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But I Can’t Take the Treats and Toys into the Ring! An Interview with Lynne Stephens

The Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Dog Trainer Professional program results in many “a-ha” moments. For 30-year trainer and agility competitor Lynne Stephens, the most revealing moment came observing how service dogs were trained. The service animals were being trained without the use of toys or treats, yet were performing important behaviors reliably. How? Could this type of training also be effective in the competition ring where toys and treats are not allowed?

This lesson changed how Lynne both trains and competes. With her new DVD, But I Can’t Take the Treats and Toys into the Ring! Understanding Cues as Reinforcers, she shares her light-bulb moments, how they influenced her own methods, and how other competitors can train more reliable behaviors for their own sports.

In the interview that follows, Lynne discusses using cues rather than treats and toys for success—and how you can, too!

Q: What ring does your DVD title reference?

A: Any ring! Obedience, rally, agility, schutzhund, conformation, gun dog… every ring! If you participate in these or any other sport with your dog, read on!

Q: How do you get brilliant performance in the ring without the use of treats and toys? When you use so much positive reinforcement in training, surely dogs won’t want to work without reinforcers in the ring?

A: It’s true—treats and toys are not allowed in the ring. It’s also true that animals (humans included) won’t work for long without reinforcers. The solution is to take alternative reinforcers into the ring with you!

Q: What are these alternative reinforcers, and how do you find them?

A: For many years I was among those searching for answers to these questions. However, thanks to Karen Pryor Academy, I discovered that there are answers based in science (and that there really is light at the end of the tunnel). All I had to do was learn, and apply, a few simple rules.

I really enjoyed the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program. Even more importantly, now I’m loving how the knowledge and understanding from the program have changed my life, my dogs’ lives, and many of my clients’ dogs’ lives forever! After more than 30 years of dog training experience in one form or another, I was excited by how many little light-bulb moments I had.

These highly accurate and dependable behavior chains were being performed without the constant use of treats or toys!

One of the first light-bulb moments came as the course focused on training service dogs, including animals at Guide Dogs for the Blind. We watched, and discussed, videos of these wonderful dogs performing long and complex behavior chains daily. What was most impressive was that they were performing the behaviors happily—and so accurately that physically disabled or blind people could rely on them for their safety. These highly accurate and dependable behavior chains were being performed without the constant use of treats or toys!

Slowly, slowly, and with lots of patience and coaching from our instructor, we learned more. The dogs knew each and every behavior perfectly. They were fluent in these behaviors in the face of every distraction imaginable. The dogs enjoyed and followed their cues for these behaviors because the cues had been given so much value through the generous, reliable, and predictable use of treats or toys in training. The correct response to each individual cue had always been reinforced! Every time! 

The service dogs had learned that it was worth it to respond to their cues, as the cues guaranteed payment! The cues themselves had become conditioned secondary reinforcers. Each cue was a genuine opportunity to earn reinforcement. That reinforcement would come either in the form of a treat or toy or in the form of another cue (even an opportunity for more reinforcement!). A-ha!

Chained together, each cue in the chain would reinforce the preceding cue until the end of the chain when, predictably and reliably, the primary reinforcer would come! Wow! Flashing light bulbs!

Q: Yes, but knowing and doing are two different things. When and how did you decide to apply what you learned?

A: It wasn’t until I was actually working on the ten-part behavior chain for my practical exam at the end of the KPA Dog Trainer course that the light bulb was at its brightest. My ten-part assessment chain had to be performed in an order chosen by me. After that, several shorter chains (consisting of four or five of the full-chain behaviors) were to be chosen at random by my instructor and performed right there and then at the exam! There would be no preparation time for the shorter chains.

This assessment had to be done well. It had to be reliable; there would be no use of treats or toys throughout the demonstration. This was the real thing, the performance that would determine whether or not I possessed the practical training skills to qualify as a KPA Certified Training Partner (CTP).

I found myself practicing each behavior individually, over and over again, reinforcing each and every correct response to my cues. I practiced 2-part chains, being mindful of exactly when to cue the second behavior and reinforcing the final behavior each and every time. I worked out all the different permutations of putting two cues together, to be sure that my dog could not only understand a down from a sit, but a sit from a down, a sit from a leg weave, a down from a leg weave, etc.

Occasionally, very occasionally, I practiced slightly longer chains and, perhaps half a dozen times as exam day approached, I practiced the entire chain. I continued to practice each individual behavior and reinforce each and every correct response to the cue. I knew both that my cues and behaviors had to be strong and that this was the way to do it!

I went into the assessment full of confidence and passed with flying colors!

Q: It’s impressive that you were able to apply what you learned in the Dog Trainer Professional program so effectively. What made you realize that this would also work in the dog-sports world?

A: As I progressed through my KPA certification course, I thought:

  • Isn’t this what we all want in our own sports?
  •  Don’t we want to enter the ring full of confidence, ready to perform at the top of our game?
  •  Aren’t all of our sports made up of individual behaviors that have cues?
  •  Don’t we want to chain those cues together into a complete performance?
The more I thought about these questions, the more I knew that clicker training behavior chains was the answer for many a frustrated dog sport competitor.

The more I thought about these questions, the more I knew that clicker training behavior chains was the answer for many a frustrated dog sport competitor. It applied to everything, so why wasn’t I applying it fully to my own agility training?

Because old habits are hard to break! I was having too much fun stringing together many behaviors that weren’t quite fluent. My own cues and timing were not as well practiced and rehearsed as those in my KPA assessment chain. A-ha!

With this realization or light-bulb moment that came as I progressed through my KPA course, the idea for a seminar and a DVD was born. I am a lifelong teacher, always sharing and finding ways of making knowledge accessible. In this case I wanted to make the knowledge accessible not only to my own students, but to as many students as I could. And I wanted to share the results: less frustration, more fun, and more success (for the dogs and for the people!).

Q: What is your goal with this DVD?

A: “But I can’t take the treats and toys in the ring!” was the obvious title for the seminar that became the DVD. It was the lament I heard most often as students and friends prepared for the competition ring and students in Basic Manners classes prepared for real life with their dogs.

My aim was to make the seminar fun and informative. Knowing that it would be impossible to impart all the knowledge I had gained through the KPA course, I just wanted to light up some bulbs for course participants, so that they…

·         …could be more patient with their dogs.

·         …understood how to build reliable behavior chains for their sports.

·         …could be more forgiving if their dogs seemed confused.

·         …might understand better why the dogs might be confused.

·         …could be more forgiving of themselves.

·         …felt less frustrated with the challenges of becoming a great dog /handler team.

·         …would find a way forward in any training situation.

Q: How has the response been?

A: When we first presented our seminar to audiences in North Carolina, we were excited at the response from many who expressed that, for the first time, they could see that there might be something to this positive reinforcement training! A dim light bulb was beginning to glow, a light that would help the participants train more reliable behaviors for their own sports.

My light-bulb moment led to a fundamental and forever change in my own dogs’ lives and in my own training. It can happen for you, too!

Even more exciting was the fact that some participants decided to take the seminar more than once. Others recommended it to their own club members, which lead to our presenting it in a number of different venues. When the opportunity came along to make the seminar into a DVD, it was a thrill and honor. (Thanks to Brad and Lisa Waggoner for introducing us to the Tawzer Dog video team!)

The hope is that this DVD will be enjoyed by many and will lead to lots of fun training and brilliant sporting performance! My light-bulb moment led to a fundamental and forever change in my own dogs’ lives and in my own training. It can happen for you, too!


Thank you, Lynne, for giving dog-sport competitors a great tool for success! See you in the ring!

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