Meeting veterinary needs
I had my first experience with animal training more than 20 years ago, with my own dog. I attended a traditional training class, which used a method I called "yank and thank." We waited for the dog to "get it wrong," then yanked on its choke collar and promptly "thanked it" by offering praise. This method makes as little sense to me now as it did then, but at the time I knew of no other options.
Over the next seven years, I became a connoisseur of the "yank and thank" method and taught it to hundreds of clients. However, a life-changing event made me reconsider the value of this method. In 1994, I discovered that my son had cerebral palsy. Over the next couple of years, it became my mission to train a service dog to assist him. I realized that a child with a disability would not be able to control a dog using the "yank and thank" method and that I would have to find a different approach to animal training.
Coincidentally, an acquaintance sent me Karen Pryor's book Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs (formerly called A Dog & a Dolphin 2.0: An Introduction to Clicker Training), which changed my life forever. When the first edition of the book was published in 1996, many deemed clicker training a fad, but I have used this method to train two service dogs for my son and currently teach hundreds of veterinary professionals and trainers how to use clicker training techniques to modify behavior.
Clicker training overview
Clicker training is a form of behavior modification in which a clicker is used to mark the desired behavior. When an animal performs a desired behavior, the technician or trainer must immediately push on the clicker device and then follow that action by giving the animal a reward. The timing of the click is essential, because the animal associates the click with the behavior being performed. Adding positive reinforcement (e.g., a treat) will increase the likelihood that the animal will perform the desired behavior. The clicker works faster than giving a verbal cue, is always consistent, and is loud enough that the animal will not confuse it with other sounds. Initially, the trainer should press on the clicker and reward small behaviors that are headed in the direction of the goal. For example, when first teaching a puppy to "sit," the clicker should be pressed and a reward offered when the dog crouches. However, as the dog begins to associate the crouched position with the click and subsequent treat, the click and reward should be offered only when the dog sits. As the animal becomes conditioned to the clicker, the clicker can be used to teach more advanced behaviors, assist with the desensitization process, and change the animal's emotional response to a situation. The animal will begin to learn how to manipulate its environment in order to earn a click and a subsequent reward.
Karen Pryor, who studied marine mammal biology and behavioral psychology extensively, first developed clicker training while working with dolphins in the 1960s. Since then, this method has been used successfully on numerous species—from fish to dogs and cats to horses.
Clicker training certification program
Not all animal trainers are well-educated in behavior, and some still use outdated or even abusive techniques. Therefore, before recommending a trainer to a client, it is important to learn what techniques the trainer uses. The Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior was recently founded to help foster the development of qualified, caring, and dedicated animal trainers, as well as to serve as a resource for veterinary professionals and trainers who want to learn the clicker training method.
The Academy's Dog Trainer Program, which takes approximately 6 months to complete, combines distance learning with hands-on teaching. Courses consist of online classes and a series of two-day live workshops, which are taught by instructors in several US cities and Canada. The workshops are taught in a positive learning atmosphere with peer support. The program also teaches trainers to maintain a positive relationship with clients. Students are taught not only how to become good trainers, but also how to be excellent teachers for their clients. In my experience, dog trainers too often fail to recognize that a lack of communication with the owner can affect the success of the pet's training.
Graduates of the academy become Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners and are subject to a policed credentialing process (i.e., credentials can be revoked). Veterinary practices that refer clients to a Certified Training Partner can be confident that the trainer is well qualified and has met the highest standards of achievement, expertise, and ethics in the animal training profession.
If the Karen Pryor Academy existed 15 years ago, there is no question that I would have applied to become a student. Back then, if I had access to the Academy's resources, the knowledge I gained would have propelled my career forward 10 years! Working with the Dog Trainer Program has been one of the most rewarding and stimulating experiences of my 25-year career as a veterinary professional and dog trainer.
Although many animal training methods exist, I have experienced firsthand the success of Karen Pryor's clicker training method. The clicker training method is taught throughout the world and is the subject of countless books. Animals of various species have been successfully trained using its positive, force-free techniques, and clicker training is now widely used to solve communication problems between animals and humans.
Through the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior, veterinary professionals and trainers can now gain access to standardized, humane, and professional animal training education. I am especially proud to be on the faculty of the Karen Pryor Academy. The clicker training method has changed my life both personally and professionally.