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Eavesdropping at ClickerExpo

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We just wrapped up another successful ClickerExpo in Dearborn, Michigan, and I am still on a high! The feeling of community and shared belief in learning to train better make the ClickerExpo experience unique and very rewarding to me. Although we were sold out, the hotel was able to accommodate more than 500 attendees, more than 150 dogs, and even one guide horse easily!

As a result of my new responsibilities with Karen Pryor Clicker Training, I found myself in many different meetings whenever there was an opening in my schedule. At mealtime, during breaks, and in the wee hours of the morning I could be found in various corners of the hotel in deep conversations. I thought that some of the random and diverse topics of these meetings might be of interest to others. If you had stumbled across one of these conversations and eavesdropped on those meetings, here is a small sample of what you might have heard …

Feeling of community and instructor buzz

More often than not, people wanted to pull me aside to tell me how much they just loved certain presentations. Over and over I heard about why they loved Kathy Sdao, or admired Emma Parsons, or couldn’t get enough of Kay Laurence, or wished we would ask Michele Pouliot to do more presentations. Our regular faculty members are admired for many reasons by so many of our attendees. But at this Expo I was pleased by how many of our newer speakers were gaining new fans—the feedback about Laurie Luck, Hannah Branigan, Laura VanArendonk Baugh, Irith Bloom, Emily Larlham, Laura Monaco Torelli, and Peggy Hogan was excellent. There is no question that the strong feeling of community is enhanced each time new speakers reinforce the message of positive reinforcement and share new and creative ways of using those tools in practical settings.

Is Karen really retiring?

Another popular question revolved around a comment Karen made in her interview session about retirement. Some attendees were understandably concerned that the organization that Karen built would no longer benefit from her leadership. I tried to assure everyone that Karen’s presence would still very much be felt in future ClickerExpos, Karen Pryor Academy courses, and everything else we do at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. However, it is also important that Karen be allowed to slow down and take a break after working so hard to create her company. While she may have stepped down from her day-to-day involvement in the organization, she is actively writing and participating in many projects that are helping to continue spreading the word and the practice of using positive reinforcement training to the world. I was humbled and honored when Karen asked me to take on my new role so that she could now focus on other things. But Karen stays very connected to everything the company does, and she and I remain in very close communication about the direction of the organization. Aaron and I are indebted to Karen and committed to keeping the organization on the path she so clearly paved for us.

Horse track

There were multiple conversations that I had with horse trainers regarding the possibility of adding an entire horse track to one of the ClickerExpo conferences s in 2016. We have had a gradual growth number of horse trainers who attend ClickerExpo regularly. The clicker training equine community is much smaller than the clicker training dog community, and the challenges of helping horse trainers “cross over” to the use of more positive techniques is even more controversial than it has been with dogs. But the interest and desire has been strong, and I sought out many of the horse enthusiasts at the conference to get their thoughts on what they would want to see from a horse track at a future ClickerExpo. I am excited about the possibilities and we are tentatively planning to add a horse track to the March 2016 ClickerExpo! We will share more information about this exciting new track later in the year.

Targeting vs. luring

The topics of luring and targeting are not new, but when new instructors join us at Expo and talk about these topics it generates new interest, new questions, and, at times, new controversies. Targeting and luring are both well-known techniques for helping to guide an animal and helping the animal learn new behavior. As with any technique, each trainer will develop an individual fondness or preference for certain techniques and leave other tools or methods unused or seldom touched in their toolbox. Luring, the use of food to guide an animal toward a desired behavior, has been controversial in some circles. Even this definition, which was intentionally over-simplified, might cause some readers to object! It was interesting to me how many skilled trainers wanted to discuss the differences between luring and targeting. Some trainers argued that they were similar techniques, while others shared their emphatic thoughts on why they were indeed different. I found that even many faculty members, each a skilled and experienced trainer, had differing opinions about this topic.

As trainers gain more experience, delve deeper into the science, and share ideas with a greater cross-section of trainers, we find our opinions and understanding of the uses of some tools growing and changing. It often takes a skilled trainer or a group of open-minded trainers to help others recognize where their previous views may have been too narrow or less informed. I was surprised by how many times this subject came up and how many new and different opinions there were on the differences and comparisons between targeting and luring (two techniques that, previously, I thought I understood really well)!

Have I left you wanting to hear more? Well, that’s the problem with eavesdropping; you often only get a small sampling of the topic! I am still contemplating and digesting the many new points of view I have heard and I may write a full-length article on the topic in the future—or perhaps get someone to put together a class on this subject!

Professional conversations—being in a fish bowl

Late one evening, I found myself engrossed in a stimulating conversation with several other faculty members. The conversation included Alexandra Kurland, Emelie Johnson-Vegh, Eva Bertilsson, Dr. Susan Friedman, and me. We were sharing various thoughts and ideas we had heard at this particular Expo and, as usual, the conversation got very deep and philosophical. At one point, a specific topic came up in which two members of the group had very specific thoughts about a particular concept or technique that they used regularly in their training. Two others in the group had very different views on that topic. We were surprised and intrigued that we had such opposing views. But rather than being argumentative or having the conversation degrade into an uncomfortable series of name-calling or agenda-pushing “my way is right,” it was a lively, fascinating, and truly enlightening conversation. Each person wanted to understand why the other felt differently, and everyone listened intently and respectfully to the differing views. I believe we all walked away with new insights and an expanded view of the topic. As we wrapped up that conversation, one member of the group, who had mainly just listened to the other four discuss the topic, said, “What a wonderful conversation! I learned so much! Why can’t most trainers have thoughtful conversations that don’t lead to arguments? We should find a way to recreate this for the Expo attendees. It was a model for what professional conversations should look like!”

The reason we were able to have such a good conversation is that all five of us in the group have great respect for each other. We trust that when one of us says “the world is flat,” there must be a reason behind it. Even though the assertion may differ from what others learned about the earth being round, this trainer, whose work we all respect, would never say such a thing without good cause. So we all listened. Even when explanations didn’t make sense to everyone, there was a belief that perhaps we were using terms differently or misunderstanding the use of the concept. We worked diligently to find ways of expressing the concept and explaining various points of view. Nobody was on a mission to be right; everyone was determined to better understand the others’ points of view.

It probably helped that we each find great value in discovering best training practices from one another. That led many of us to contemplate if such an intimate and trusting conversation about any number of hot training topics could be handled the same way publicly. Could we set up what one faculty member called “a fish bowl” with attendees on the outside looking in? Would having that conversation in front of a large group still have the same intimacy and clarity that we developed in the small group? The panel discussions that we conduct at ClickerExpo frequently were designed to be similar to this idea, but while they provide the opportunity to hear various opinions, we purposely keep most responses short and do not delve into any single topic with much depth. It is an interesting question for those of us organizing future Expos to consider.

Is it really all or nothing?

Speaking of controversial topics, my February 2015 Letter, Is it Really All or Nothing, generated more feedback than anything I have written in the past 10 years. ClickerExpo attendees were asking to chat with me about the article, in which I describe ways that we as positive reinforcement trainers get in our own way trying to convert others to the use of positive reinforcement tools. I appreciated the feedback, questions, and additional ideas. I will continue with my thoughts on this topic in my April letter.

I certainly had many more conversations, but these are the ones that I thought most readers might have an interest in hearing. ClickerExpo is such a great place to meet and share ideas; hopefully many of those who attended had their own similarly stimulating conversations. I wish I could have eavesdropped on a few of those discussions!

Happy Training,

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