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From Pipe Dream to Positive: Lindsay Wood's Impact in Animal Welfare

Editor's Note:

Lindsay Wood, Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP) and the newest member of the KPA faculty, once thought her lifelong desire for a career working with animals was nothing more than a pipe dream. Fortunately for both Lindsay and the animals in her care at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, Lindsay's pipe dream is now a reality. Since 2007, Lindsay has served as the Director of Animal Training and Behavior for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. She developed and implemented the Humane Society's comprehensive behavior modification program created to rehabilitate dogs with specific concerns, including food guarding, fearful behavior, body-handling sensitivities, separation anxiety, and dog-dog aggression. As a result, adoption and retention rates have increased at the Humane Society, and many dogs that might have been euthanized have been re-homed successfully.

Here, Lindsay talks about her fascinating 14-year career working with marine mammals as well as shelter dogs and cats, describes what these animals have taught her, and offers advice for anyone who has ever dreamed of a career in animal welfare.

Lyra and Lindsay outdoors

Lindsay with Lyra, her Labrador.

What was your first pet?

I had the great fortune to grow up on a farm in Virginia so I spent my childhood with many pets, including three special cats, two wonderful dogs, and a number of well-loved horses. My first pet of my adult life was a tiny, under-socialized, 8-week-old black kitten that I adopted from the local animal shelter and named Sam. He grew up to be the sweetest, gentlest kitty I've ever known. Sam is 14 years old now and still woos every house guest with his sweet and social ways. He is simply an amazing cat.

When did you know that you wanted to have a career working with animals?

My mom and grandfather were both horse trainers. Their work provided the opportunity to see the nature of the relationships that could be developed between a trainer and a companion animal. Animals were such an integral part of my daily life as a child that a career with animals seemed a natural progression for me.

Like many little girls, I dreamed of becoming a dolphin trainer. Often I thought of it as a pipe dream, but I held on to the aspiration quietly, even through college. I pursued a degree in biology just in case an opportunity presented itself, and during my junior year that very opportunity arose! I accepted an internship in the animal care and training department at Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Florida and my experience there solidified my career journey. I spent the next seven years loving and learning from the dolphins and sea lions as a marine mammal trainer at this wonderful organization.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned as a marine mammal trainer?

My years at DRC were incredibly joyful and I think back on the staff and the animals with love and appreciation. The friendships I developed there—both dolphin and human—remain very, very dear to me. We were a close-knit group of staff members and we've seen each other through many life changes in the last 15 years. We've lost some dear faces along the way—again, both dolphin and human—and many of us are spread across the country now, but the friendship and mutual admiration remains. The lessons from such long-term friendships are incredibly valuable to me.

Perhaps my most valuable training lesson was learning that the development of trust with an animal through positive reinforcement training opens a world of communication, respect, and opportunity between the trainer and the animal. I was amazed by the strength and depth of the relationships I shared with the dolphins and sea lions of Dolphin Research Center. I credit that depth of relationship to positive training.

What led to your transition from dolphins and sea lions to dogs and cats? What helped you make that transition?

Heather posing with Aleta at the Dolphin Research Center.

Lindsay posing with Aleta
at the Dolphin Research Center.

I am grateful to several wonderful mentors that helped me make the transition, but I must acknowledge my own sweet Labrador, Lyra, for being the impetus for that career shift. Lyra and I discovered clicker training together as youngsters (a 24-year-old dolphin trainer and an 8-week-old puppy) and clicker training has shaped our relationship for well over a decade. I found such joy in our relationship that I wanted to celebrate it by helping other pets and people. Transitioning from dolphins and sea lions to domestic animals seemed natural based on my relationship with Lyra, and the transition inspired my pursuit of a master's degree in animal behavior.

Lyra really made all of the transitions of the last 12 years appear seamless. She inspired my career shift, waited for my arrival home from graduate school every night, and co-piloted three moves to three different states. Two years ago she walked down the aisle at my wedding and, just a few short months ago, her old, white face was the first to greet my husband and me at the door when we brought home our newborn baby girl from the hospital. Lyra has seen me through much of my adult life and together we've shared a beautiful and busy 12 years. I would not be where I am today had I not shared the journey with this beautiful old soul of a dog.

Tell us more about your graduate thesis research that compared the efficacy of clicker training to that of voice training.

Over a period of several months, I worked with 20 dogs at a local animal shelter outside of New York City. Each dog was trained an identical novel behavior: go touch your nose to a standing target in the middle of the room. For half of the dogs, I used a clicker and treats to shape the behavior; for the other half I used a verbal marker "good" and treats. I compared the training time (speed of behavior acquisition) and number of required reinforcements (treats) between the two groups.

The results indicated that clicker trained dogs completed the training in an average total time of 36 minutes. In contrast, dogs trained with the verbal marker took an average total time of 59 minutes. The average total number of treat reinforcements required for clicker trained dogs was 83; for verbal-marker dogs, an average of 126 treat reinforcements was required.

The results showed that the speed of acquisition was strongest when the dog was engaged in learning a new step in the behavior.

In addition, the results showed that the speed of acquisition was strongest when the dog was engaged in learning a new step in the behavior. For example, when learning to move to the target, the dogs that were clicked acquired the skill in an average of seven tries. The dogs receiving the verbal marker required an average of seventeen tries. Learning to touch the target with the nose took the clicker trained dogs an average of five tries, but required an average of nine tries for the verbally trained dogs. Once the dogs learned the behavior, there was no significant difference between the clicker and verbal marker. Both worked equally well to maintain the learned behavior. The significant and noticeable difference between the clicker and the verbal marker occurred in the shaping of a new behavior.

You were one of 55 people to be accepted by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. To what do you attribute this achievement?

I find animal behavior to be totally and completely fascinating, so I have specialized in behavior—interpreting, understanding, and modifying behavior. Becoming an applied animal behaviorist was a goal of mine for many years, and I focused on meeting the educational and experiential requirements to achieve certification. My goal was one of the reasons I pursued a master's degree in animal behavior and why I chose Hunter College in Manhattan for graduate school. Hunter's graduate program in animal behavior and conservation is outstanding, and is designed to meet the specific coursework and research requirements for certification by the Animal Behavior Society. My work with shelter dogs and public clients at Humane Society of Boulder Valley helped me meet the years of required experience to receive the animal behaviorist designation. Basically, it just took time and commitment to get where I wanted to go!

In your current role as the Director of Animal Training and Behavior for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, you developed and implemented a comprehensive behavior modification program created to rehabilitate dogs with specific concerns. Can you tell us more about the purpose of this program and how you developed it?

All behavioral support is science-based and purely positive in approach.

Our behavior modification program treats cats and dogs with specific behavior problems in order to prepare them for our adoption center. The purpose of the program is to save lives, share effective and efficient strategies with other shelters, and encourage momentum in shelter behavior modification across the country. Currently, we treat dogs that guard food and other consumables, suffer from separation anxiety, display body-handling sensitivities, demonstrate fearful behavior, or indicate some incompatibility with other dogs. Our felines in treatment include under-socialized kittens and house-soiling cats. All behavioral support is science-based and purely positive in approach. We use positive training and behavior modification methods to teach alternative behaviors and condition pleasant emotional responses to "problem" scenarios.

How did you hear about Karen Pryor Academy, and what made you decide to enroll in the Dog Trainer Program?

I heard about the Academy from Karen Pryor. My history with and great respect for Karen made the decision to enroll quite natural. Karen is special to me and I am honored to be part of her Academy.

Lindsay clicker training with Lyra.

Lindsay clicker training with Lyra.

I first met Karen during my dolphin trainer days when she came to DRC and visited Josephine, a dear and unique personality of a dolphin that touched the lives of so many people and is featured in Karen's book, Reaching the Animal Mind. Later, Karen's encouragement during my graduate school years was instrumental in helping develop my confidence as a trainer and researcher. She cheered me on during the many months of my graduate research in clicker training and provided invaluable guidance throughout the writing of my thesis paper. As a young and uncertain graduate student, there was nothing more uplifting for me than receiving this kind of support from Karen Pryor herself.

Once I transitioned into shelter animal welfare, Karen continued to support my growth by offering feedback and inspiration for the shelter behavior modification protocols I was developing. In 2009, the Humane Society of Boulder Valley and Denver Zoo hosted a wonderful two-day public event with Karen. At that time, we made plans to host Karen Pryor Academy at the Humane Society in 2010. I had the great fortune to attend KPA with Lyra and learn from Nan Arthur, who is an articulate and knowledgeable positive trainer and a gifted instructor.

As the newest member of the KPA faculty, what do you hope to bring to KPA?

I am awed by and simply grateful for such tremendous support from the entire clicker community.

Members of the clicker training community have offered inspiration and guidance to me through my career, during my transition from marine to domestic mammals and throughout the multiple transitions inherent in navigating the animal welfare field. I am awed by and simply grateful for such tremendous support from the entire clicker community. The effects of that support are my deep feelings of collaboration and care. I believe that my participation as a faculty member of Karen Pryor Academy offers the opportunity to provide similar assistance and support to students, aspiring trainers, and other members of the clicker training community, especially those interested in or already involved in the animal welfare and sheltering fields. My hope is to repay the favor granted to me—or at least pay it forward—by welcoming and encouraging the next generation of trainers.

What advice would you give to aspiring students and trainers who would like a career in animal welfare?

There is a wonderful niche for trainers and behavior consultants in the animal welfare field. A large number of shelters are recognizing the benefits these professionals provide for both shelter animals and public pets. Shelter work is immensely rewarding and there is a vast need for positive trainers in the field.

There is a wonderful niche for trainers and behavior consultants in the animal welfare field.

Don't hesitate to reach out to potential mentors and members of the clicker training community who may be able to assist and guide you in your career exploration. You will receive a great deal of support from the positive training community. To be bolstered and buoyed by such company when you are navigating your way through a new endeavor is a gift to the head and heart. The animal welfare field will be fortunate to have you.

Karen Pryor Academy, and the shelter animals you serve, are fortunate to have you, Lindsay! Thank you for sharing with us and for all you do to improve the lives of animals.

Want to get to know Lindsay and share her insights and experiences in working with shelter animals? Find her on Facebook: Lindsay Wood, Animal Behaviorist.

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About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.

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