Clicker training skills, and learning how to teach those skills to others, have helped Heather with a specific population. “Clicker training has been incredibly helpful teaching disabled and elderly people who aren't capable of moving a dog around physically, luring with treats, or using traditional methods that require strength or intimidation. I love watching their faces light up as they train their dogs from their couch or wheelchair.”
Setting up a dog for success was an important KPA takeaway for Heather, in agility and in everyday training of foundation skills. “The 101 Things to Do with a Box exercise is a great way to introduce dogs and people to clicker training,” says Heather. “It is still something I use in every foundation class.”
Heather loves to train human/canine pairs in obedience and agility “for fun or for competition.” When she was first involved in agility, participating with her own dogs, “Everyone was teaching by simply luring the dogs over the obstacles with treats. It was ineffective, and we struggled!” she recalls. KPA gave Heather the belief and the skills to “clicker train dogs to do just about anything they are physically capable of doing.” She started to shape her dogs' behavior with each obstacle, “essentially retraining everything.” The results were worth the effort, though. “We went from struggling to qualifying at trials!”
Heather has found that clicker training is the key to agility team’s success. “The goal is for each part of the team to know its job. The handler's job is to direct the dog to each obstacle on the course, and the dog's job is to follow that handling and know how to do that obstacle without additional help from the handler.” Since “agility is all about independent obstacle performance, the best way to learn those behaviors is to use clicker training and shaping,” according to Heather. Dogs learn how to perform each obstacle behavior without requiring a handler to be right next to them. Heather laughs, “This is really helpful when you've got a fast dog!”
In getting to agility success, the principle of “behavior first, reward follows” brings incredible accomplishment compared to luring with treats. With the former, “the dog figures out how to move away from their person, do a behavior, and have it pay off. Dogs come get their treats and run right back to do the obstacle again—all of their own free will,” explains Heather.
Heather reports that it is challenging when her human agility students “want to get the dog doing it right away and wonder why we're doing all these weird exercises with the clicker!” But when they start putting together the pieces, it makes more sense. “Most people are grateful they took the time to learn foundation skills. Foundation training is fun, but it's not as sexy as running over the real agility equipment!”
Her students’ stories also reinforce the value of clicker training to Heather. One student’s dog was slow on an agility course and seemed afraid of a piece of equipment, the teeter. Heather reports that clicker training allowed that dog to learn that even just approaching and sniffing the teeter paid off. That payoff led the dog to continue: sniff it, touch it with her nose, put a tentative paw on it. “No one cheered her on or tried to lure or convince her it was safe. She was allowed to approach the equipment when she chose to, and those choices led to great results! The power of free choice beats fear every time, and the clicker helps make it clear which specific choices pay off.”
Heather refers again to Don't Shoot the Dog in summing up how clicker training can be applied to all areas of life. “When I get phone calls from frustrated or outright angry people [in my job outside of dog training], I've found that just listening as they vent and responding with kindness and understanding stops them in their tracks almost every time. Usually they end up apologizing and we get on to solving the issue.”
At home, Heather’s husband has caught on. “It's pretty funny when I give him a hug or kiss and thank him for washing the dishes or vacuuming. He says, ‘I know what you're doing, and you can't train me!’” Like many others, Heather has found that “in any relationship listening and understanding where a person is coming from is like rewarding a behavior. It does more to open the line of communications than any effort to convince or force a person.”
Heather continues to learn by participating in seminars and workshops each year. While in the past, her training focus was on solving behavior issues, Heather is making a change. “I plan to transition to only agility training, and my continuing education is becoming more focused on that, too. I finally have my own training facility, which is key to teaching agility,” she reports.
Looking ahead, Heather hopes to compete in agility on a national level with her young dog, using clicker training, of course. “Students want to learn from someone they view as successful.” Her new goal of transitioning her business to agility primarily will include clicker training offerings at all levels of classes and private lessons. “I also plan to get sheep for my border collies. I think it will be fun to teach them a few tricks! Maybe even some agility!”