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Making Music Together

Open to new friends

When Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) Laura Monaco Torelli began her training career, she knew she would meet many interesting animals—and humans. In the past she has worked with beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals, river otters, and penguins (at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago), primates, large cats, birds of prey, horses, parrots, macaws, tree kangaroos, and red pandas (at the San Diego Zoo and Brookfield Zoo), and, of course, dogs (just about everywhere).

emily and winston at the piano

A recent referral from the Shedd Aquarium led Laura to one of her newest, youngest, and most interesting clients—an 8-year-old girl named Emily Bear. Emily and her family have worked with Laura over the past year training the family dog, Winston.

What’s notable about Emily and her family is their passion for music. Every member of the Bear family (Brian, Andrea, Benjamin, Lauren, and Emily) is involved with music in some way, with young Emily the most well-known. Emily composes beautiful music on the piano, and has achieved astonishing success for someone her age. (Click here to see Emily—and Winston—on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show.)

The entire family has dedicated themselves to clicker training the family dog. The consistency, tenacity, and flexibility exhibited by the group have positively impacted their training—and greatly benefited their dog. The family’s musical background has supplied something extra, too. Laura has found that their timing skills, and sensitivity and awareness, have made them natural clicker trainers.

Sharing their worlds

Emily and Laura are two vastly different individuals in the spotlight. There are several connections between Emily (and her family) and Laura that cross the boundaries of age. Both are well-known in their own worlds and value family and relationships. Most importantly, they share an appreciation for two powerful interests—music and animals. Now they also share the enjoyment of clicker training.

Once they were introduced, the Bear family and Laura formed a very strong bond. Laura has worked with Winston and his family in their home since Winston first joined the family as a puppy, teaching them all the value and exciting possibilities of clicker training. Officially named Winston K. Bear (the K stands for Köchel, the numbering system used to catalogue Mozart compositions), and nicknamed “Winnie” (after Pooh), Winston is a mini goldendoodle selected for his relatively allergy-free reputation.

The Bear children are quick to praise Winston and all that he has learned since he began training with Laura. Emily, age 8, and Lauren, age 9, report that Winston can sit, lie down, and behave well on the leash. His favorite chew toys are a squeaky rope and a giant crab, but he also chews on the girls’ Webkinz™ toys. Benji, age 12, adds that Winston is potty-trained—and he loves American cheese!

bear children with laura and winston

Laura, Winston, and the
Bear children

How they met

Andrea Bear, the mom in the busy Bear family, had heard of clicker training prior to meeting Laura. When the family decided to get a puppy, Andrea and her husband Brian wanted to “do it right,” choosing a training method that was both effective and positive. Clicker training, with its all-positive message and rejection of punishment, matched their philosophy, and dovetailed with their thoughts about child-rearing.

A mother-daughter birthday trip to the Shedd Aquarium program “Pet Training the Shedd Way” connected the family to Laura. After the show, Andrea inquired about clicker training relative to the family’s puppy plans, and was referred to several clicker training books, as well as to the KPA Find-A-Trainer website as an excellent tool for finding the right trainer. Geographically, Laura Monaco Torelli was a match, and a beautiful relationship was born.

Serious learning…but where do they find the time?

Laura travels from Chicago to the Bear family’s home in Rockford, Illinois, for training sessions with Winston. Very quickly, Laura and the Bears formed a mutual admiration society. Andrea says, “From A to Z, Laura is professional. At every meeting, for every call, she is warm and giving—just nice all the way through.” Laura feels as positively about Winston’s owners, too. “The Bear family is wonderful to collaborate with in setting training goals and activities for Winston. Not only do I have the joy of sharing with the entire family the benefits of clicker training, but the Bear family shares their amazing musical talent each time I arrive. How lucky am I?”

When Laura gets together with the Bear family and Winston, it is usually on a weekend, toward the end of the day. Training dates depend on the ever-changing and busy schedules of each family member. In between training sessions, Andrea Bear e-mails or calls Laura with training questions, and shares training updates that include the expected progress and common setbacks that are part of teaching a new puppy.

LMT at shedd

Laura Monaco Torelli and Kri
at the Shedd Aquarium

photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium

In a typical training session, each family member takes a turn playing the training game. At the start, the group identifies goals for the day, and then each family member uses the training pouch and clicker to focus on a behavior or goal. Andrea says that the training sessions both reinforce Winston and reinforce her kids’ positive behavior. There are many lessons to be learned by children in a pet-training environment. Andrea likes that each of her children is involved with every aspect of caring for Winston. They walk and feed him, and, yes, they all take turns cleaning up after him. The beauty of clicker training is that it is simple to learn for all ages, making it easy for the children to be full participants.

The training session often includes time playing with agility equipment that Laura brings along (for building coordination and confidence), Q&A, and reviewing any relevant handouts. Then the family watches Laura demonstrate new training tricks with Winston. Andrea reports, “Laura makes training easy. She brings lots of equipment and a new toy every time. A favorite has been a ball that squeaks. We especially enjoy when we work with Winston using tunnels and bars.”

The family tries to include their regular babysitters in training sessions with Laura as often as possible. This adds to the consistency that Winston experiences in the Bear home. Overall, Laura reports that the family stays very focused during the lesson. Andrea and Laura foster a fun learning environment for Winston and the kids as they follow the KPA Dog Trainer Program curriculum that Laura integrates into the lessons.

Before the training session ends, the next lesson is set up. Post-lesson, there is always homework. According to Laura, Andrea does a marvelous job tracking the training, and keeping medical and other records for the dog. This efficiency lets each lesson begin smoothly, picking up where the previous lesson left off.

You’d think that setting up training sessions with a family as busy and diverse as the Bears would be a nightmare. But Laura says, “No matter how busy they are, they slow down when I'm at their home to help coach and guide Winston through the basics of clicker training.”

Clicking with children

bear kids on swings with winston

What is it like for Laura to teach clicker training to a family with three kids? Laura says that it’s so much fun! Luckily, her background includes working with and around children—at the Shedd Aquarium, and at the San Diego Zoo and Brookfield Zoo as a Lead Keeper in the Children’s Zoo areas. She has also conducted outreach programs, bringing various animals out into the community for “meet and greet” presentations. She reports that the experience of holding an owl, hawk, vulture, parrots and macaws, and other animals while speaking to a large group of children was excellent preparation for teaching children whose puppies run and move quickly (the children are often moving, too!).

Laura says that she benefits from the fact that children have no preconceived training perceptions. They come into learning a new skill with a clean slate and the ability to learn without having to unlearn previous teaching habits. The goal is to keep training interactions fun, educational, and interactive. Placing the clicker and food reinforcers in the children’s hands lets them have the fun. She emphasizes that one of the best things about clicker training is that kids can click at the wrong time, and not hurt the puppy.

Laura believes that what matters most is educating a future generation of animal lovers and owners at a young age so that they can carry what they learn into their future of caring for animals. Children also show their friends what clicker training is all about during play dates and sleepovers. Kids teaching kids is a powerful, positive learning tool.

Clicking with musical children

bear children in the kitchen with winston

But, what’s different about working with children with the musical talents of Emily, Lauren, and Benji Bear? Laura answers, “Children in general have a wonderful gift for learning new skills, and Emily, Lauren, and Benjamin all took to clicker training with ease. Perhaps the added benefit they share is the mechanical skill necessary for a pianist (Emily), harpist and pianist (Lauren), and pianist and saxophone/guitar player (Benjamin), and that helped form their ability to learn the mechanics of clicker training.” Laura says she really only has the Bear family to reference when talking about child “prodigies,” but she believes that their clicker mechanics are amazing. When she says, "Let the clicker do the talking" or "Click the behavior you like," each member of the Bear family demonstrates excellent observation skills. She speculates that those abilities may come from the discipline of learning muscle memory with their instruments. The ability to focus for long periods, along with the consistency and dedication required for and associated with the study of music, also lead to remarkable success in clicker training. Without working with children whose passions lie in other areas (sports, theater, etc.), Laura believes that other gifted children might exhibit the same astonishing and positive results. TAGteaching takes this idea further.

Ongoing benefits

From all accounts, the Bear children adore Laura and wait at the door for her arrival. The kids love the fun and games—and the personal clickers Laura gave to them at the start of training. Andrea describes Laura, her training, and her conversation as wonderfully consistent and positive.

And all of Winston’s caretakers—from mom and dad to the kids to the children’s sitters—are important to Laura. During a lesson, Laura makes sure everyone understands each concept, reinforcing if necessary. She raises the bar a little bit each time—for the dog and for the family members. Every chance she gets she builds confidence, rewarding positively at each success. The family is always a bit sad and disappointed when a lesson with Laura ends.

winston at the piano

Making Winston’s training a family project, and tending to that project with dedication, has had great benefits for the dog and the musical family. Very quickly, Winston is learning to behave positively and to fit into the family. The children are part of a serious and successful project, building the skill sets that their musical training had accelerated already. Everyone takes away something from the flourishing clicker training relationship—joy, friendship, fun.

Laura says, “To be honest, I had no idea that Emily was an accomplished pianist until I arrived for our first session. She asked if she could play a piece for me, and when I heard her, I quickly realized the amazing gift she has. Then her sister Lauren began playing the harp while Emily continued her piece. I have witnessed so much talent, and received so much kindness, from each Bear family member. I feel honored to be a support system to guide them through training Winston.”

What are Laura and the Bear family members up to now? We know they are continuing to work together with Winston, of course. To learn more about Laura, visit her KPA trainer profile or Animal Behavior Training Concepts (ABTC). Emily has recently released her fourth music CD, Always True. On January 5, 2010, she appeared for the sixth time on Ellen. To read more about Emily Bear, click here.

About the author
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Marie Clougher is the managing editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. She contributes to Karen Pryor Clicker Training in many behind-the-scenes capacities.

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