One client family, struggling with a young yellow Lab that lunged on walks outside and was destructive inside, had no success gaining the dog’s focus with a prong collar or with several other trainers. Aimee suggested that the dog be reinforced for paying attention to his owner, explaining that if the dog understood what was asked of him and was reinforced for doing the right thing, the behavior would be likely to endure. Aimee remembers the clients as skeptical, “but then I pulled out the clicker. As we all know, magic begins with the clicker.”
The Lab was eager to work after that. “You could see the understanding and change that began to occur,” reports Aimee. With a purpose and daily training sessions, with outlets for energy and some home management, there was an amazing change. “We began with foundation behaviors, capturing the calm behaviors, reinforcing the behaviors we wanted. Within a few sessions, we were outside with a calm dog lying at our feet, while cars travelled up and down the street.”
Aimee uses shaping skills, honed through her KPA course, in an Animal Assisted Therapy Prep class she offers. “We shape the behavior of having the therapy dogs rest their heads in patients’ laps, and call this behavior ‘visit.’ When the dogs know what is expected of them, they feel more confident and calm approaching new people.” Successful training of this calm and relaxing behavior allows patients to experience, and benefit from, the gentle weight of a soft dog resting on them.
And, of course, Aimee’s social work hat is always on. “When I work with a new client or family, I always listen and act as a sounding board for them as they navigate their lives with their pets. At least once a week, I find myself comforting, and reassuring harried mothers as they let out all the exhaustion and emotions that go along with bringing a brand-new puppy into their family dynamics.”
After people see the magic of the clicker with dogs, people half-jokingly ask Aimee if she I can clicker train their kids. Aimee’s answer is that she has used TAGteach and even the clicker to help kids. “My own daughter and her friends were struggling with a difficult dance routine and were getting frustrated. Using my KPA skills, I took out the clicker and broke down the steps into small criteria. I shaped and clicked the girls until they were calm, until they understood and were able to master the routine. Crisis averted with some clicker magic!”
When she describes her animal-assisted therapy work, Aimee notes that most people who sign up for therapy prep classes “want to give back in some way to the community. Some have been in hospitals where they were visited by therapy dogs. Others share stories of how their pets have made such an impact on their lives and how they want to share the love.” The two most important characteristics of a good therapy dog are temperament and the desire to enjoy interactions with people. A therapy dog not only needs to be gentle and sweet, but also has to find genuine pleasure in the therapy work. “Many dogs will want to please their owners and will tolerate people petting them, but a therapy dog really needs to enjoy and seek out attention from people,” Amy reports. In prep classes, Aimee helps to fix issues such as excitement jumping, learning to walk nicely on a leash, and staying next to and focused on the handler. “We teach dogs to maneuver around medical equipment, work on perfecting ‘leave it,’ work with children, and help handlers learn how to deal with common situations that arise. Our volunteers visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, psychiatric hospitals and group homes, hospice, rehab, libraries… the list goes on.” Aimee’s dog Puffles, a goldendoodle, is also a therapy dog. Their favorite visits are to colleges to help destress students before exams.
Aimee loves to maintain connections with “many wonderful trainers in our KPA alumni group.” She seeks out recommended books and articles and has completed several online courses through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Forecasting ahead, Aimee would love to build on her experience with children who are afraid of dogs. “I want to use clicker training skills to create fun classes and activities where children can gain confidence and have fun working with their pets.”