Home » Library » Enjoy » Trainer Interviews

Want to Be a Clicker Trainer? Join the FBI

Steve Benjamin, CPDT, is a faculty member of Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior, our brand-new institute for clicker trainers. We spoke to Steve recently about his career as a dog trainer, and how his 28 years with the FBI were, surprisingly, an excellent foundation for clicker training.
hiking in adirondacks

Hiking in the Adirondacks

What were the origins of your work with animals?

I had the good fortune of growing up on a 500-acre farm in Greenwood, a small town in western New York State. That's where it all started. It was a modest, old-fashioned dairy farm and all the milking was done by hand, twice a day. Besides the milk cows we had beef cattle, a few horses, up to 140 pigs, turkeys, 30,000 chickens, a herd of cats, and a pack of dogs. I loved it. I wanted to become a vet.

On our farm, as on most good farms, the animals came first. They got fed before we did, tended to before we did. There was no such thing as prodding them or poking them to get them to do something. If you wanted the pig to go from one pen to another, you led him there with a bucket of grain. We had an unspoken lure and reward system going. The positive reinforcement thing was automatic. We never had leashes and our dogs never ran away.

We learned not to complain and to be nice to the animals!If I came running in and complained to my parents that the dog bit me, the question was, "Well, what did you do to the dog?" If I complained that the horse had kicked me, they asked "What did you do to the horse?" It was never the animals' fault. We got in more trouble if we complained that something had happened to us, so we learned not to complain and to be nice to the animals! These days, it seems that things have changed, and now all the responsibility is on the animal.

With plans to become a vet, how did you end up at the FBI?

I attended Ithaca College and majored in chemistry, but I couldn't handle the labs. Watching a beaker boil for three hours and noting the color changes—I just couldn't do it. I switched to math, which I loved. It seemed the vet thing wasn't to be. Meanwhile I was introduced to law enforcement when I took a student job with the campus security patrol.

After graduating in 1975, I started a graduate program in math at Binghamton University. Many of the math graduate students were working on PhDs because they couldn't find a job with master's degrees, but I discovered that the FBI was hiring math and computer science majors to work at Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I submitted an application, thinking I could satisfy my dual interests in computers and law enforcement. I was hired and went to work with the FBI as a computer programmer in 1976. During my four years in the Technical Services Division, I enrolled at American University and earned a master's degree in computer science. In 1980, the FBI director authorized applicants with a graduate degree in computer science to train as FBI agents. I applied to the program and was accepted as the first-ever FBI agent with a degree in computer science.I applied to the program and was accepted as the first-ever FBI agent with a degree in computer science.

As the only FBI agent with a computer technical background, the Bureau sent me to offices around the country to assist on computer cases, conduct technical interviews of subjects, and execute search warrants on computer facilities. In 1985, the FBI began investigating drug crimes, and I was offered the opportunity to join a newly formed drug squad. I finally got the chance to break down doors and arrest "real" bad guys!

I spent the next 14 years conducting national and international drug investigations. Finally, and reluctantly, I moved on to a series of management jobs, eventually becoming unit chief, responsible for policy and strategic planning for the Criminal Division. When a field supervisor's job opened up in Binghamton, NY, close to my childhood home, I took it. Then in 2004, upon reaching the minimum retirement age of 50, I retired from the FBI.

How did you discover clicker training?

I hadn't had a dog for many years because my work required travel. When I started working at Headquarters, however, my workday returned to an almost-predictable 12-hour day, and I finally had time for a dog. I chose a yellow Lab puppy a local breeder had advertised for half-price because it was the last of the litter and unwanted as a "Dudley" (no black pigment). I named him Cougar. I began to think that dog training might just be the perfect retirement job for me, when the time came, rekindling my now very old interest in working with animals.

When Cougar was about 5 months old, I took him to a highly recommended dog training school in northern Virginia and signed up for private lessons. Everyone said the school was "the best." They certainly charged as if they were! The first thing they did was put a choke collar on Cougar. I'll never forget the look on his face the first time they yanked that leash. Everything in his life with me, up to the second the trainer nearly jerked him off the ground (to show him who was "in charge"), had been nothing less than wonderful. I saw the look of betrayal in Cougar's eyes and I said, "OK, that's it. This is not for us."

I started training Cougar on my own, as I had my previous dogs, using food lures and lots and lots of patience. It was the fall of 1998, and I joined an e-mail list that had a lot of discussion regarding training methods. The first time I heard of clicker training was when someone mentioned that clicker training was a "new" training method. It required that you carry a clicker—whatever that was—around with you all the time. I wasn't sure what to make of clickers and clicker training yet.I wasn't sure what to make of clickers and clicker training yet.

When I moved to Binghamton, I decided to look for a trainer who offered agility classes, as agility seemed a great way to have fun with your dog and get some well-needed exercise at the same time. As luck would have it, I found Abbie Tamber in Oxford, New York.

In our first phone call Abbie "warned" me that she didn't train like everyone else and that she used clicker training. She asked me if I was familiar with clicker training, and I told her I wasn't, but would try it as long as it didn't require a choke collar. Abbie assured me there was no choke collar involved. At our first session, she told me to push this button and give my dog a treat. I went home that night, popped a bag of popcorn for treats (my favorite and Cougar's, too!) and started training. It didn't work! Frustrated, I called Abbie at home and said, "This isn't working; he isn't doing anything but eating the popcorn!" Abbie asked me what I was doing and I told her I was giving my dog a kernel of popcorn and then clicking. She explained that I had it backward! Once I got it right, it worked. Boy, did it work! Cougar took to clicker training like a duck...err...Lab to water!

We made great progress working with Abbie, and I continued classes with her for nearly three years. I started thinking maybe I could get this "dog trainer as a retirement job" idea back on track. I began a rigorous self-study program to quickly learn as much as I could about clicker training, dog behavior, and learning theory, beginning with Don't Shoot the Dog. I joined the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and studied for the Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) exam. I started attending seminars, including the first ClickerExpo. Eventually I had sufficient confidence in my abilities to begin teaching clicker training to others, primarily people who adopted dogs from local shelters. I taught on nights and weekends at no charge, in order to gain the required hours to qualify for the CPDT exam. I took the CPDT test in November of 2003, passed, retired from the FBI in January of 2004, and opened my training business (Clicking With Canines, www.clickingwithcanines.com) that March. I was the first to offer clicker training in the Binghamton area.

Was it a shock to go from busting felons to training dogs to sit?

I have to say that it wasn't too much of a leap. Clicker training reflects how I was raised to handle animals to begin with, and how we're trained as FBI agents to handle people. Despite what you see on TV and in the movies, we were trained to "kill them with kindness"—these thugs and drug dealers—we were trained to be so nice that they couldn't stand it. That's how we'd get people to cooperate, to talk to us. If you get people to say things under duress, it's not only illegal and not permissible in court, but the information they give you is probably false. There's no way, coming from a middle-class background, that I could ever "out-thug" a streetwise thug. Our deal was that if they give you something you want, you reward them. It's clicker training.

steve and cougar

Steve and Cougar

There was once a guy we were after, a drug dealer who was responsible for several murders. We got him quietly. We showed him the utmost respect and no one saw him cuffed. We got his attorney there right away, explained that we had wire taps proving that the suspect had made a drug deal with an undercover agent. I had my arm around the guy, considered one of the most dangerous drug dealers in town, and he's crying on my shoulder. He got 20 years in prison, but we ended up getting information from him. Many of these guys have never been shown respect in their entire lives. It takes them off guard—they don't know how to deal with it. Then the science of operant conditioning takes over.

My career taught me people skills. That's really what I bring to the table. I don't have years of training experience, but I have 28 years of people skills. In FBI work, you must be versatile in how you present yourself and able to change tactics on the fly. In the same day you could be talking to a judge, hours later a crack dealer, and then interviewing a congressman before you head home for the evening. I use these skills today to size up my clients, assess their variables, and figure out what will motivate them.

I don't find training dogs all that hard. To me it's learning, understanding, and applying the science. I used to need to know federal law and FBI policy and be compliant with both. Dog training is the same thing. Find out the science then apply the science. The science gives a nice set of rules to follow when training any animal, and clicker training is a direct application of those rules. I'm still learning every day, but I think the most important skill is motivating people to learn the basics of good, science-based training. My goal is that all of my students go to work the next day saying what a good time they had in class last night.My goal is that all of my students go to work the next day saying what a good time they had in class last night.

I once got into a little trouble by saying on a list that I didn't have years of "training baggage." Some other trainers didn't appreciate that, because they interpreted "baggage" as "experience" and thought I was disparaging experienced trainers. What I was referring to was the fact that I'm not a "crossover" trainer and have no experience with force-based training methods. I don't have any techniques to undo.

Are your clients resistant to clicker training?

If I can get the dog to do something the owner hasn't been able to do, or a cute trick or a new behavior quickly—they're hooked. Trainers need to be motivated and innovative in their approach. Focus on the owner, and get buy-in from the owner to put in the effort with their dog. Even if they don't practice, just the fact that they come to class once a week and click with their dog, at the end of six weeks, the dog is better behaved.

After spending 24 years of my FBI career trying to change behavior in people, I thought I'd switch species and train dogs. But it turns out I'm really working with people again. Dog training is actually people training. The dogs are the easy part. Dog training is actually people training. The dogs are the easy part.Unless the dog is from another planet, the laws of science are going to apply. It's training and motivating the owners that's most important—and sometimes most difficult. Owners have personal philosophies and preconceived notions; dogs do not.

I tell people in my orientation that I don't give a hoot whether your dog sits on cue at the end of class or not. It's not my responsibility, it's yours. What I'm going to do is give you the skills to have fun with your dog and train him, and give your dog the skills to learn. I don't think I've had a client yet who isn't more precise in their observations and interactions with their dog after attending a six week clicker class.

Why is punishment still popular?

Boy, that's a good question! I think human society is a punishment-based culture. I'm certainly not an expert on this, but maybe it comes from generations, thousands of years, of religious, cultural, and philosophical teachings. Some research indicates that it could be genetic and part of our survival instincts. Whatever it is, it doesn't really work. The recidivism rate in federal prisons, the last I knew, was over 85%. Prison simply stops behavior, but it doesn't teach correct behavior. If you're a bank robber when you go to jail, you're probably going to be a bank robber when you come out.

My last case with the FBI took about 6 years and involved well over 100 different subjects across the US, as well as outside the country. The case received national attention after one of the main subjects was interviewed on 60 Minutes. More than 40 subjects were ultimately convicted and received significant jail sentences. Interestingly, the top four drug dealers in the case were all in jail doing life terms for dealing drugs at the beginning of the case! We taped one guy, incarcerated at one of the highest security prisons in the country, who was organizing international drug deals from federal prison phones. One day his girlfriend told him he should be careful about talking on the phone. His response was, "What are they going to do to me? Put me in jail? I'm already in jail." This guy was doing three life terms for drug distribution! It was unlikely he was ever going to be anything other than a drug dealer. He was being punished, severely punished, but his behavior wasn't changing.

In his case, punishment was not modifying behavior, nor was it stopping behavior either. Sadly, this is what is happening to our dogs as well. The punishment doesn't work so we just punish harder, yet get the same results.

How do you feel about becoming a faculty member of Karen Pryor Academy?

I'm honored and even humbled to have been selected to be on the faculty. It is a prestigious group, to say the least. I believe the Academy is the next logical step in delivering clicker training to the public, as well as to trainers who desire to be science-based animal trainers.I believe the Academy is the next logical step in delivering clicker training to the public, as well as to trainers who desire to be science-based animal trainers.

I think the Academy will be extraordinarily successful and will quickly surpass any other training certification program currently available, because it provides what others do not or cannot: hands-on training with an accomplished trainer as a significant part of its curriculum; significant public awareness through Karen's already successful training companies and reputation for excellence; a curriculum developed by some of the most knowledgeable and skilled trainers and academics in the country; and a commitment of business and marketing support to graduates, which is totally unique. I believe Karen and those working with her are setting a new standard of excellence for the dog training profession by establishing the Academy. Without sounding over the top, it's exciting to be part of the revolution.

What has been your biggest challenge as a clicker trainer?

One of my three dogs is a pit-Lab mix, Kara. I learned the most from her. I took her in as a project dog when I began thinking about training. She belonged to someone I knew who couldn't keep her because of her aggressive behaviors. The owners had recently had a baby and the dog already had serious problems. Kara couldn't be in sight of other dogs, strangers, or kids, and had killed three cats. She couldn't be walked on a leash, she threw up her meals several times a day, and you couldn't even think about clipping her nails. She didn't even know how to be a dog! Kara had three big strikes against her: she had an extremely shy personality, she had been taken away from her mother too early (at 5-6 weeks), and had never been socialized. She hadn't been abused, aside from yelling and scolding for bad behavior. I knew a shelter would have put her down, so I took her in thinking she'd be a good opportunity to test my training skills.

A month later I realized I was in way over my head. Abbie Tamber showed me how to use the clicker to teach Kara how to be a dog. I clicked her for head up, tail up, tail up and wagging, ears up, and hair down. I worked with Kara for a solid two years before I took her out in public for the first time, a 15-second visit to a pet store. I'd get people to bring their kids over for 30 seconds to feed her cheese out of a squeeze can. Now Kara travels all over with me and my other two dogs. She even attended a Marshall Tucker Band concert on Daytona Beach and was greeted by a ton of people. It was a proud moment for me. Kara's not a social butterfly, but she can handle herself well in public; people can pet her and give her cookies. I have a cat now, too. It took a while and some patience, but now I can ask Kara to go see the cat, and she'll go over and put her nose on the cat and come back for a treat. She's a real success story.The biggest problem I see when working with these dogs is that the owner must be committed.

When working with clients who have dogs with behavioral issues, I rely on Emma Parsons's book Click to Calm, as well as classical conditioning. The biggest problem I see when working with these dogs is that the owner must be committed. Again, that's my job: to motivate the owner to do whatever is necessary to help their dog get over their issues. Almost always, unless the dog has a neurological or contributing health problem, you can do it. But it takes huge commitment.

What do you focus on with beginners?

My classes are limited to five or six people only. I need to be paying attention to what people are doing, and I couldn't teach a class of 12. My first exercise at the first class is this: How many treats can you give your dog in 30 seconds? We work on that until everyone is up to 12-15 treats in 30 seconds, hand going back to neutral after each treat. Then we add the clicker and start practicing different food delivery techniques. The first behaviors for the dogs are targeting the hand, a disk, and a target stick. For the owners, targeting helps them develop timing skills. That's my first class, just establishing the basics, no sits, no downs; they all have a good time and get hooked.A big factor for beginners is for them to develop observational skills.

A big factor for beginners is for them to develop observational skills. The clicker helps them do this, as it helps them precisely mark something their dog is doing that they like. I tell them to click for anything they want the dog to do again. If your dog lies down, click and treat him! At first, many students don't think in terms of identifying what their dog is doing right. The clicker helps them start observing their dogs when their dogs are being good instead of focusing on them only when they are doing something unwanted.

How's business?

I have more work than I can handle. Really, I'm busier than I want to be; I keep reminding myself that I'm supposed to be retired. I now have other clicker trainers that I'm sharing my classroom space with. One does competition obedience and rally classes; Abbie does beginner agility classes.

I have a great vet, and she, Abbie, and I are working on plans to build a combined vet clinic and clicker training facility. Behavior and health are inextricably related, so it makes sense to have an all-in-one facility. Behavior and health are inextricably related, so it makes sense to have an all-in-one facility.It will be the first of its kind in the state, as far as I'm aware.

In the FBI we joked that it was hard to believe we could come to work every day, have such a good time doing our jobs, and get paid, too! Just last night, working with this puppy, I had the best time. You could see it his eyes: finally someone speaks my language! And the "parents" could see that their little puppy was not the problem dog they had been led to believe.

If you can educate people to have a better relationship with their dog, you've really done something. I'm public-service oriented and I love working with animals as well. Being a clicker trainer serves both desires. You can take the boy off the farm but you can't take the farm out of the boy.

About the author
User picture

totally fasinating

What about parenting? Isn't there some situations where one 'just has' to punish?

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <embed> <object> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.

More information about formatting options

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.