September 2013 KPA CTP of the Month
Leanne Falkingham is not only a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP), but she is also the co-author of KPA’s newest course, Shelter Training & Enrichment. Her expertise in the management of shelters and her skill in introducing clicker training to inexperienced shelter dogs will be featured at ClickerExpo in January of 2014, in Long Beach, CA. (Note that Steve Benjamin, Leanne’s co-author, as well as her KPA Dog Trainer Program instructor, will be presenting on this topic at ClickerExpo 2014 in Norfolk, VA.)
With a work history that has spanned several states, Leanne has focused primarily on nonprofits—from libraries to a wildlife rehabilitation center to dog and cat shelters. Through these varied positions, she grew to understand the many aspects of nonprofit organizations, particularly their financial struggles. Fundraising, marketing, staffing, and volunteer-force skills all became part of Leanne’s tool bag. She says, “Very quickly you become a jack-of-all-trades in small nonprofits.”
After adopting her own tough shelter dog, Leanne began a stint at a shelter in South Carolina where she learned to do behavioral assessments, pre- and post-adoption counseling, and just a little training. Next, Leanne moved to what she refers to as her “challenge shelter” in New York in 2007. As the Shelter Services Manager, she realized quickly that a service that was essential to dogs and their adoptive families was missing at that shelter: training. At the South Carolina shelter, the dogs were treated with kindness and, mostly, gentleness, but staff members were still using choke chains and some leash corrections. Leanne did not know about clicker training in South Carolina, and still had not heard of it when she moved to the challenge shelter in New York.
The training need was very clear, Leanne remembers.
Our dogs were adopted out just about as rowdy as when they arrived, which didn't start them off well in their new homes.
Leanne saw the immediate potential to improve the dogs’ quality of life while they were in the shelter by focusing on improved communication, i.e. training. The goal was to improve the adoptability of each dog and reduce each one’s length of stay. But, Leanne’s background was in assessments, body language, safe handling, dog introductions, adoption matches, and disease control; she was “pretty clueless” when it came to training.
There were other needs at the challenge shelter. It was rundown, overcrowded, smelly, and dirty. Staff members were run ragged but were trying, the animals were getting minimal care, and illness was rampant. The dogs were all on prong collars and a local trainer had been giving lessons on leash corrections to staff and volunteers. Leanne could hear “no, no” being yelled at the dogs, and the dogs struggled against collars at walk time. Thinking there had to be a better way, Leanne quickly switched the dogs to anti-pull harnesses, which the staff took to immediately, and changed the schedule from two walks a day to four. The shelter's culture continued to shift when Leanne challenged the staff to make the shelter a “no”-free zone. Appointed interim Executive Director by the shelter’s board soon after she arrived, Leanne was charged with turning around the shelter.
Conveniently located near Cornell University and the University’s Shelter Medicine Group, Leanne and the shelter benefitted from monthly visits by Cornell’s veterinarians or their behaviorist, Kelley Bollen. With help and advice from this team, Leanne and the shelter staff improved cleaning and care protocols, reduced crowding, introduced better disease control, improved the dog behavior program, and introduced the shelter's first enrichment program. Kelley introduced clicker training to Leanne and demonstrated the many ways it could be used. Leanne implemented clicker training at the shelter on a small scale, seeing the evident need and thrilled by the early responses. The shelter really needed a method of training foundation skills that was quick, effective, and humane.
With the animals responding well to clicker training, Leanne saw a potential answer to many problems. BUT, she was not a trainer, and there was no trainer on staff. Leanne began to research how she could certify as a trainer. She found KPA and enrolled in the Dog Trainer Program that Steve Benjamin was offering only an hour away! Leanne completed the Dog Trainer Program with her dog, Gertie. While she found the workshop weekends a little intimidating, Leanne worried more about her own skills than Gertie’s, an eager learner. Leanne relaxed as she discovered that each workshop had a supportive and positive feel, and an atmosphere of learning rather than judgment.
When she looks back at her first days in the KPA Dog Trainer course, Leanne laughs
I understood the basic concept of positive reinforcement, the pattern of click then treat, and that timing was important, but that was about it! KPA made a world of difference for me personally and to what I could offer to the shelter.
The Academy changed the direction of Leanne’s career, providing the extra skills she needed to step up from Shelter Manager to Behavior and Training Manager positions. In 2009, Leanne took on the Behavior and Training Manager position at the SPCA of Tompkins County (Ithaca, New York). With her KPA background, Leanne spent most of her time on training programs, behavior modification, enrichment, training staff and volunteers, and working with adoptive families. She was able to achieve a long-time goal by offering group dog training classes to the public and post-adoption training and behavior consults for adoptive families. After a year and a half in Ithaca, Leanne returned to her original New York “challenge” shelter as their Behavior and Training Manager. She describes both New York shelters as “…extraordinary in the work that they do.” (Both shelters are featured in photos and videos included in the KPA Shelter Training course!)
Leanne believes that her KPA training has helped her improve the lives of shelter animals of varying temperaments. She says, “Clicker training is unequivocally the best system for shelter dogs and cats. When animals shut down for any reason, the clicker can usually reach them. It's amazing when a frightened dog or cat comes out of its shell and bonds with a kennel assistant via a simple click and treat through a kennel door.” Leanne has seen bouncy, untrained young dogs respond just as quickly to clicker training. “Nothing is more heartwarming than a once-frantic, exuberant dog remembering to sit while greeting a visitor, and ultimately finding a home because he made a good first impression.” Dogs that have received harsh treatment in the past respond well to the gentle guidance of a clicker training session, and learn to trust people again.
Leanne finds it much easier to find homes for clicker trained shelter dogs; they are seen as smart and trainable. Adoptive families love to see cues their new dogs already know, and enjoy clicking and treating their dogs for the first time. They are often eager to sign up for classes to learn more. Getting a dog off to a good start through basic training yields wonderful results: dogs are more likely to stay in their new homes and bond with their families. Based on success at shelters where she herself has worked, Leanne always recommends that shelter staff follow up with post-adoptive phone calls, and home visits when requested, so that good training stays on course and behavior issues are addressed early.
According to Leanne, clicker training is the ultimate form of enrichment for shelter animals, engaging their minds, encouraging their creativity, and helping to develop their bonds with people. In a shelter setting, there are constant battles against boredom, space restrictions, and a lack of outlets for normal behavioral activities. “A robust enrichment program that engages an animal's five senses and allows for natural behaviors like scenting, hunting, searching, play, social contact, and more is critical to counteract the limitations that life in a kennel imposes on an animal. Clicker training takes an animal's daily activities and outlets to another level, and helps the shelter keep animals mentally and emotionally healthy,” says Leanne.
In her new venture as co-author of, and instructor for, KPA’s Shelter Training & Enrichment course, Leanne is working with her Dog Trainer Program instructor, Steve Benjamin. After learning more about the needs of shelters through his own volunteer work and a visit to Leanne’s shelter, Steve proposed to Leanne, and then to KPA, that they create a course about training in the shelter environment. KPA loved his proposal and embraced the idea of including enrichment ideas, which Leanne believes are crucial to maintaining the behavioral health of animals in long-term care. The course launched August 6, 2013. As instructors, Steve and Leanne are available to the students enrolled in the course to answer questions about training or training within a shelter environment. Leanne loves to share ideas about sheltering and encourages students to be in contact with her.
Also new to Leanne will be her instructor role at ClickerExpo 2014 (January 2014, in Long Beach, CA). Her Sunday presentation will be based on parts of the Shelter Training & Enrichment course. She plans to share ideas that worked for her—and a few that didn't. The focus will be on the practical implementation of a clicker training program, training staff/volunteers and keeping them engaged, and the various cues taught to shelter dogs in Leanne’s organization. Leanne will also address her favorite topic: ensuring that staff members know how to read animal body language and recognize signs of stress.
On Saturday at Clicker Expo, Leanne and Lori Gwyr will work with shelter dogs that have never before been exposed to a clicker. The dogs will be “typical” shelter dogs: exuberant adolescents with little training. As the first interaction with a shelter dog can be “interesting” (Leanne describes it as “flying blind” when there is no history and little insight into the dog’s personality), this ClickerExpo opportunity could be quite entertaining for the audience!
When asked about the influence of KPA or clicker training on other areas of her life, Leanne replies that she “…very quickly realized that the positive reinforcement approach was also a good approach working with staff. It builds a better atmosphere, especially in a shelter setting that can, by nature, be depressing.” Although she has always tried to be a kind and supportive supervisor, post-KPA Leanne was able to refine her language and approach to better encourage staff members. She also notices the uplifting effect that clicker training has on trainers. When staff members try clicker training dogs, they walk away with a smile on their faces. “It's a method that is rewarding for both the person and the animal; those moments that lift your spirits are critical in the shelter world and keep you going.”
Working with KPA staff to build the Shelter Training & Enrichment course was the most positive working experience Leanne has ever had. The KPA culture of positive reinforcement was a real bonus for Leanne. She worked with managers who, with positive-reinforcement skills, were more effective than any traditional manager. The experience shifted Leanne’s perspective of what a business environment could be.
In addition to teaching others, Leanne continues to learn herself, attending two or three seminars a year. Now living in Chicago, she has access to many opportunities; in August, 2013 she attended a TAGteach seminar with Theresa McKeon and Laura Monaco Torelli and achieved primary level certification. A big TAGteach fan and looking ahead to higher levels of certification, Leanne is still exploring how it can positively impact her teaching style. Just as she saw the potential of clicker training for shelter dogs years ago, Leanne can see endless potential for training people. She envisions more clarity, quicker absorption, better retention, and shorter training times training volunteers and staff in the areas of safe and humane handling, shelter protocols, and behavioral assessments. She says, “It’s all very enticing. Can't wait to try it!”