october 2021 KPA CTP of the Month
Grieving after her mother’s death, Michelle decided to volunteer as an instructor with the local training club. “It felt like the best way to honor my mom and reconnect with something I really loved.” A few years later, Michelle brought home a bully-breed-mix puppy named Timber. It was Timber that led Michelle to learn more about behavior training. “Timber was dog-reactive, anxious, and extremely distracted—by everything.” Although Michelle’s training club used positive training methods, she had trouble finding targeted, science-based support for behavior problems. Avoiding aversive tools and punishment, Michelle worked with positive trainers remotely. She also completed “every online course I could find on reactivity and anxiety.” Timber’s needs led Michelle to focus on and expertise in behavior concerns such as fear, aggression, and reactivity. That area of training has remained Michelle’s passion.
When she decided to become a professional certified trainer, Michelle researched her options. “There were no fulltime trainers in my area dedicated to positive reinforcement training. I reached out to a number of reputable trainers who all happened to be KPA CTPs! They recommended the KPA program and offered information and advice about completing the program.” After saving for a 6-month sabbatical from her job, Michelle completed the KPA Dog Trainer Professional (DTP) World program in April of 2018 with Terry Ryan in Sequim, Washington. “Terry was a fantastic mentor! Spending time with her allowed me to gain the experience I desperately needed,” Michelle recalls.
The most challenging, and stressful, aspect of the DTP program for Michelle was training another species. “I had no experience training animals other than dogs.” Michelle chose a fish her other species, thinking that the care and set-up would be simple. “My first betta fish committed suicide by leaping out of his tank. Needless to say, I got a lid for the second fish.” Michelle remembers cutting fish food into the tiniest pieces possible and anxiously training her fish every day. The behavior goal was to go through a hoop. “My mind was blown when he figured it out within a week.” This success reinforced the lesson that all animals can learn with positive training. It was also a significant confidence booster for Michelle.
Meeting fellow students during the in-person sessions was a highlight of the DTP program for Michelle. “It was an incredible experience. I felt like I was with ‘my people’.” Michelle hopes to see her classmates at future ClickerExpo conferences.
It was an incredible experience. I felt like I was with ‘my people’.
One of the most important skills Michelle honed during the DTP program was group instruction. “Before the KPA course, I found the dogs and people difficult to handle and I was anxious about instructing.” Michelle credits Terry Ryan for her growth. “Terry is a master at group instruction. She introduced me to many valuable class-management tools to reduce the chaos.” Michelle now runs six group classes a week. “I could not do it without Terry's amazing tips and tricks.”
Michelle also relies on what she learned about creating training plans in the DTP program. “I now have a thorough understanding. Instead of applying ‘recipes’ or the same exercises to every case, I create unique behavior-change plans, customized to each client and dog.” Michelle reports that customized training plans have been invaluable working with dog that struggle with reactivity, fear, and aggression. Michelle has worked with clients to turn their dogs’ triggers into cues to focus on the client instead of barking and lunging behavior. With clicker training, Michelle helps fearful dogs give consent for handling or affection. Clicker training is a part of all of her training services. “My puppy and basic manners students learn all about clicker/marker timing, mechanics, and how dogs learn. Many of my students are quite skilled with their clickers!”
Michelle also runs a number of nose work classes and works with the local Training Club to host UKC Nosework Trials. “Nose work has become extremely popular in my community, especially during the freezing winter months when getting outside is tough.” Michelle’s clicker training background led to her using marker training and back-chaining to teach scent detection. “Students quickly learn the importance of timing,” reports Michelle. She helps her students teach their dogs an alert/indication behavior, like a nose touch, first. “We build in searching later.” Michelle’s experience has shown that nose work is an amazing activity for building confidence. “I have worked with a number of dogs that struggle with reactivity and fear. Attending nose work classes, they improve simply by being in a safe environment, doing a fun activity. It’s one of my favorite things to teach.”
KPA lessons extend into Michelle’s personal life. “The program taught me how to focus on building behaviors I like—anywhere and everywhere. My husband gets a lot of praise for doing the dishes! Intuitively, I praise and congratulate friends, family, and children when they do something constructive.”
Learning about TAGteach instruction has had a lasting impact on how Michelle trains and lives. Many of her clients have dog-to-dog reactivity issues. “Owners have a lot of self-doubt; they often feel frustrated and helpless. I can correct handling errors easily without ever saying don't or you shouldn't.” Emphasizing the positive is central to Michelle’s work. “My business is all about being inclusive, supportive, and welcoming to everyone. My goal is for clients to leave a class or private session feeling empowered.”
In addition to the DTP program, Michelle has completed KPA’s Puppy Start Right for Instructors course and the Aggression in Dogs Master Course with Michael Shikashio. “I'm currently studying to complete my Certified Dog Behavior Consultant program with IAABC, hoping for certification in early 2022.”
Michelle continues to expand her behavior knowledge. “I have become very interested in consent behaviors for husbandry and vet care. Timber and I are perfecting our chin-rest consent/start button behavior for mock blood-draws using clicker training.” Michelle is even teaching her first course on start-buttons and consent behavior next month. “I hope there are enough dog nerds in my community to fill up the course!”