Last weekend of July myself and Andre from When Hounds Fly made the long drive down from Toronto to Steve Benjamin’s and Casey Lomonaco’s training center in the state of New York, where both of us did our Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) training. I actually ended up going to Steve’s workshops because I happened to e-mail Andre just as he was graduating and he convinced me that the drive down to NY was worth it. The occasion this time around was a KPA alumni reunion. Approximately 30 graduates from Steve’s attended this extremely well organized little conference, accompanied by family members and KPA staff. The most famous attendees were Karen Pryor herself and Emma Parsons, the author of the book Click to Calm. On Saturday we heard excellent talks by KPA CTPs on a variety of topics. Jules Nye from Sit, Stay and Play covered the topic of how to deal with separation anxiety. Andre had a excellent talk on how to successfully set up and run a dog training business, he has made When Hounds Fly into a blooming business in a year and a half here in Toronto. Laurie Luck of Smart Dog University is an enthusiast in K9 nosework, a popular hobby that enables pet owners to feel what it is like to have their dog search for a specific scent inside a building/in a vehicle/outside in the same manner a drug/bomb detection dog would. Mo Carter is a bird trainer, who showed us the exact same principles of operant conditioning apply to training new behaviors to big birds as well.
Leanne Falkingham, the Animal Behavior Manager at Chemung County SPCA (Elmira, NY) shared with us how clicker training in their shelter considerably improves the quality of the dogs’ lives and improves their chance of survival in their adoption homes. She called her training ‘activity in captivity’. The talk started with a rather disturbing movie of an extremely stressed shelter dog engaged in an obsessive behavior pattern of running up the kennel walls. To me the exposure to shelter dogs is relatively recent and shocking because shelters don’t exist in Finland due to the low volume of dogs losing their homes (I hope the number won’t increase!). If the shelter dogs are allowed out of the kennel for only 1h a day in total, what are they supposed to do for the rest 23 hours? Dogs in kennels very often are very reactive due to frustration, stress and bad experiences. Leanne and her staff aim to reduce stress, first of all, by allowing the animals to practice species specific behaviors, arranging play groups, using a lot of music and feeding the dogs from simple puzzle toys like milk and egg cartons, Kongs etc. Second, the staff systematically train the dogs a set of foundation behaviors, which both keep the minds of the dogs busy and give them essential skills for survival in their new homes. The dogs are taught solid drop it/take it cues, a clear no jumping zone around people, to be quiet instead of barking, ‘wait’, ‘come’ and ‘watch me’ to name some of the most essential behaviors. Importantly, these cues are generalized to different human body positions so that when people not knowledgeable in dog body language come to look for a dog for adoption the dogs will respond to the verbal cue no matter what the human’s posture is like. Leanne’s work is very admirable and it is such a good feeling to know that at least a fraction of the shelter dogs are getting the life that they deserve.
The talk that I was most anticipating beforehand was Emma Parson talking about her recipe for teaching reactive dog classes. She is passionate about this topic and runs the classes because she truly wants to help those people whose dogs bark and lunge aggressively at the end of their leashes. Since Caryn from Whatta Pup! and Mindful Behaviors are planning our own Cranky Canine classes I found it extremely useful to listen to Emma, got some very good tips and was also happy to find out that we are on the right track. I hopefully will be blogging about our own classes soon!
And last but not least, Casey told us about a new canine sport Treibball that she is actively teaching now. Before Casey’s talk I didn’t know anything about this sport, but I learned that it is a great sport and mental activity for you and your dog. In essence, the dogs are trained to push huge inflatable balls into goals with their noses. Casey pointed out that this sport is actually easier to start with dogs who are NOT ball crazy as the foundation is all about calm targeting skills. One more dog sport to add to my to-try list!
After a Saturday filled with serious business it was time to drive up to Steve’s house and chill by the lovely little pond that he has on his big property, chat with people and enjoy good food. The dogs (not the cranky ones!) had a blast, running in and out of the water, and one of them, who I won’t mention by name, also got a reputation as a bit of a Don Juan. The same dog, still not mentioned by name, also dove into the pond from a deck, realized that he cannot swim in deep waters and I had to dig him out of the water. Fortunately, I was going to go swimming myself anyways so getting wet didn’t bother me :-).
On Sunday morning it was time for the most fun part: practical training. We had been given a few options to choose from beforehand: Treibball, lure coursing, a hike in the woods and agility. It was a tough choice, in the end Forbes and I attended agility training by Abbie Tamber, en experienced competitor, teacher and clicker trainer. I am a complete novice in agility so I had no expectations for myself, I was just looking forward to learning anything new. And I learned a lot of useful things, not only for agility but training in general. We started from simple targeting exercises which were very good confidence builders for Forbes and I. Agility is all about targeting and once you’re a clicker trainer targeting is definitely not an issue. By watching the more advanced students run courses, to my surprise I learned how similar handling your agility dog is to horse-back riding! Your chest needs to point in the direction where you’re moving and when you’re dog is at an obstacle, the handler needs to be cuing the next target. I really enjoyed Abbie’s training, maybe we’ll get her to come to Ontario some time. Currently Forbes and I are also attending beginner agility at All About Dogs here in Toronto, who knows, maybe we’ll add another sport on our ‘to-do’ list.
On Sunday afternoon we all gathered to one place again and talked about the future trends in KPA. A course and certification in behavior modification is being planned, I hope it will come true. In the late afternoon Andre and I made the long drive back to the north side of the border, I was extremely happy to have good company and someone to share the driving load with me. I look forward to the next KPA reunion, this one gave me lots of motivation to keep going! It was also amazing that Karen herself came down from Boston to join the gang!