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Service with a Click

Debi Davis, service-dog trainer and ClickerExpo presenter (Minneapolis, November 2005), writes training articles for national and international magazines and is an Internet mentor for service-dog teams in training. In 1998, she co-founded OC-Assist-Dogs, a Yahoo Group Internet discussion list for those clicker training service dogs, now the largest service-dog discussion list on the web. In 1999, her papillon, Peek, became the first toy breed and first clicker trained dog to earn the Delta Society's National Service Dog of the Year award. In 2003, Peek was among the Pedigree Paws to Recognize Canine World Hero nominees. Peek and Debi were also profiled on a segment of the international television program "Dogs with Jobs." A member of the APDT, IAADP, IABC, and the Delta Society, Debi lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, with her husband and five clicker trained dogs. Recently, we spoke to her about clicker training assistance dogs and her experiences attending ClickerExpo San Diego.

Debi, how did you get started training assistance dogs?

I became interested in assistance dogs in 1977 after becoming a double-leg amputee due to a vascular disease. Because I am in a wheelchair, and get very lightheaded or pass out at times when I bend over due to lack of oxygen getting to my brain, I rely on the skills of my service dogs to help me with everyday living tasks. Out of necessity to remain independent and active, I taught my Border collies to fetch and carry items, open and shut doors, and do other helpful tasks. In 1996, I chose a papillon to be my companion and helper.

When did you begin clicker training your assistance dogs?

Peek, my papillon companion and helper, had many behavioral problems that traditional training methods failed to change. He could have been a clone for Emma Parsons's golden retriever, Ben, in a pint-sized papillon package. Peek was a ball of stress waiting for an opportunity to explode, reactive and aggressing at every human, dog, and environmental distraction. Traditional trainers urged me to either shock collar him or euthanize him, explaining he was "too alpha" and needed some "tough handling" if I had any hopes of saving his life. Yet, the more I punished, the worse each problem became. Instead, I turned to help from Handi-Dogs Inc. of Tucson, Arizona, the first service-dog training program to use clicker training.

"More and more people are training their own assistance dogs to meet their individual levels of need for assistance, and clicker training enables them to do that."

Clicker training taught me to work with Peek, instead of against him—and within two years, this incorrigible juvenile delinquent became the first toy breed National Service Dog of the Year, as well as the first winner to be clicker trained. So much for the constant adage I still hear, "You can't have a solid dog without applying aversives!" I love Emma's book, Click to Calm, because I lived it, too, and now live daily with the results of how clicker training can turn a "hopeless" dog around without using pain and coercion.

Now I live with four papillons, all of whom do assistance tasks for me around the house and demo service-dog skills in classrooms, for civic events, etc. My current service dog in training is an overly-friendly Border collie who is still learning to focus more on me than all the other dogs and humans on the planet he clearly adores.

I've been an avid clicker training enthusiast and student for nearly ten years. I consider myself a perpetual "work in progress," an expert at nothing except making lots of mistakes, and a most grateful student.

How does clicker training change the experience of working with a service dog—for the dog and the handler?

For people with disabilities, clicker training offers something no other training methodology has ever offered before: a "hands-off" way for those with high-level disabilities to independently train animals to a high level of skill and reliability. There are a lot of methods in traditional training that a disabled person can't perform. How do you give a leash pop if you aren't able to use your hands? Many people with disabilities don't have the strength or experience to continue the type of training that their dogs received before they came to be their companions. Over time the dogs lose their edge; you begin to see service and guide dogs sniffing or aggressing at other dogs.

"Clicker training and clicker thinking: paired together, life's little frustrations are turned into big smiles."

With clicker training, there are ways around a handler's physical limitations. A nonsighted person can't see when a dog isn't paying attention to him; he will miss a lot of opportunities to make corrections if training traditionally. But a nonsighted person can feel a dog's muscle movement or head position. So he can do close-up work with a clicker and treats by playing attention games to teach the dog to keep its focus on the handler. The rewards can be consistent and frequent, and are more likely to strengthen the behavior. When handlers learn how to clicker train, they know the steps they can take to fix a behavior that may be breaking down over time.

For quadriplegic handlers, Sue Ailsby's protégé, Larrisa Oshefki, has developed a way to teach "eyeball targeting." She begins by keeping treats all over the house; whenever the dog she is training looks at her, she clicks and treats. Pretty soon, no matter where she is, no matter the distractions, the dog is rushing to make eye contact. Then, she progresses to clicking and treating whenever she moves her eyeballs and the dog shows any responding movement at all, even a twitch. She continues fine tuning responses to her eye movements until she can direct the dog with her eyes only. Rolling her eyes up cues forward. Down cues backward. Left cues left. Right cues right. A blink cues a down.

A person's level of disability may change over time; they may need behaviors for which the dog was not originally trained. With clicker training, they can continue to train new behaviors as needed for the rest of the dog's life. It empowers the end-user by giving them the skills to meet their own needs as time goes by. More and more people are training their own assistance dogs to meet their individual levels of need for assistance, and clicker training enables them to do that.

I do worry, however, about handlers who may be applying a mix of reinforcement and correction. Doing so asks the dog to initiate behavior, but punishes it for trying. It betrays the dog's trust. So the human partner needs sufficient experience in and understanding of clicker training in order to avoid this situation. Several small clicker-based programs—Discovery Dogs and Leashes for Living, among them—teach handlers how to clicker train even before they are matched with a dog. The movement of training our own assistance dogs is also supported by all the clicker training books, videos, and DVDs that teach the basics (The How of Bow Wow, by Sherri Lippman and Virginia Broitman, and Barbara Handelman's DVD set Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog).

A lot of people are working with clicker trainers who may not have experience in service-dog training, but know how to solve any training challenge positively. Shaping is shaping, after all. We also have the OC-Assist-Dogs Yahoo Group, all clicker, and now the biggest assistance-dog list on the Internet, with more than 1,000 members.

You attended ClickerExpo in San Diego in March 2005. What were your impressions?

ClickerExpo was the best time I ever had in my life, and one that gave me daily epiphanies. I often found my eyes tearing up from the great "AHA!" light bulb moments of instant understanding, as something that was just a bit "fuzzy around the edges" became crystal clear. I looked around me and observed that others were also having the same response, epiphanies of their own.

Also marvelous and stress-reducing, was the noticeable lack of "them and us" between presenters and attendees. There was only "us." I felt as if I'd become part of a big family reunion, surrounded by hundreds of people infused with enthusiasm over "taking clicker training to a new level." Hugs. "Atta Girl!" "Good job!" "Wow, did you see that?" abounded around me. People positively reinforced each other constantly.

There's a special magic that happens during a ClickerExpo. Old hellos and new hellos. A sharing of enthusiasm and unabashed glee. Lateral ideas flowing at warp speed, like the nonstop gushing water created by the splitting of the sorcerer's apprentice's broom in Disney's Fantasia.

You speak of living "clickerly." What do you mean by that?

Clicker training becomes clicker living, and it is life-transforming. At ClickerExpo, each learning session seemed to reinforce the other sessions being presented, making it a seamless experience to go from one session to another. For example, in Jesus Rosales-Ruiz 's session, we saw extraordinary video footage of how a slight interruption—a gentle correction during the dog's problem-solving process—"poisoned the cue" for the dog, and slowed down the learning process significantly.

We watched the dog begin throwing off stress signals and lose interest in playing the learning game, offering displacement behaviors constantly. The joy and zest for learning was "poisoned" for the dog, and every muscle twitch, movement, and lackluster response helped the audience see the process happen.

As each segment of footage ended, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz shared real-life anecdotal stories of how "poisoned cues" changed his responses to things he once enjoyed doing. These examples of how human behavior is also affected by poisoned cues in everyday life paired with the graphic footage of it happening during a training session with a dog, was incredibly insightful.

I could find hundreds of examples immediately in how I inadvertently "poison the cue" with interactions with my husband. Not long ago I sent him to the hardware store to pick up washers for the garden hose, as well as a dozen other items we needed. My husband loves to go to the hardware store, and was always enthusiastic when asked to do this errand.

He came home with 12 of the items we needed, but had forgotten the one item I wanted most: the hose washers. Instead of focusing on those 12 items he did get right, and planning how we could quickly stop and get the hose washers later that day as we ran another errand close to the hardware store, I verbally leash-popped my husband for forgetting the washers. "The only things I really needed were those washers—how could you forget them?"

The next time I asked him to go to the hardware store for some items, he found several reasons why he couldn't go, and was busy doing other things. His enthusiasm for this once delightful errand had become a "poisoned cue" because I'd focused on correcting his error and had snapped at him, and now he was throwing off "displacement behaviors" because he wanted to avoid a replay of my previous response to his error.

Using Dr. Rosales-Ruiz's real-life anecdotes, I was able to install a "healing cue" and change my husband's response to being asked to do this particular errand. Instead of handing him a list, I'd say, "Let's go to the hardware store to pick up these items together, and then we can stop for ice cream on the way home!"

The next time I gave him a list for the store, I was very careful when he returned to notice each item he purchased correctly, smile, and thank him. And when he goofed, I just said, "Oh, that's okay. I can swap that tomorrow when I go to the drugstore," or "Oh, that's no biggie. You can exchange that tomorrow when you go to the office supply store. I'll put the receipt in the bag and leave it here on the counter, so it's easy for you to find it."

At Expo, as I moved from one session to the next, I noticed that each session reinforced the next, in this same positive way. Each presenter offered "real life" examples of how the same approach being used to positively reinforce our animals was also vital to use in reinforcing ourselves, and sharpening our own handling and communication skills.

How else can clicker training be used in our lives?

After a marvelous clicker session with my service dog, I used TAGteach (the human-human equivalent of clicker training with our animals) to teach myself to knit. Confusing stitch patterns I'd avoided trying due to frustration were now broken down into tiny steps, and I used a cutback box clicker in my mouth to TAG myself through every difficult stitch. Before I knew it, I had painlessly created six full inches of a pattern I had failed to master many times before.

Clicker training and clicker thinking: paired together, life's little frustrations are turned into big smiles. Though I was not new to this concept, it took attending ClickerExpo for me to see the whole picture clearly, and to think about the myriad of ways I could apply clicker thinking to reduce stress and frustration in my everyday life, and replace it with harmony.

Can TAGteaching improve our interactions with our dogs?

As Expo ended, I had a training session with a service-dog team I'd known over the Internet. The woman asked if I'd watch her work her dog, and offer her some tips on how to help her dog achieve faster responses to cued behaviors, and to help refine several foundation behaviors.

After watching them, it hit me. It wasn't about the dog, it was about the human and how the cues were delivered. I decided to try TAGteaching for the first time, and worked only with the handler, having her go through the paces of how she moved, delivered a cue, and the body prompts she used.

I clicked her before she could lean over and double-cue a behavior, then before she could raise her arm to give an inadvertent secondary cue, then before she could lean over with her body to give a tertiary cue. By clicking each "clean" human behavior, she refined her cue delivery immensely. She was able to drop all the confusing extra prompts she'd been using—unaware she was doing so—and give her dog clear, upbeat cues.

I TAGed her each time she gave a verbal cue in a neutral, non-punitive tone, with a smile on her face, such as the voice and facial expression we might use at the dinner table when we ask, "Would you pass the butter, please?"

When we brought the dog back into the session, the dog worked flawlessly. The displacement behaviors of sniffing the floor during a recall and meandering toward her slowly, changed into enthusiastic galloping toward her, tail wagging, ears up, and stopping in front of her in a sitting position, eyes glued to hers, in anticipation of the next clearly offered cue.

The handler had learned through TAGteaching to stop interfering with her dog's opportunity to learn without nagging, prompting, and over-coaching, double and triple cueing.

To see the enthusiasm in that dog's body language was like watching the TAGteach videos where the young gymnasts eagerly learned each new TAG point with joy and non-stressed body language. Once that particular TAG point was smooth and fluent, a new TAG point became the focus of the next exercise.

The service-dog team had worked hard together, and was exclusively using clicker training before attending Expo. Yet, it was learning to break down the human behaviors into tiny little pieces that made enthusiastic responses start happening for the dog. So often we don't realize how much we get in the way of our dog's learning process.

From the ClickerExpo presenters, I realized how often we put the problem squarely on the dog's shoulders—"he has a problem with his sit"—without fully realizing how our human behaviors, our cue delivery, our tone of voice, our body language, and other environmental prompts affect our dog's responses.

It was the same with my experience in learning to knit. I'd come to berate myself mentally for not being "smart enough" to learn complicated stitch patterns, and would throw down the knitting in frustration. Once I began giving myself clean, clear cues, TAGing myself for making one small stitch at a time, and engaging lateral thinking to translate instructions into word pictures my mind could understand, it all came together and I found myself enjoying the process of learning and achieving results beyond my wildest imagination.

Every day since ClickerExpo San Diego, I have found something that was previously frustrating to learn, to communicate to myself or others, and have used the Expo information to transform these frustrations into successes. I had no idea Expo would change my life so profoundly!

About the author
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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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