It’s a quiet Saturday morning in my small coastal New England town, a perfect time to take a long walk on the beach with my dog, Sandy. With a cup full of coffee and a pocketful of Charlee Bear treats, there is no better way to start the day. As we set out for our walk, something in the distance steals Sandy’s attention. I get a sinking feeling that my peaceful morning is about to come to an abrupt end. Over the crest of the dunes on the other end of the beach, he comes into view—a handsome young goldendoodle, tail wagging and ready for action. “Sandy, stay,” I warn her. She gives me one last look as if to say “I’m sorry’ before she heads off in the opposite direction. “Sandy, come,’ I plead, but faster than a tail wag she bolts, kicking up sand in her wake. As I watch her tail disappear into the dunes, my frustration turns into despair. I feel the eyes of the other dog owners looking at me in sympathy. “She’ll come back,’ I assure them. Or maybe I’m just trying to assure myself.
Sandy’s unpredictable behavior has turned excursions that should be fun and relaxing into angst. What will it be today? The allure of an airborne ball? The bark of a potential new friend? Her compulsive behavior is not safe for her, and it certainly hasn’t been a day at the beach for me, either.
When I recently joined KPCT as the Communications and Events Manager, it became clear to me that I needed to solve our beach issues, and fast. After all, I was now representing a top animal training company—I couldn’t have my dogs running willy-nilly all over the beach.
I shared my frustration with KPCT President, Aaron Clayton. “Have you tried hand targeting?’ he asked. Hand targeting? I have to admit, at first I was skeptical. If I couldn’t get her to come when I called her name, how was I ever going to get her to touch my hand? However, in the short time that I had been at KPCT, I had already seen and heard amazing stories about how clicker training has bridged the communication between people and animals. It was time to see for myself.
At first, Sandy and I practiced in the house. In a very short time, she was eagerly bumping my hand on cue. We began practicing at the beach. Each time I called Sandy’s name and held out my hand, she ran to meet my hand with her nose and then sat for her treat. We were both excited about our progress and I was starting to feel hopeful. Then came the moment of truth: a Border collie puppy approached the beach toting a fuzzy new tennis ball in her mouth. Sandy set out to greet the newcomer, but something else caught her attention. It was me! I called her name and, to the astonishment of everyone on the beach, including me, Sandy changed her direction and began bounding toward me, past groups of playing dogs and flying balls, until she reached my outstretched hand to receive her click. I knew our lives had changed when I heard a woman say to her husband, “Honey, you should see how she gets her dog to come! We should get one of those clicker things!’ It was as if I had pushed a magic button, and in some ways I think I had.
I am looking forward to our next trip to the beach and the chance to share more stories about our training adventures. Stay tuned!