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The Clicker Trainer: Remembering Wendy Schnipper Clayton

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A note from Karen Pryor:

Clicker training is not just about training; it’s about living. When we teach clicker training, we want to see clicker skills “generalize,” become so ingrained that the first thought, in any situation, is to think, “How do I use reinforcers here?” instead of reaching for the punishers automatically.

This shift in perspective can change the way clicker trainers act. Newcomers to ClickerExpo often remark at how amazing it is to be in a large group where nearly everyone is calm and friendly. I think the absence of ire makes us all feel safe, even the dogs (who lie down and go to sleep). 

At ClickerExpo 2011 in Newport Beach, California, our company president and host, Aaron Clayton, had just suffered a major loss, the death of his wife Wendy after a long battle with cancer. Some people knew of this, others did not. No one would have been surprised if Aaron chose not to mention his loss, or if he had asked someone else to give the usual opening remarks. Instead, in the aura of safety that is a feature of what we do, he shared with us the following thoughts about the true power of the principles we teach and follow. In remembrance of Wendy’s birthday on May 1st, it is with great honor that I share them with you.

Wendy Clayton

ClickerExpo 2011 Opening Remarks by Aaron Clayton

“I read recently in The New Yorker an article by David Brooks on what neuroscience is teaching us about happiness—about what makes us happy and fulfilled. The article concludes with the following thought:

Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.

If that doesn’t summarize what we strive for at ClickerExpo, I’m not sure what would. All of our faculty, staff, and attendees are committed to each other’s learning in an environment of genuine affection.

This year, though, is an especially hard time for me to experience happiness. My wife, Wendy Schnipper Clayton, died from ovarian cancer November 29, 2010, at the age of 47. We met in college, so luckily for the two of us we spent nearly thirty years together, the last ten of which she lived through her cancer.

Wendy was exceptionally happy, fulfilled, and successful. People did not need to know Wendy long to know they had met a person they wanted to spend more time with, which is why I think over 600 people attended her funeral. She was aided by being exceptionally cute, with two big dimples in her cheeks and a genuinely huge smile that instantly made you feel not just good but connected.

Wendy was in no way an animal trainer or behaviorist. But she was an all-star clicker trainer. Kathy Sdao, among others, has observed that you can be using a clicker and not be practicing clicker training. At one level, you could be using the tool poorly. At the next level, your technical proficiency could be great, but you never internalize the principles into your daily life.

Wendy was living proof of something else: you can be a complete clicker trainer and yet never teach animals or hold a clicker.

Wendy was living proof of something else: you can be a complete clicker trainer and yet never teach animals or hold a clicker.

Story number one: Clever and kind management is sometimes best

A good clicker trainer recognizes when the outcome is best achieved by management rather than training. When Wendy and I were first married, I was heading into my last year of graduate school for my MBA and Wendy had just graduated from law school. We went out frequently with my classmates. As students, perhaps a bit overly full of ourselves (at the time!) and short on cash, we were inclined to be cheap on tipping any waiter or waitress who wavered from exacting service standards. My friends would justify their actions under some “pay for performance” management dictum, but Wendy, a former waitress herself, knew that 90% of the time service issues emanate from the kitchen, not the servers.

The first time we went out as a group, Wendy discovered the tip shortage and she and I made up the difference. But we realized this was an unsustainable solution, in addition to not passing the equity test. I steeled myself to bring the issue up at our next group dinner and to persuade others to change their behavior. Wendy had other ideas for ensuring that the servers were properly tipped. At our next group outing, she made sure she got the check. She then added the 20% herself, divided up the bill among our friends, and told everyone what they owed (she was good at math, too). That was what we did every time out from then on. The first time, she got some raised eyebrows, but then it was just the way we did things. What a brilliant solution. No conflict. No loss of face. No one had to compromise their principles. She didn’t want or need to shape the behavior of my classmates; she just wanted to get a square deal for the waitress with the least group friction possible.

Story number two: Why be positive?

Great clicker trainers find any nugget they can to reinforce. Change begins by finding what’s working and building on it. It turns out that this is one of the key elements for surviving chaos and tragedy, too. Survivors of disasters share this common trait—they are able, above all else, to reinforce themselves for ANY gain, no matter how small. When everything looks bad, turning it around begins with finding something to build on.

When everything looks bad, turning it around begins with finding something to build on.

Now, the relationship between “positive thinking” and medical benefit is tenuous. There are studies that debunk the relationship and some measure of evidence that supports it. But two things are not disputed. First, this same trait is critical for coping successfully with life’s challenges, large and small. Second, that for everyone around you, building on the positive is uplifting.

Wendy did all that. On a plaque that will be inscribed at the cancer center where she was treated, my kids and I have written a short and very simple message:

“Wendy, you were always up so we were never down.”

During a particularly bad period of time when Wendy felt lousy day after day, her daily assessment was that while she “wasn’t feeling so comfortable today,” she thought she “would feel better tomorrow.” One day I started and finished her sentence for her. “Let me guess,” I said, half jokingly, “today you aren’t feeling so well but tomorrow, you believe you will feel a bit better.” “Why yes,” she said. “Absolutely.” And she cracked that radiant smile.”

Story number three: Hospital shift

Stress can bring out the worst in people. We’ve all seen rational people behave irrationally over small stakes. And even really, truly awesome clicker trainers can act not so “clickerly” when under deep stress. The ICU, the intensive care unit of any big hospital, teems with the stress of caregivers, patients, and their families. Nurses can fail to listen to patients. Family members think that they know everything and that nothing happens fast enough. Patients, feeling dependent, in poor health, and disoriented can be uncommunicative or ornery. There is a lot going on, much of it unfamiliar and all of it important. The ICU where Wendy was being treated in the last two weeks we had together was actually the CCU (cardiovascular care unit)—it was brand-new, gorgeous, and roomy . But 90% of the patients in the CCU were heart patients who, typically, stayed for four days and then were transferred out of the CCU to the regular floor.

I was nervous about the culture of the CCU and its fit for us. The CCU nursing staff likes the CCU rhythm—frequent patient changes, intense short bursts of activity, no extended relationships with patients, and high rates of transfer/success. That was not likely to be a good description of our stay.

The first night our nurse was Maureen. She was a classic Boston nurse, first-generation Irish, smart, hard-knock practical. On for a 12 hour shift, she was competent and not cold, but certainly a bit cool. I could almost hear her thinking, “How did I get THIS patient?” We were admitted at midnight. After getting settled, she asked if Wendy wanted a back rub. “Oh yes, that would be wonderful,” Wendy said. I watched. It wasn’t wonderful, it was OK. It was delivered quickly, medically, maybe 3½ minutes long. More of a back wash than a back rub. It was complete, but it was the minimum. “Thank you so much,” Wendy told Maureen. “That made me feel so much better.” Four more increasingly long and thoughtful backrubs followed during that 12-hour shift. The last was early in the morning—a full 15 minutes, hot towels and lotion all warmed up. When Maureen was done with her shift, she struggled to tell us that she was headed out on vacation and wouldn’t be back for a week. She didn’t expect to see us again I knew.

Word spread on the floor after that. I no longer worried about the culture of the CCU and its fit for us. I could feel it shift our way.

When Maureen got back from vacation we were still there and Maureen, to her and our delight, got one more shift with Wendy, who was feeling worse than when Maureen had last seen her. Nearing the end of this shift, Maureen turned to me while Wendy was sleeping and asked, “How does she remember and manage to say thank you for everything I do with all she is going through?” “That’s just her,” I said. And it was.

Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clickertraining and Karen Pryor Academy.

He delivered this speech six weeks after his wife Wendy passed away. This August, Aaron will ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge, a two-day, 163-mile bike ride to raise funds for cancer research. To donate any amount, read more about Aaron’s ride, or see a cute picture of Wendy, just click.

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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