Q: Tell us about the first animal you trained.
A: I trained an Old English sheepdog in the 1970s; she was my first purebred dog. I took her to an obedience class because I knew she would be a large dog—and that could be trouble. My sheepdog excelled in her class; the instructors even suggested we enter obedience competitions. This dog earned her CD before she was a year old and earned her CDX (trained by me, at home, out of a book) before she was two years old. She was invited to the first-ever Gaines National competition. This dog was one of those dogs about which you say, “Boy! When I think of the things *that* dog could have done if she had been clicker trained…”
Q: Was there a particular dog/animal in your life that was your most important teacher?
A: Yes, my BJ, a Havanese. BJ was the canine love of my life, my companion, my partner in learning and in teaching. BJ came to me at five years of age as a career-change conformation dog/stud dog. He was my “clicker training clean slate” and, boy, did we ever soar together! BJ took on his role as teacher’s assistant in a big way; I can’t even express how important BJ was in my work with reactive dogs, as just one example. There’s a lovely essay out there on the internet some place about what it was like to work with a dedicated teacher’s helper such as BJ, but I can’t find it.
Q: What is your favorite activity or sport to do with your own dog(s)?
A: I love scent detection in a variety of scent-sports venues.
Q: What is your proudest training moment?
A: That’s hard to pin down! There are the proud moments that everyone could appreciate. Then, there are the proud private moments where others do not see the nature of the huge accomplishment.
For the first type of moment, I clicker trained my first agility dog to perform with all of the equipment reliably and on cue. I used clicker training and target training all on my own, no classes. With clicker training, I was able to shape the agility weave poles behavior (my first-ever shaping experience) successfully and reliably. I also used clicker training to shape a complete running contact zone in dog agility, accurately and successfully, in the late 1990s when everyone was absolutely against running contacts. My first dog had ZERO missed contact zones in any trial. The next dog had four or five missed contact zones in six years of trialing; the third dog had 8 to 10 missed contact zones in trials.
An example of the latter kind of pride moment involves one of my current dogs. She came to me at age 2, and she was a compulsive licker. I’m a human who does not care to be licked by dogs—and definitely NOT In the face. When Rickie first came to live with me, she would lick me any time my face came within striking range. You would have to witness this behavior to understand why I label it as “compulsive”—it was pure reflex.
When we were watching TV on the couch, Rickie would walk across the back of the couch and lay down near my face (to get right in there with a lick). I taught her to be absolutely still, without any tongue whatsoever, when I moved my face as close to her nose as ¼ of an inch away. I did this over a long period of time, during our TV time, with no clicker and no treats. I simply offered Rickie the opportunity to lick my finger (two licks, that’s all) as her reinforcement for “tongue in mouth” at each shaping step.
I am very proud of:
a) changing a behavior that was naturally ingrained;
b) taking a really slow approach;
c) not using formal training sessions;
d) using only the Premack Principle and finishing with a rousing success.
Yes, I know—I’m odd. How many people would think teaching a dog not to lick face was a worthwhile thing to do?
Q: What advice would you give to a new training student?
A: Ask a LOT of questions. Teachers never know for sure what you know or don’t know. Learn to ask specific questions in an “I really want to know” manner. That strategy communicates both that you are open to not knowing everything, and that you are interested in how that teacher thinks (whether it’s in line with what you think or not). In other words, ask questions to gather information.
Q: Do you have any student success stories you can share?
A: Many! I remember one poignant moment for me a few years ago. It was with a team I had worked with in a Control Unleashed (CU) class (the dog was a Lab), a team that was over the top, unable to focus, super-energized, etc. The owner was a freestyler who, like many people in dog sports, wanted her dog to learn to do the sport regardless of any issues.
In Control Unleashed, I take people way back to a foundation of relaxation and, in tiny bits, add back pieces of exciting stimuli. It’s boring for the owners until they start to understand how relaxation is the missing piece to the dog’s puzzle. The Lab’s owner worked diligently in class and had good results. She did not take more classes with me so I wondered if she took what she learned and then jumped right back into freestyle. A few months later, I stopped at a freestyle match to talk to some people and there she was—ringside, working her dog’s relaxation program as if she were in a CU class at that very moment. I was so proud of her! For me, that’s success!
I taught an online dog agility course from 2001 to 2014. I had more than 700 students complete that course. Even today, I get e-mails from those students once in a while, e-mails that tell me how much they learned in that course: about splitting shaping steps, about measuring success, about tracking training. One such student was Sarah Owings (now a KPA faculty member and a ClickerExpo faculty member). Sarah went on to take numerous online courses, complete many different training projects, and learn to specialize in shy, fearful, and shut-down dogs. In her words, she attributes her early learning in Cyber Agility as the best foundation skills taught anywhere.
“I definitely attribute my success at KPA, my subsequent career leading up to becoming a Clicker Expo faculty member, and my current Nosework success--all to your brilliant teaching and courses, Helix. (In fact, Cyber Agility laid such a good foundation, for me KPA was almost easy.)”
Sarah’s meteoric success in K9 Nosework came after foundation training in my online Cyber Scent course. This course focuses on training for the sport of nosework via clicker training, training final responses, and back-chaining; the course is offered mostly to KPA graduates. Sarah and her Lab, Tucker, earned their NW 1, NW 2, and NW 3 titles, each one earned in the first attempt. Team Tucker went on to earn another NW 3 title, also in the first time attempt. Cyber Scent laid a good foundation for Team Tucker’s success.
Q: Outside of dog training/dog sports, do you have any hobbies?
A: I grow tomatoes in a straw-bale garden each year.