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Sue Ailsby's Tools for the Job: A Clicker and Patience

Sue Ailsby is a well-known and highly accomplished clicker trainer who has competed successfully with her dogs in just about every possible competition venue. She now gives clicker training seminars across Canada and the US. Sue has put years of clicker training wisdom into her online Book of Training Levels and has also posted a blog of her clicker training adventure with her service dog in training, Stitch, at www.dragonflyllama.com.

Thanks for joining us today and sharing some of your great ideas with us. I'd like to start off by asking a few questions about your famous story entitled Song and the Sheep. Can you tell us what the big lesson in Song and the Sheep is?

Sue Ailsby

I think the lesson most often learned from Song and the Sheep is that problems which took years to develop won't be solved in ten minutes. When people ask me how long it's going to take them to teach their dog to walk on a loose leash, I always reply with a question, "How long have you been teaching him to walk on a tight leash?" and then my answer will be, "Not quite as long as that, if you pay attention."

The other important lesson people get from reading it is that getting frustrated won't solve problems. Thinking and then doing, and most important, continuing to do will solve problems. So the first step in solving any problem you're having with a dog is to notice you're having a problem, and then to sit down and think of a way to explain what you want, rather than what you don't want.

The biggest lesson that I learned from Song and the Sheep came much later, though, and it came from someone at one of my seminars. She asked a simple question: Why didn't you start further away from the sheep so Song was able to control herself before you moved her closer to them? I was just gobsmacked. Yeah, why didn't I start her further away from the sheep? It would have been easier on her, easier on my ears, easier on my arm, and probably easier on the sheep who spent the whole time huddled on the opposite side of the pasture.

I was hit between the eyes by the realization that there's almost always an easier, better way that you (or your coach) would have thought of if you hadn't been desperate at the time. Which leads me back to a favorite saying of mine: "Welcome to the Flat Forehead School of Dog Training." If an answer makes you smack yourself on the forehead and feel stupid for even asking, it's probably the right answer. We've all been there!

Are there other applications for this lesson? What are some of the problems people have told you they have fixed after reading Song and the Sheep?

Other applications for Song's lessons? Gosh, let me count the ways. Loose leash walking, obviously. Barking at doorbells. Barking when the phone rings. Whining. Leaping around and screaming and trying to knock the dog dish out of your hand as you put it down. I used it the very next day after Song and the Sheep to teach my Giant Schnauzers to shut up when I started my all-terrain vehicle to take them for a run—that solved fourteen generations of screaming and clawing at the door in about the same amount of time it took to solve the sheep problem: three hours the first day, 20 minutes the second day, five minutes the third day.

And back to the initial lesson—patience. When I tell the story of the ATV, someone always says, "I couldn't do that! I don't have the patience to wait three hours to take the dogs for a run!" and that's exactly the point of the lesson. I tried for fourteen generations to get those dogs to shut up, and never accomplished a thing. Once I sat down and thought about it, it disappeared in three days. Now who needs the patience?

An old cowboy once told me that the fastest way to move cattle is very slowly, and that applies to pretty much everything you do with an animal.

You mention that this principle can be used to teach walking on a loose leash. Can you tell us a little bit about how to do that? Where do so many of us go wrong with this behavior?

Loose leash walking—I don't like "Be a Tree." To me, "Be A Tree" means the dog got to drag you two steps closer to whatever he wanted to look at, and then gets to stand there staring and smelling until he's had enough. I prefer modifications of "Penalty Yards"—basically, loose leashes go where the dog wants to go, tight leashes go in the opposite direction.

Where people go wrong with teaching loose leash walking is that the loose leash is only a priority once in a while. What they need to learn from Song is that you cannot reward the behavior you don't want sometimes. You have to never reward the behavior you don't want. You can't say, "Well, he almost made it to the car yesterday on a loose leash, and today I have to get groceries and get home before supper so it won't matter if he pulls today."

I once drove seven hours to a llama show, took my stud out of the trailer to walk him into his pen in the building, and ten minutes later he was back in the trailer. He never did get into the building, and he never did make it into the show ring, because I could have driven to Timbuktu to show him and I still wouldn't have let a tight leash drag me into that building. Tight leashes go back to the trailer. Tight leashes go back to the lonely bachelor pad. Tight leashes go back into the car and the car goes home from the dog park. Tight leashes sit in the waiting room at the vet's for three hours. Tight leashes never go in the direction the animal wants them to.

My priority for teaching a loose leash is that if my bone, my kid, or my dog is broken, or my house is on fire, I'll probably let the dog pull me somewhere.

My priority for teaching a loose leash is that if my bone, my kid, or my dog is broken, or my house is on fire, I'll probably let the dog pull me somewhere. Otherwise, I will either pick the dog up and carry him, lure him, blindfold him, or just not go where I wanted to go if I can't get him to loosen the lead. And if you've truly got that kind of commitment to your priority, you're going to wind up like I did—I had to use the clicker to teach them to pull when I started carting with them!

In the long run, what did it cost me to get Song to control herself around sheep? Less than three and a half hours sitting in a chair near a sheep pasture, reading a book and enjoying the fresh air. No frustration, no anger, no yelling, no yanking. And what did I gain? A dog who worked sheep brilliantly, was totally committed to the job, and at the same time knew we were partners. That was one of ten thousand days when I've said "Wow, this clicker stuff really works!"

That's a great lesson; thanks so much for sharing it with us!

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