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The Luckiest Dogs in Chicago

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Strolling (OK, briskly walking) down a Shedd Aquarium hallway with Ken Ramirez last month, we were stopped momentarily by a warm and rather touching greeting from one of Ken's newest trainees, Bruce.

Bruce is not a dolphin or a beluga (though wouldn't it be fascinating if cetaceans strolled the hallways?); he is a dog. Bruce showered Ken with kisses and cozied up to him, wiggling in obvious joy at seeing "Dad" unexpectedly. I didn't need anything more than that brief interaction to understand that the relationship they have is a strong one. It was written all over Bruce's tail: Ken rocks his world!

Not so long ago Bruce's world was a very different one. Ken, the aquarium's Executive VP of Animal Programs & Training (and ClickerExpo faculty member), said that previously Bruce had scars and bite marks on the top of his head, presumably from his former life as a fighting dog. These days Bruce spends his time at Shedd being clicker trained by the Chicago aquarium's trainers, practicing for his role in Shedd's new aquatic show.

I was invited, along with Karen Pryor and KPA Program Director Tia Guest, to watch a preview of that show, which now includes dogs in addition to marine mammals. Clicker training is featured front and center in the show (literally), which aims to educate the dog-owning public that they can teach their dogs at home in the exact same way that Shedd's trainers teach the marine mammals there.

My favorite way in which Shedd gets this point across is showing rather than just telling. The trainers ask the dogs to perform the same behaviors that the dolphins are performing at the same time.

For example, a dolphin is cued to swim across the water from Trainer A to Trainer B. Simultaneously, a dog is cued to run across a walkway from Trainer C to Trainer D. A dog touches his nose to a buoy target while a dolphin touches his beak to an identical buoy target. Dog gets a click/treat. Dolphin gets a whistle/fish. The point is made elegantly, artfully, and in such an entertaining way.

It was a pleasure for the three of us to watch the show, to meet and greet Bruce and the other dogs afterward, and to get a look at some of the behaviors they're working on. Whatever their previous lives involved, the dogs are all sweethearts now, and clearly love their new lives. They just might be the luckiest dogs in Chicago!

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Lori Chamberland is a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP). She also provides limited in-home dog training in the Hudson, MA, area. A canine sports enthusiast, Lori and her dogs have competed in agility, K9 Nose Work, and Treibball.