May 2018 KPA CTP of the Month
Molly Johnson, KPA CTP, had been training dogs positively for many years even before she attended the KPA Dog Trainer Professional (DTP) program in 2011. In that time, she developed an interest and expertise in training therapy dogs, particularly for work in the areas of grief, dying, and death. Molly’s skill set was augmented and enhanced by her participation in and completion of the DTP program. Interacting positively with therapy dogs, their handlers, and the various people therapy dogs visit results in significant comfort, love, support, and animal companionship offered to people of all ages. And, sometimes, Molly’s efforts yield astounding results!
Working fulltime and raising a family, Molly continued to squeeze in training where she could. It was her husband who convinced Molly to enroll in the KPA DTP program after she discovered it researching professional dog-training programs. Molly completed the DTP program with Julie Shaw in Lafayette, Indiana. “I was eager to learn more about clicker training,” remembers Molly. She found KPA to be a great fit. “The philosophy of the program, the time requirements, and the professional instructors were exactly what I was seeking.”
One of the most-loved components of the DTP program for Molly was training an animal of another species. She found that requirement challenging, but ultimately very rewarding. “I chose a species I had little experience with: horses. I clicker trained a friend’s horse to load into a trailer independently.” While Molly’s interactions with horses had been limited prior to this assignment (she grew up in the city of Milwaukee!), she learned about equine body language, favorite horse treats, and the best way to deliver a treat to a horse. Thinking back to the DTP program as a whole, Molly says, “I was fortunate to have a fantastic dog partner, my black Labrador Madigan. She was very forgiving of my training mistakes.”
Somewhat paralleling her professional work, Molly volunteers at local venues like hospice facilities, inpatient mental health units, funeral homes, camps for grieving children, cancer centers, and skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities. For that work she has a partner: her own dog, Fitzgerald William (5-year-old basset hound and registered therapy dog). Molly recounts one therapy visit she and Fitz made:
“We visited an inpatient drug-rehabilitation residence and sat in on a group-therapy session. The women in the group wanted to see Fitz do a few tricks, and we obliged. When they asked how he had been trained, of course I pulled out the clicker! Together, we taught Fitz the name of someone in the group. The name was his cue to walk to that person and sit in front of her. The group was surprised and impressed and asked many questions, including questions about the science behind clicker training. After an hour of impromptu clicker training, one woman said, ‘I just realized that an hour has gone by and I haven’t stopped smiling and laughing. I thought I had to be high to feel like that.’ I cried all the way home—what an impact Fitzgerald William had on that group.”
Finding human and canine therapy team members can be difficult, but having discussions with people about death and dying can also be taxing. Molly says that she loves her work, however. “I love what I do with all my heart and couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my KPA CTP skills.” In the past, Molly has worked as a volunteer director for a hospice and as the community outreach/grief and bereavement director at a funeral home. Her current business, Canine Comfort, LLC, grew from that experience. “Grief and loss have always felt very comfortable for me. My Dad died when I was 14 and all of my grandparents died over a seven year span before I was 23,” Molly shares.
Working in the sometimes trying and emotional environments where Molly leads her therapy-dog training is difficult, of course. In hospice work, for example, the first challenge is assessing, and then matching, volunteers and therapy dogs. “I spend a lot of time interviewing people about their interest in working as a volunteer at end-of-life. We look for a very specific personality—warm, compassionate, caring, empathetic, an active listener, and, preferably someone who has had personal experience with hospice.” Molly says that when it comes to the dogs, they need “dogs that are exceptionally calm and polite, dogs that have great social skills and a long history of positive socialization.” In sum, “dogs that love people more than life itself.
The KPA DTP program was life-changing for me.
Molly believes that the KPA DTP program had a huge impact on her parenting style and the way she raised her daughters (now 20 and 22 years old). She says, “Ask my youngest daughter about how I used TAGteach to work on her jump shot in middle school. She was mortified when I came outside with the clicker and M&Ms! Molly also used her positive-training skills learning to deal with her daughters’ academic challenges. “I’d say, ‘Help me understand/tell me more about this grade in Physics’, for example.”
Since graduating from the DTP program in 2011, Molly has attended three ClickerExpo conferences, most recently in St. Louis with Fitzgerald William. She has also completed the Puppy Start Right Program and is enrolled in the NAVC Human Animal Bond certification program currently. “I would like to complete Ken’s Concept Training class next year.”
Looking ahead, Molly says that she and Fitzgerald William will be assessed (and hopefully selected) this summer for volunteer work as a crisis-response team for HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, a non-profit. Molly is interested in being both part of a therapy-dog team and a team leader. Molly describes the work as “responding on short notice with your dog to a crisis in a specified geographic area.” Crises may include a natural disaster, shooting, car crash, etc. “We’d be acting as a team to provide comfort and support to those affected, including the first responders and law enforcement personnel. If we are selected, I see a perfect opportunity to bring clicker training to a much larger audience,” Molly explains.
Molly says that she is “forever indebted to KPA for enriching my life and providing incredibly rewarding experiences and opportunities. The KPA DTP program was life-changing for me. Thank you, Karen and company. I love you all!”