Friday, September 27, 2013

Planting the Seeds of Clicker Training

I've had so many wonderful comments and feedback on my new book, Alpacas Don't Do That.  I was asked how I got started with my clicker training and alpaca adventure.  I can actually pin point the catalyst that led me to where I am right now.  I'm sure there are many, but this particular moment caught me on the clicker training path.  When I got my dog Wiley, he was quite the handful as a puppy.  I knew it would be imperative to get us into classes.  This puppy was smart and for both our survival, he needed to have that smartness directed into doing good behavior or else he'd find his way into mischief very quickly.  I went to a local Petsmart to shop with Wiley and had him in the cart as we looked around at toys and dog food when the store instructor came over and greeted us.  She informed me about the classes she held and if I was interested.  She'd love for us to join in the puppy training class.  I took a handout and calendar and signed up as soon as Wiley was old enough.  I admit to having some misgivings about using the Petsmart training since I wasn't sure how good it was going to be.

I happened to land into a class with one of the best dog trainer's one could ever ask for.  Liz had incredible experience and she used this clicker.  I was amazed what she could get the dogs to do.  I was all thumbs in the beginning and I was not convinced that this little toy that clicked was offering any more than me saying good.  I was not an instant believer in the system and methodology.  But, I did see what Liz could do and was impressed and because I saw what she could do, I was willing to be open about what this little clicker could do.  I listened to her advice and tried the training at home when we practiced.  Wiley certainly responded to it a lot better than me constantly tell him "No."  He actually thought his name was "WileyNo!" for the first few months of his life.  It was in teaching Wiley to walk nicely and heel on our walks that I became a clicker training convert.  I had been reluctant to trying the clicker when we went for walks.  It was awkward and I couldn't get the coordination going myself and I just wanted to go for walks.  But our walks turned out to be about me not getting my arm yanked out of its socket than a walk.  I was frustrated by the end of our walks until I decided to give the clicker a try.  Suddenly, Wiley got what he was being asked to do and I was becoming more consistent with what I asked of Wiley.  In days we progressed more than all the weeks of me trying without the clicker.  I saw Wiley's attention and eyes light up as he finally got what I was asking of him and he was so eager to please once he understood what it was I was asking.  The clicker told him when he was doing it right and he loved getting that feedback and praise.  Suddenly our walks became fun.  I was sold on the clicker.

I took every class Liz offered and I wanted to learn more.  She told me about a Clicker Expo in Los Angeles area and I signed up to attend.  I went to workshops for dogs and for the fun of it, went to a workshop for equine clicker training.  I didn't own horses but I was curious to see how they did it.  It was fascinating and the instructor had one of us be the horse and the other be the human trainer.  We didn't get to practice on a real horse in this setting, but it I learned techniques in that seminar that I use today with my alpacas.

It was during this period of my life that I was counseling children too and I was bringing Wiley into our sessions.  My goal was to get him trained as a therapy dog to help me work with these children.  That goal was derailed a bit by life circumstances, but it opened up another aspect to clicker training.  I discovered TagTeach which is a fantastic method working with children.  Such a positive, exciting and effective way of teaching.

Learning clicker training and handling my dog using this positive reinforcement way, created the path for my becoming an alpaca farmer, and it became a philosophy and way of life.  That chance meeting with Liz in Petsmart was that moment that presented the opportunity for something amazing and huge.  It led to the greatest passion of my life with my alpaca farm.  That is the power and beauty of positive reinforcement energy.  It can plant a seed that we don't know if, when or how it will grow and what it will produce.  As the teacher of this method, I may never know what impact it may have on those learning this new skill.  When I was interning to become a therapist, I worked mostly with children and I would often feel so helpless with some of the overwhelming issues these children faced.  My supervisor would offer these words of comfort and advise.  She spoke of us planting a seed and and that we are showing these children there is a different way of being.  That short little snippet of time could be planting that seed of hope that perhaps years down the road will lead them to healthier choices and life.  We, as therapists, would never know if that seed every would grow.  All we could do was hope and nurture that seed as best we could for the time we had with our clients.  So it was with Liz planting that seed of information on clicker training.  Those seeds grew into this new life with alpacas, writing books and blogs on positive reinforcement and having it as a life philosophy and way of being.  I could never say thank you enough to Liz for planting that seed.  All I can do is hope to pay it forward.

I prefer to be around people who believe I can and stay away from those who say I can't.

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