old slides for reference. Looking at 20 years of updates was both humbling and inspirational. It was humbling because I realize how much I didn’t know back then (which makes me wonder, how much I must still not know). It was inspirational because I am happy to see that I have not remained stagnant but have continued to grow, change, and adapt. I use more references and am eager to point my students to other resources: scientists, trainers, and others who have blazed new trails and made important discoveries.
One of the biggest differences for me over the past 15 years is how much more grounded in the science I am now than I was back then. Now my experience base is so much wider than in any previous point in my career. I also find that I am quicker to seek advice from colleagues. As I gain experience, I am far more aware of the wisdom and knowledge that is out there, and I feel compelled to take advantage of that.
Q: Which of your presentations at ClickerExpo do you think are most reflective of the changes that have taken place in the last few decades?
A: All of them. Not a single presentation at Expo is something I could have or would have presented 15 years ago.
For example, Say What? focuses on how terminology impacts our community and our training and on the challenges of language changes and definitions. The course is a new Session based on my lifetime experience in teaching and learning. Another new talk is about Conservation Training, a type of training I was just starting to get involved with 15 years ago, so my perspective today is much different. Dr. No is about teaching an animal how to indicate that it doesn’t want to perform a specific behavior, a conceptual approach to problem-solving that I probably would have never considered when I was a younger trainer.
A: I think ClickerExpo has had a huge impact on the community. It has made positive reinforcement tools more accessible to the public and created many resources that influence trainers all over the world. This is most reflective in my own training and how access and contact with ClickerExpo faculty members has inspired me to think in new ways and expanded my training tool set. Concepts that I learned at ClickerExpo include poisoned cues, micro-shaping, the benefits of free-shaping, the complexities and interconnectedness of operant and classical conditioning, a widening of aggression treatment options, the value of science to a practical trainer, how to use data, how to improve conceptual learning, and dozens more. ClickerExpo has been the single most valuable event in my growth and learning since I was first introduced to training.
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 why?
A: Ha! I can’t possibly pick only one. There are the “must-see” speakers—because they never disappoint, even speaking on a topic I feel I know well. I always come away from talks by these speakers with new insights and new information. I did write an article in August highlighting the Four Things I Am Most Looking Forward to at ClickerExpo 2018. But if I had to narrow it down to courses, I think there are three that I would put on my personal must-see list. One is Right on Source: Clicker Training and the Nosework Team because of the growing interest in scent sports. I have followed Sarah Owings as she has taught and competed with her dog, and I think it will be a very interesting session. But My Dog is Not Food Motivated, presented by Kathy Sdao, is another choice because that phrase is such a common mantra from clients. I know Kathy will bring a fresh and enlightening perspective to the topic. Finally, Susan Friedman’s The Learning Planet is on my list because she plans to address the interconnection among behavior analysis, ethology, and neuroscience. I am sure it will be thought-provoking. There are many others I want to be part of, but I think I already cheated by listing three!
A: There is no question that keeping ClickerExpo relevant to attendees is one of my most important goals. I plan to continue following the path blazed so well by Karen Pryor and tap leading scientists, trainers, and teachers to present cutting-edge material. Our profession is growing and evolving and we plan to bring the very best people and the newest topics to ClickerExpo. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict what those topics will be, but I am excited about the future.