Trainer Debi Davis dishes on her crossover experience

Debi Davis is one of my favorite Facebook friends.  She is a powerhouse of training knowledge and admittedly raunchy humor, just my kind of lady.  Recently, while reading one of the best sites for clicker training information on the web, Clicker Solutions, I came across an old entry from Debi regarding her crossover experience. I contacted Debi asking for permission to reprint here, which I was graciously granted.


Reflections of a Crossover Trainer

Matthew, reading that you are 15 years old simply blew me away. I agree with my dear listmates who are stunned by your commitment and desire to learn all you can, and to make animal communications/teaching an important part of your life at such a young age. At 15, my greatest concern was in getting rid of zits and attracting boys’ attention. My animals took a backseat once my hormones kicked in.

Melissa’s post was pure ambrosia! YES! Her advice about APDT, the Bailey Chicken Workshops and working toward finding funding to attend some of these remarkable conferences and workshop—is right on target. You have a bright future ahead of you, and I’m still totally overwhelmed by the depth of your interest at such a tender age. If you keep it up, you’ll be a world-class trainer one day, giving those seminars and workshops.

Thank you so much for sharing your classical trainer friend’s reasons for her choices in how she teaches. Like you and Melissa, I too have friends who are marvelous trainers, who have chosen to teach in a traditional methodology. Though I may wince at times when corrections are given, and in my head, am thinking of proactive ways to get the same behaviors without using the aversives–I also see the efficiency and efficacy of a highly skilled trainer of any methodology.

For nearly 30 years, I was a traditional trainer. To “put down” those who choose to use traditional methodologies would be to invalidate all the work I have done in my life with horses and dogs. Your trainer friend makes a strong point that just because a dog was trained with aversives, does not mean that dog will be a lackluster performer, nor that the dog lives in fear.

As such a trainer myself for all those years, I had a wonderful relationship with my dogs. My dogs were trained as my service dogs long before there a name for dogs who helped people, other than guide dogs. I just called them “pets.”

And that’s what they were: pets who slept with me, played frisbee all day with the customers at the shop, pets who brought my artificial legs to me, opened doors, carried bags, fetched things for me. They were all trained with traditional methodology, and their eyes never left me: they followed me wherever I went, without fear, and with what I am assuming was contentment.

If I was an abusive “torture” trainer, a person who instilled fear in them consistently, I don’t think I would have had the kind of happy attention I was constantly offered from those dogs. Nor the willingness to always do my bidding. As your trainer friend wisely stated, there is still a LOT of positive reinforcement going on when a skilled trainer uses traditional methodology.

So for all those years I had what I considered great success with animals. They were mannerly, well socialized, healthy, given copious attention and enjoyed interactive play/work all day long. Then one day, I met a little bold dog who could not be forced into compliance. And this dog changed my life, because it forced me to seek out other ways of imparting information that did not use any ‘hands on’, any coercion, any force.

Force shut this boy down fast, and eventually, frustrated him enough that he began to fight back. Gosh, none of the other dogs in my life had ever reacted in such a manner. They fought sometimes, yes, but eventually capitulated. I sense this dog would have fought until he was decapitated.

So what brought me to clicker training was NOT that traditional training wasn’t working most of the time, but that I had finally met an animal I could not force nor coerce, and I had a dire need to get this dog trained to assist me. And I did not want to follow advice and euthanize this dog: he was so smart. I just needed to find a way to get through to him.

What made me switch in total to proactive clicker training is the instant change in this dog’s attitude, and the pure joy of seeing him beg to have training sessions, plopping clickers in my lap all the time. What made me switch was seeing the “vomiting comet”—our pet name for this dog who learned to projectile vomit when anything was gently placed in his mouth—then change his attitude totally as a complete “hands off” approach to retrieving was taught.

He couldn’t get enough of it. His body language was relaxed and he thrived on problem solving. He hated being “put” into position, handled at all when he was trying to figure out a problem. But let him figure it out, mark those moments of incremental success toward the end goal, and he was one happy camper, learning at warp speed.

Now that several years have passed, my timing has become far better, my skills of observation more finely honed, and my ability to remain proactive–marking the moments of excellence so that reactive corrections were not necessary–have grown immensely. The first couple of years, no WAY could I shape with the speed and efficacy I do today. There is no way I could get behaviors to fluency as fast with a clicker as I could with traditional training.

But funny thing about mechanical skills: if you keep at it, eventually you become proficient, and able to use that scalpel with precision. Just as the skilled traditional trainer can level a well-timed correction, the clicker trainer can deliver a surgically precise positive reinforcement. It does not happen overnight. It takes time to learn to do anything well. Not many of us got on a two wheeled bike and rode off into the sunset flawlessly that first day. And a whole lot of us used “training wheels” for a long time.

Today, I believe I can shape a behavior or a chain of behaviors far faster and with far more precision than I ever could traditionally. It’s hard to admit, because I thought I was pretty darned good at one time, able to teach my dogs very quickly. I just never had this kind of precision, never was able to catch those nuances and put them on cue with so little effort and so darned much FUN!

But I do not believe in my heart that all my years as a traditional trainer were years of abusing my dogs. I used the tools that were accepted and known at the time, and I learned to use them fast and efficiently and get the job done. And like your trainer friend, Matt, I spent a lot of time praising and just enjoying the company of my animals, with few problems.

The difference is that I now have a way to communicate effectively with ANY species of animal. I can teach my rat a trick in the same way I can teach my dog a task and the same way I can stop an angry confrontation with a human.

I could never have even thought about teaching a wild animal behaviors in the past. How do you effictively use aversives with a wild animal, who can just flee?

Yet today, I can sit in a park and “shape” a squirrel from a distance, clicking and tossing him a treat. I can shape a wild bird to do a behavior, or shape a child to offer a behavior. I don’t need to do any “hands on” teaching to do this, and I find this totally liberating.

One other consideration for me, as an assistance dog trainer, is that many people with high level physical disabilities simply CANNOT use aversives, cannot physically move the dog into position, nor deliver a leash pop, nor even a verbal reprimand.

Yet, with clicker training, the level of disability does not prevent that person from teaching their animals all the way through to a high level of skill and fluenncy without the use of tools and body muscles and body parts they don’t possess. This is such an empowering thing for people with disabilities!

I look back on my years as a traditional trainer not with guilt, but with new eyes. Eyes that recognize that I did many things very well, and some things quite horridly. But that’s what learning and growing are all about. There can be no growth, no forward movement without change and opening one’s mind to new possibilities. And any change like this is going to have it’s own set of frustrations.

There are still times I verbally correct my dogs, lose my patience. They are less and less each year, but they do still happen. I accept this, and I don’t dwell on my errors. I simply use them as an indicator of new responses I have to build in my own mind. Of new default beahviors I seek to establish. There are times I still accidently tighten up on the leash, or start to do a quick leash pop. There are times that leash actually pops, too. But again, I find it happening less and less, until it’s now a rarity. And I let it go, don’t dwell on it, and move forward again into proactive communications.

I find, as you do Matt, that I learn from ALL good trainers, no matter what methodology they use. I may choose not to use some of the tools they use, nor use tools in quite the same way, but that doesn’t negate the information they have to share in many areas. I take what I can use, I let the rest go, and I thank that trainer for sharing his/her experience and knowledge with me. Every good trainer has something to teach me, and for that something taught, I am oh-so-grateful.

If I were to close my mind and my heart to those who train differently than me, it would be MY loss. I always remember that not long ago, I was one of “them.”

Keep up the wonderful learning, Matt. You do us all proud. I don’t know about anyone else on the list, but I would be incredibly proud to have you as my son. What a changemaker you are going be one day!

Debi Davis
copyright 2001 Debi Davis

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