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A Positive Oasis: Rivendale Learning Center

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Editor's note: Steve and Jen White have been training animals positively for more than 25 years—long before clicker training became a household word. Steve has been a faculty member of ClickerExpo since its inception, and Jen has now joined the Expo team as a coach.

Steve brought marker-based training to the training of Seattle's K9 unit, while Jen helped introduce positive training to rehabilitate aggressive dogs at the MSPCA in Boston. Since their marriage in 2003, they have joined their formidable talents to teach more clients, both professional trainers and pet owners, the power of the principles of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement.


Recently, we asked them to tell us about their new life work, the establishment of Rivendale Learning Center, a hub of teaching and training in no force, no fear techniques in Woodinville, Washington.

What were your early experiences with animals and animal behavior?

Jen: I came out of the womb enamored with animals. I grew up near an old property with horses on it. I used to nab a horse and go for long, wild, bareback, unbridled rides. As a young child, I was bitten by a dog; it wasn't traumatic, but the experience inspired me to understand more.

Steve: As an only child, my dogs were my pals, my siblings. I have strong memories of a few of them. Like Jen, I was a little too comfortable with animals and was bitten at seven by a dog; I had a Boston terrier lip ring. The experience gave me a fear of dogs other than my own. I took to police dog training as a way of tackling that fear head-on.

When did interest become a career?

"You need to know what makes your animal tick and what makes it better. As handlers drift from a principle-based approach to a method-oriented one, short-term gains are supplanted by huge, long-term problems."

Steve: In 1974, I was looking for a career in working with dogs, and was drawn to police work. The sergeant for Seattle's K9 unit took me under his wing, and I've been in K9 off and on ever since, with stints in the army as an MP working with dogs, and working with search and rescue trainers.

Jen: As a small business consultant, I was drawn to animal-oriented facilities, which led to work at the New England Aquarium in Boston in the 1980s. While there, I kept jamming my foot in the training facilities door, eventually getting a chance to work with the marine mammals—and my first exposure to marker-based training. I was also attending Tufts University, working on a psychology degree and taking animal behavior classes.

Later I took a job with the MSPCA at Angell Memorial Hospital, revamping organization systems for the shelter. There I met Amy Marder, VMD, then president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and director of Angell's behavioral services. She hired me to help her establish the area's first positive dog training classes and set up a rehabilitation program, using shaping and positive reinforcement, for shelter dogs with aggression. In the process, I began to think that perhaps I could do this work for a living. It felt purposeful, and held out the possibility of changing the world for the better, both for animals and humans. After moving to Seattle, I continued working in small business management, while moonlighting as an animal behavior consultant. Finally, in 1992, after an injury that prevented me from sitting at a desk for long periods, I went into fulltime animal training with a mission to work with aggressive dogs.

What was your first encounter with clicker training?

Steve: It wasn't until 1993 or ‘94, when I was moving from being assistant trainer to training master, and I stumbled on copy of Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog. I realized that it answered a lot of questions I had had for 20 years. I was taken by the point made in the book that it is the principles of training, versus the methods, that count. I tried marker-based training with one dog, found that results were far better, and we adopted it as our new system. I tracked down Karen, went to meet her, and left with an armful of books and tapes.

Jen: Whenever I worked with dogs, cats, and birds, training animals for film and TV, I used a clicker. But when working with the public, I used verbal markers and lure-and-reward techniques, assuming that a clicker would not be received well by pet owners. It wasn't until 1994 and with inspiration from colleague Gail Hunter that I introduced clickers into my work with private clients.

Can you tell us more about applying principles instead of methods?

Steve: On one of the first tapes Karen Pryor produced, she said just about all training uses operant conditioning, and you'll be successful in your training to the degree you comply with the operant conditioning principles. So I tested that statement by taking the 22 main sentences from Don't Shoot the Dog—the 8 rules for changing behavior, the 10 laws of shaping, and so on—and putting them on a wallet card. Wherever I saw something working while training, I would look at the card to see why it was working, to see which principle was operating. I then started tweaking my methods to comply with principles. My methods are still evolving and always will be.

Jen: We tell our students that as long as they comply with the principles, they can modify their methods and techniques. They need to understand the rules to be successful, but can and should customize what they do with their own animal and unique situation. Principles are the foundation; they are the little voice in your head telling you when you're on the right track.

Steve: I've just returned to the Seattle K9 Unit after 8 years away. Some people kept the positive training methods going during that time. The most productive were the ones who were thoroughly skilled in the principles. More than the operator of the dog, they had become the technician who could fix things when they were broken, and add skills as necessary. It's a value I strive to communicate to every handler with whom I come in contact. You need to know what makes your animal tick and what makes it better. As handlers drift from a principle-based approach to a method-oriented one, short-term gains are supplanted by huge, long-term problems. Sadly, I've seen it time and time again. The ones that stay with the principles cruise. The best trainers know at their core that this works. They take it, grab it, and run with it.

Can you tell us about your new training facility and your plans for it?

Jen: Three years ago, in 2002, Steve and I decided we wanted to do more than go to people's homes to help them solve behavior problems. We also wanted to be able to support other people in the field who are working with these principles and to help them share their ideas. We believe training skills improve when working with all species, and we envisioned a facility able to house dogs, horses, alpacas, rodents, birds, and anything else that came our way, able to host classes, hands-on workshops, behavioral consultations, and guest speakers. We wanted to support clicker-based dog agility and other animal sports. We wanted to promote a holistic approach to animal health and well-being. We realized we needed a physical location that would serve as an educational center and resource for all these activities. And so together with a shared dream we searched for a suitable property and founded Rivendale Learning Center.

How is the center progressing?

Jen: It has taken a little time to hone our focus and realize that everything we do here must be in concert with our convictions. Originally, for example, we accepted boarded horses. We found that unless the boarders were really committed to their animals, we ended up butting heads. We realized that we needed to be more selective and honor our goals for this facility. We do not allow people to be abusive to their animals here at RLC. Instructors must stay within the positive reinforcement quadrant. Steve and I have a very clear vision, and we're sticking with it.

Steve: We're very excited about our newest feature. We haven't had an indoor facility for AV presentations and seminars. So we remodeled an old barn and now have a warm, comfortable learning space. We've begun to bring in folks from various fields who work with varied species. Jean Wise Smith, who works with John Lyons, was the first guest speaker; she offered a benefit clinic at RLC to support local equine charities, and was amazing. We've already held a few classes in the new building and are seeing private clients there.

Jen: We want Rivendale Learning Center to become a place where public and professional learners can come to learn, teach, and practice. A place where, aside from the internet, we can gather, try different things, and have hands-on learning with support. It is a laboratory in a way, as well as a resource.

How has coming to the center changed some of the animals and people with whom you work?

Jen: We first noticed a difference in the horses that boarded with us. We didn't do any training other than basic husbandry—walking on lead, waiting to be fed, standing for grooming—but used only positive reinforcement methods during all these interactions. We found that just that little bit of work in a very short time made a profound difference in the animals' perspectives. All these horses would interact with us willingly, without struggle, and politely. The horses want to engage with us once we introduce them to the clicker contract of trust and reliability, and they seem to prefer interactions that are not saturated with the traditional "pressure and release" system.

Steve: One horse that Jen worked with for only 10 days went from hooves flying over her head to giving her a bye-bye kiss. The transformation in another client's horse was even more astonishing. All sorts of trainers had come to work on this horse and the owner really didn't want him around any more. He didn't want to put him down and felt obligated to train him so he wouldn't hurt someone else.

Jen: I asked the owner simply to stop responding to any and all undesirable behaviors. Ignore all the bad stuff. By the end of the first week, we saw a diminishing of reactive boisterous behavior. In a very short time of following recommendations to remain positive and maintain successful environments, the owner was able to develop a relationship with horse. Now he's keeping him, and has changed his perspective on training. The client says he's never had this much fun training an animal in 25 years.

In a situation like that, both the animal and the human come to us in a place of frustration and fear and reactivity. We show them there is another way to relate, one that is not based on cyclical counter-reactivity. When clients see that there is another approach that works immediately, they have hope, and that starts the momentum. Both ends of the leash immediately begin to lighten up and show their true essence. It's very reinforcing for the people. A lot of our work here at Rivendale starts with animals and people who are at the end of their ropes. We don't always have a happy ending, but for the most part, the balance leans toward good results. Another of our favorite recent stories involves an older gentleman and his Westie. He had recently lost his wife, but started clicker agility classes here as a something to do with his time. He loved it, and now he and his dog are entering competitions and winning! If he had been asked to use punishment in order to train his dog, neither of them would have had fun, and would probably not have continued. A really sad time, however, became a really happy life.

What are the most exciting developments you have seen take place in training methods since you first began?

Steve: There was a giddy rush to clicker training in the 1990s, when people first learned of it and embraced it. But we really hadn't developed techniques and subsequently ran into problems. Now we're seeing refinements, and we're in a really cool evolutionary phase of clicker training. I'm tickled to death to see multi-species approach, most especially among the hairless primates, with TAGteach and the work of Theresa McKeon, Joan Orr, and Beth Wheeler. We've used operant conditioning for years with clients in the form of verbal markers, rather than clickers. But to actually see a clicker in the hands of peers in gymnastics or other highly-skilled athletes is amazing.

Jen: We were able to use TAGteach methods ourselves during a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue seminar. This was a very experienced group of canine search and rescue trainers with very definite goals and a specific time frame, but they kept running into trouble spots. All were traditional trainers who relied on punishment as a training tool. Yet during that weekend they let us break them out of their mold and work on little pieces of behavior. They learned how to improve in increments and fix the weak links in the chain. Then we had them tagging each other, marking their own behavior. This is a group that usually waits for the boss to tell them what to do, so it was a huge step for them to see the contribution of individual members in helping one another, rather than being in competition with each other. They were asking how they could all improve, helping each other look for criteria that could be raised for the next repetition, and so on. It was an absolute joy to see dogs they had struggled with for years suddenly improving because they were getting information in addition to motivation. We only had a couple of days, but really propelled them in a new direction.

What would you like to learn next?

Jen: I'm intrigued by the whole health of the animal, and so am learning more about bioresonance therapy and other realms of vibrational medicine. As a Flower Essence Therapist for animals and people for over a decade, I find this "new science" very useful and exciting. Anxiety-based behaviors always interact with the health of animal. Health is a core piece of the behavior puzzle.

Steve: I'd like to see if I can help people find more joy in their lives. It sets my entire nervous system on edge when people criticize, condemn, or complain. There is so much good out here to be aware of, instead. I'd like to explore the power of intention; how to use it and harness it. Our intention and expectations can influence outcomes before we even begin. I'd like to help people to see what's possible, and go after it in a positively reasoned way. We hope Rivendale Learning Center will become a hub of learning and exploration. Even a small hub can support a big wheel, as each person who comes will take something away and share it.

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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