At the shelter
Sandra, an executive with the New York Humane Society, sometimes takes adoptable dogs on Good Morning America. Sandra tells me it's usually just her, the dog, the hosts, the set, and the cameras.
But this time it's not like that.
The shelter is providing exactly what I requested for the GMA segment—a bouncy, friendly, young dog with little or no training. Mia is a 5- or 6-month-old purebred golden retriever. She was turned into the shelter by a family that had to move. Mia was adopted just two days ago by a very pretty young veterinarian named Nicole. Nicole will lend her back to us for the show.
The show is scheduled for Tuesday, June 16, 2009. I have agreed to meet Mia in a shelter exercise pen on Monday. GMA has sent a camera crew.
I ascertain that Mia likes hotdogs. She knows her name. She's sweet and gentle, but lively enough to make a good demo dog. The camera rolls while Mia learns about the clicker, gets the idea of hand targeting, and starts offering a sit.
After ten successful minutes (nearly 80 clicks and treats), she is weary and goes to the gate, looking for her new owner. "You bet, dog. Go home."
"We're done here," I say.
"No, no," says Joe the camera guy. "I'm not through; I need more shots."
I refuse. "This is not a performing dog. This is a puppy. She's tired."
Puppies are great at clicker work, but they get tired very, very quickly. However, Joe is desperate for another view of the sit. I give in, reluctantly, and let him film two more sits over my shoulder.
At the ABC TV studio
The next morning the GMA limo delivers me, and Aaron Clayton, to the ABC-TV stage door at 5:30 a.m. The plan is for the dog, her owner Nicole, and Sandra from the shelter to wait in a separate, and quiet, room until the 6:30 a.m. rehearsal, and then again until the 8:30 a.m. show. I don't want the puppy to see me until we're actually training. I don't want her to glimpse me and get all excited and worn out.
It's a long trip from the waiting rooms to the set. The dog and her handlers go in the elevator. To stay out of sight of the dog, the producer takes me, Aaron, and Heidi Richter, my publicist from Scribner, up and down the stairs. We will all make this trip not twice, as I expected, but six times!
The first trip turns out to be a false alarm. The second trip is for the rehearsal. The set consists of a scrap of carpet, a couch, and a table for my hotdog container, all at one end of a big TV studio with windows onto the street.
We rehearse, with the producer standing in for the host. The dog comes on set and tries to get into the producer's lap. A hand target gets her off—good. Mia jumps on me a few times. She locates and dives for the treat bowl, but she listens to her clicks and, by and by, comes, sits, and hand targets nicely. It's a good training session, I think.
Then, and I did NOT expect this, we have to go THREE more times for what's called a "bumper," a short live scene of me and the dog on the set. We do this so that Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, outside somewhere, can talk about what's coming next, namely us.
The dog, of course, is getting tired. On about the fourth trip downstairs, while I'm keeping her busy until our five-second bumper is over, Mia loses focus entirely. She doesn't react to the click, she skips eating the hotdogs, and she's beginning to roam. Uh-oh.
I detect one source of the problem. It's not just fatigue; it's WAY too much stimulation. As we all head back up two flights, there are MANY more people around now—and they want to pet the dog. As the freight elevator door opens, revealing Nicole, Sandra, and Mia, I see a large man who is actually on his knees, rubbing and mauling the puppy's head and ears, proving what a big dog lover he is.
The elevator group heads past us down the hall. Mia lies down in a doorway and another man lies on the carpet nose to nose with her, mugging the patient but bewildered puppy. I actually run down the hall to catch up. I tell Nicole and Sandra not to let people pet the puppy anymore, because it's wearing her out.
I think they must have succeeded. For the next bumper session Mia is aware of her clicks and focusing again.
If you missed Karen Pryor
on Good Morning America
on June 16, 2009, view
the video clip here.
In the sound studio
Meanwhile, on each trip downstairs the stress and distractions get worse. I expected the huge cameras, lumbering around the room like robotic dinosaurs with their handlers and their black, ropy innards trailing behind them. I did not expect the rock band. Ashley Tisdale from High School Musical is performing this morning. The stage occupies the other half of the set. Between bouts of actual music, the band is emitting occasional warm-up blasts of incredibly loud sound. The music has the camera crews dancing—and me, too. It's very infectious. But what is all this noise doing to the poor dog??
The next time a huge noise erupts, I click. I see Mia's head snap round to me; she heard that! I run over to the dog and give her a treat. I see her relax a little.
"Ah ha! So, hearing a Very Loud Sound is a clickable moment? Well then." Pretty good for a puppy!
I was told there would be no audience, but on trips four and five the public has been let in. People are standing four and five deep all around the room, right up to, and even on, the little bit of carpet where the dog and I will work. Some are in costume. Some have signs, some have small children, some are sitting on the floor, and some are carrying food. It's like being in the middle of a parade, or backstage at the opera: jam-crammed chaos. As the final touch of pandemonium, a bomb-sniffing dog is threading through the crowd's legs, working the room.
The music starts up. Ashley belts out a song. The boom camera, right in front of me, sails its long neck and head through the air around the singer, near and far, above her, beside her—my goodness, what that guy can do with this machine! Who gets to see this? I stop worrying. This is enormous fun.
Trip six. It's performance time. Nicole and the puppy have been stationed right next to the carpet, to make a quick entrance. Mia can handle this now.
"Sometimes I'm with the clicker lady, sometimes I'm with my person." She is calm.
The host, Chris Cuomo, has arrived. Naturally, he plays with the clicker. I dash over and hand Nicole a couple of treats.
"If he clicks, you pay Mia, okay?" With each of Chris Cuomo's random clicks, Mia gets a treat.
Chris chats with me off camera, mostly telling me how he trains his Rottweilers. I have no comment. The viewing audience sees video of me coaching a condor trainer in a zoo. Then it's our turn. The host makes some jokes, aiming the clicker like a remote. He then describes the assignment I had, "training a wild, uncontrollable puppy in one day."
"No, in ten minutes," I say. Oh.
Meanwhile, on the words "wild uncontrollable puppy" the camera switches to Mia. She is flat on her belly, chin on the floor, nose pressed against her person's foot, falling asleep.
But she wakes to my voice, comes onto the set, and performs perfectly for two full minutes, providing a wonderful demo, and giving me lots to talk about. At the end, I suggest that the host click the dog. He sticks out a tentative hand. Mia promptly bumps it. He clicks and I treat. "I know this," says the dog. "I get this," thinks the host.
He leaves the set clutching a signed copy of the book because he wants to read the part about parenting. Good!
It's a convincing demonstration, friends tell me later. If they only knew what was going on all around us, and what the puppy had already been through before trip six!
One last click
Aaron and I pack up and go downstairs again. The producer leads us toward the stage door through yet another mob of people. A football sails over my head and I turn around to look. Our host, behind me, is passing the ball back and forth with someone in another part of the crowd.
The ball flies over my head back to him again. Just as he reaches up and catches it, I click. He startles, looks at me, and calls out, "I wish I'd had that in high school. I'd have caught a lot more passes." Yes! He's got it!
Clicking works; I know that. But once in a while it's almost a shock. I felt it on the set with Mia, and now I feel it here. Oh my goodness. Look at that. It worked again!
Editor's note: If you missed Karen Pryor on Good Morning America on June 16, 2009, view the video clip here.