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Favorite Picks from ClickerExpo 2017

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I always find ClickerExpo fun, enlightening, and motivating, and the Portland event was no exception. Despite a busy schedule, I was able to attend a few Sessions, and I feel compelled to talk about them here. You can experience each of these presentations at the two upcoming ClickerExpo conferences this year (Stamford, CT, March 31-April 2, 2017, and Billund, Denmark, November 3-5, 2017).

Effective Affection – Jesús Rosales-Ruiz 

Rhythmic petting is one aspect of constructional
affection as described by Dr. Rosales-Ruiz.
There were a few Expo Sessions that were so popular that they had standing room only, and Jesús’ lecture about constructional affection was one of those Sessions. I think the attraction was hearing a respected scientist, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz, talk about a topic that is not often thought to be very scientific, namely affection. The title of the Session was Effective Affection: How to Get it Right, certainly an intriguing title. Jesús described constructional affection as the establishment of behavior using affection as a reinforcer. One of the things I really liked was how he operationalized affection, “the sustained, rhythmic, and gentle physical contact provided by people to their dogs.” Jesús then used lots of video examples of case studies carried out by his graduate students at a Texas shelter. The students went through two general, well-documented steps. The first step was to teach the dogs appropriate ways of getting the trainer’s affection, and the next step was to use what Jesús referred to as a “petting loop” to teach new behaviors. Effective Affection: How to Get it Right was a unique and well-liked presentation that gave us a scientific perspective on the use of affection as a reinforcer.

Consuming Research without Indigestion – Susan Friedman  

Dr. Susan Friedman is always a crowd favorite. One of her new Sessions this year exposed attendees to a topic we’ve never presented at ClickerExpo before: how to evaluate research. Susan conducted a seminar that explained how to review research critically and why we should be careful not to take research at face value.

Perhaps most helpful was the accompanying Learning Lab. But this Lab was not for dogs! The dogs had a chance to rest while the Lab attendees were given examples of real and published, but flawed, research. Susan had the participants break into small groups and use the information she had shared in her lecture to look critically at various research synopses. She helped participants focus on rival hypotheses and look for sources of internal validity. Attendees were taught to evaluate research based on eight criteria: history, maturation, testing, instrumentation, regression, selection, mortality, and interaction with selection. Each of these criteria was explained in detail in Susan’s lecture Session prior to the Lab. Who knew that poking holes in research could be so much fun? Most of the attendees agreed that they would never look at research the same way again!

The Anatomy of an Aggressive Dog-Training Plan – Emma Parsons 

I appreciate being able to walk away from a Session with practical tools that I can use immediately. Emma Parsons is skilled at dealing with aggressive dogs, and in this Session she broke down how she handles those cases. Emma did not focus on theory or specific treatments. Instead, step-by-step, she took attendees through what she does and how she handles aggression cases—starting with the first contact and the specific questions that she asks, how she asks the questions, and examples of the exact wording that she might use in certain cases. Emma walked us through all of the steps, used cases studies as examples, shared basic training that she gives clients, and showed us examples of e-mail follow-ups that she writes. When a successful trainer shares details of this type, participants can’t help but come away with lots of ideas that they can apply to their own businesses. One of the things I admired the most about Emma is that she gives clients her contact information and makes herself available for the life of that dog, often at little or no additional cost. Aggression cases are always difficult, but having a talented professional open her playbook for all of us to borrow from was such a valuable treat. (Note: this Session will be offered in Stamford only.)

Thinking Fast and Flow – Emelie Johnson Vegh & Eva Bertilsson 

A practical example of what a flow chart
might look like for an actual behavior
Another practical Session was Eva and Emelie’s interactive Session on the use of flow charts. As they presented their material, the dynamic duo shared their “love of flowcharts.” They described how flowcharts help clarify training plans and help develop, evaluate, and improve training procedures. Eva and Emelie highlighted how they use the charts to figure out why a procedure works or doesn’t work. They used video examples of dog training, and then used a big whiteboard on the stage to demonstrate what a flowchart of the video we watched might look like. (Use photo capture of one of their flow charts). As the Session progressed, Eva and Emelie asked attendees to try their hand at developing a flow chart. In this Session there were many practical examples and great discussion with the attendees. For those unfamiliar with using flowcharts, the Session provided a useful new tool.

Turn Me On… (Or Not): Inspiring Others to Choose Positive Reinforcement Training – Michele Pouliot 

I have to admit my bias in choosing this Session as one of my favorites; it is a topic near and dear to my heart. Michele is an engaging speaker, and she drew from her experiences working at Guide Dogs for the Blind as a traditional trainer who helped that organization transition to the use of positive reinforcement. Michele has travelled all over the world to introduce these concepts to other guide-dog organizations. In this Session Michele shared personal stories about strategies that worked and ones that did not in convincing trainers and organizations to make the transition. She had wonderful archival footage of guide-dog training that spanned more than 75 years! Michele described the challenges and strategies that could be used in any training discipline. I found it a very valuable and timely seminar that I wish more people would attend.

Dr. No: How Teaching an Animal to Say “No” Can be the Right Prescription – Ken Ramirez 

I thought I would mention one of my own new Sessions because of the volume of e-mail I have received about the topic since January’s ClickerExpo. My goal for the presentation titled Dr. No… was to generate discussion and get feedback about an unusual procedure I put in place to help resolve a specific problem behavior. I certainly achieved my goal as the comments, suggestions, and questions continue to pour in.

The protocol teaches an animal that any time she chooses she can touch a buoy target and receive reinforcement. It was an effort to give the animal a choice; if she did not want to perform a cued behavior, she had a way to say “no.” It was a protocol reserved for difficult cases where it appeared the animal no longer enjoyed the training process, and the goal was to provide alternative ways to earn reinforcement. Because I have only used this protocol in four cases, there is still not enough data to recommend the protocol. There has been lots of discussion about whether touching the buoy really meant “no”—a question I raised myself in the January Expo presentation. The most intriguing questions focused on why the protocol resolved the problem in all four cases where it was implemented. I look forward to presenting the topic again and getting more great feedback.

The learning never ends 

I am looking forward to the next two ClickerExpo conferences and the learning that awaits me.
It seems that the longer I train, the more I need and want to learn. I am so proud to be part of the team that puts Expo together; I get to interact with so many talented trainers, scientists, and teachers. While I only touched on a few of the more than 80 Sessions and Labs at ClickerExpo this year, I am looking forward to the next two ClickerExpo conferences and the learning that awaits me. I hope to see you there!

Happy Training, 

Ken 

About the author
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Ken Ramirez is the Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). A trainer and consultant for nearly 40 years, Ken most recently served as the Executive Vice President, Animal Care and Training, at Chicago’s world-famous Shedd Aquarium. He is the author of several books and DVDs, including ANIMAL TRAINING: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement, which has become required reading for many trainers in the zoological field. Learn more about Ken Ramirez.

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