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Interview with ClickerExpo Faculty Member Emma Parsons

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ClickerExpo and Karen Pryor Academy faculty member Emma Parsons has established that no dog should be considered hopeless. For the last decade, Emma has given hope to many owners searching for solutions for their reactive/aggressive dogs. Since the release of her bestselling book Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog in 2005, she has shared the “Click to Calm” (CTC) methodology at dozens of ClickerExpo conferences as well as at other seminars around the world. As we approach the 15-year anniversary of ClickerExpo, Emma 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. Emma also shares her thoughts on how ClickerExpo has impacted the training community. Finally, she reveals what she is most looking forward to at ClickerExpo 2018!


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

A: I think that the training community is realizing that if we are going to help treat dogs with aggression issues, we need to learn more about how behavior works. I like that there is now a distinction between dogs that are truly dangerous and those that are simply over-stimulated.


Q: Your book, Click to Calm, was published more than a decade ago. At ClickerExpo in the coming year, you will be leading a Session that updates the protocol and sharing several case studies. Can you summarize the protocol and discuss a few things that have changed since the book was published? 

A: The protocol is based on trust. The handler is responsible for keeping the dog safe while the dog learns to look to the handler for direction and guidance in previously dangerous or challenging situations. In the Click to Calm methodology, we teach dogs to look, first, at the stimulus calmly, and then, in turn, to make eye contact with the handler. Eventually the presence of the stimulus in the environment becomes the cue to look at the handler. Next, the handler can cue an alternate or incompatible behavior. At this point, the dog is thinking and no longer reacting.

One of the elements of the protocol that I have changed is the ratio of the reinforcement given when the dog looks at the previously challenging stimulus as compared to when he looks at his handler. The suggested ratio is now a one-to-five ratio; it used to be a one-to-one ratio. The dog gets one click/treat for looking at the stimulus and then one click and five treats for turning back to the handler. This change alone has helped my reactive-dog-class students progress from not being able to walk except behind a barrier in Week Six to being able to walk without a barrier as soon as Week Four! By Week Six, students now tend to be out on the floor experimenting with agility jumps!

Another protocol piece that I have changed is the body position of the handler. I used to instruct handlers to remain stationary, moving only when they were adjusting the threshold to the challenging stimulus. Now, I have them moving laterally, back and forth, while clicking and feeding the dog. This adjustment helps to keep both the handlers and the dogs moving. Moving bodies freeze less often and tend to remain thinking.


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

A: I am always thinking about how best to communicate with my clients. For example, when I meet with clients, I explain the CTC protocol. These days, I can also show them video of what the correct behavior looks like. Whatever types of learners my clients are, the video helps them to understand the protocol more clearly.


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? 

A: One of my favorite presentations is the one focused on Reactive Dog Games. My examples are all students I have taught for a number of years, students whose dogs once couldn't even walk down the street without barking and lunging at people and/or other dogs. Watching them grow and seeing their progress has been truly inspirational. These are the dogs that fall into the category of over-stimulated dogs. 


It is a gift to be able to immerse yourself in this like-minded training community!

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

A: It is a gift to be able to immerse yourself in this like-minded training community! Through the years, ClickerExpo has been able to secure some of the most amazing and influential clicker trainers across the globe, each willing and happy to share their particular expertise with all of us. Because of this, we are all richer!


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: Wow! There are so many to choose from! I am interested in Michele Pouliot’s Lab on luring. Luring is a topic that is discussed constantly; luring is either condemned or condoned. I am particularly interested in how Michele would suggest fading lures.


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