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Lawyer Ditches Legal Briefs for Clicker: Meet Morgan Spector

Editor's note: We're proud to announce Morgan Spector as a new member of the outstanding ClickerExpo faculty. Morgan established Best Behavior Dog Training in 1995 to apply clicker training methods to competition obedience training. This work ultimately led to the writing of his popular book, Clicker Training for Obedience. We recently spoke with Morgan about his career and the status of clicker training today.

What were the origins of your work with animals?

Morgan with Taz

I have always had an affinity with animals, but my actual work as a trainer began in 1989 with my first sheltie. I was originally schooled as a traditional trainer by folks who considered themselves "hard core Koehler." I became a clicker trainer in 1993 after attending a seminar with Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes, and have never looked back.

Why and how did you cross over to clicker training?

By March 1993 I was burned out on traditional methods, particularly the use of the ear pinch in training the retrieve. One day I looked at my dog's ear and saw a bloody blister, and decided then and there that if that was what I had to do to get my dog to retrieve, I simply wasn't going to do it anymore. I talked to a friend of mine about my burnout. She pointed me to Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog, which I read but mostly didn't understand beyond the fact that here was an approach to training that was animal friendly.

By the first break at the Pryor/Wilkes seminar I knew two things: (1) nobody had really applied the technology to obedience training, and (2) I was going to make it work. Everything else flowed from that conversion experience.

Why is clicker training especially effective for obedience?

The object of competition obedience is to show the working partnership between dog and human. And in fact, all working training requires the creation of that partnership. Clicker training gets you there because it engages the dog in the work itself; the work becomes worthwhile for all concerned.

Beyond that, competition skills are not all that complex when compared with, for example, search and rescue or service dog work. Clicker training makes it easy to do.

How did you become involved with service dogs?

Someone once asked John F. Kennedy how he became a hero in WWII. He said "it was inadvertent. The Japanese sank my boat."

In the same vein, this was inadvertent also. Bob Bailey contacted me in 1998 after he was asked by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) to consult with them in developing an operant training program for service dogs. Bob and I had never met but we had corresponded regularly through one of the clicker discussion lists, and he wanted to bring someone along who was a "dog person." So that's how it started.

How do you feel about joining the ClickerExpo faculty?

It's a great opportunity, and I'm grateful to Karen for inviting me on board. I attended ClickerExpo in Tucson, and the "candle power" of the faculty was just astounding. It could have lasted a week and I doubt that one could get enough. So I'm honored to be included, and only hope that I bring enough to the table to justify that honor.

What else are you working on now?

Several things. Most importantly I am closing my law practice to devote myself full time to my training, so I have time and energy that I didn't have before.

I have wanted to make work with animals, and specifically dog training, my life focus for over ten years. It's the single area of work that fulfills me the most. However, "life is what happens while you're making other plans"—and I had bills to pay and a newly adopted son to support and then you sort of wake up and realize that all this time has gone by, and you're 10 years older, and still not doing what you really want to do.

What prompted the choice? On the one side, the legal profession was never really satisfying for me. I never really found that niche where I felt like I was really doing anyone any good. And on the other side, particularly after I discovered clicker training, the work with animals was completely satisfying. So the choice was obvious; the only real issue was being able to make it happen. And now, with a little planning and a healthy bit of luck, things have come together in such a way as to make the change possible. And I'm establishing a boarding kennel for cash flow.

I have a puppy in training for service dog work. I am going to start my pit bull Katy in agility and scent detection. I have a Dane, Mandy, who is very sweet and very dumb but she has "wobblers" so I'm going to do some strengthening work with her using low cavalettis and such.

I have two videos in progress, one on basics and one on the retrieve. I've also started writing a new book, though the format for that is not yet entirely clear to me.

I also have room on our property for animals other than dogs, and am hoping at least to do chicken training here. I want to host seminars and camps, including horsemanship inasmuch as I have just started clicker training my first horse, a 9-year-old mare named Moonlite.

There are projects in the works that are still too nascent to talk about, but I'm excited about all the possibilities.

People often say "If clicking works so well, why aren't there any clicker trained obedience champions?" What is your response?

So far as I know there are some OTCh (Obedience Trial Champions) clicker trained dogs, though I don't have specific names. My sheltie Dylan was clicker trained from day one, and was one of the most dynamic working dogs around. Even OTCh trainers would watch him because he was so vibrant. He got his CD (Companion Dog) and CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) with no NQs (Not Qualified), multiple placements and one High in Trial—at a sheltie specialty, no less.

I adopted Michael around the time Dylan finished his CDX, and while we did some utility training, after that the demands of being a parent, along with the fact that we moved well away from the city—making it hard to travel for training and shows—pretty much ended my utility training with him. I have no doubt I would have put a Utility Dog title on him had we kept going; what we would have done beyond that is anybody's guess. And unfortunately he is now deceased, so it's all moot.

My other response to that objection is: how many OTCh dogs are there, anyway? If traditional training is so good, why aren't all the traditionally trained dogs OTCh dogs? Obviously, much depends on the dog, the ability of the trainer, and the trainer's ability to trial the dog week in and week out. One of the top OTCh handlers in Southern California used to trial her dog about 40 weeks a year. Even in my heyday I didn't have that kind of time.

Some have observed that clicker training does not get as much press as it deserves. Why do you think that is?

Morgan and Lucky

I don't really know. We have more than our share of engaging and dynamic personalities (Karen, Kathy Sdao, Steve White to name but a few), and certainly plenty of successful work under our belts.

Part of it may be that our lingo may seem a bit arcane. Cesar Milan can talk about "energy" and "vibes," none of which means anything but audiences relate to it. We need to find ways to articulate what we do in a popular way without misstating the technology or dummying it down.

Plus, the media is kind of hooked on traditional trainers. A little while ago it was Matthew Margolis, now Cesar Milan. It's hard to get media to break away from something they know works in terms of audience awareness. I suspect another major part of it is that while we all want to grow our businesses, none of us have really focused on trying to establish a media presence. It's hard to do without connections. Both Margolis and Milan have traded in on their celebrity associations.

Of course, the odd part about all that is that (at least so far as I know) all movie animals are clicker trained, so you would think the media generally would be more conscious of it.

On the other hand, I saw a program on Animal Planet recently from Britain where one of the trainers was using a clicker to work on stopping a dog from barking in the house. So, there is some beginning media presence. If we want more, we're going to have to make a concerted effort to generate it.

Can you tell us about the process of writing Clicker Training for Obedience?

Karen Pryor had established a small clicker discussion list sometime in 1993 or 1994. She was on it, but really maintained it as a way for folks coming into clicker from the dog world to brainstorm. So we had folks like Kathleen Weaver, Corally Burmaster, Susan Garrett, Sue Ailsby, Carolyn Clark came in at one point, me, a few others. Kathy Sdao and Steve White showed up somewhere in those early years too. We shared experiences, and most of the discussions were in the vein of "I don't really know what I'm doing here, but this is what I'm trying"—and then we'd talk about how we shaped signals or developed some duration on the stay, what have you.

It's really important to remember, especially in this day of multiple Yahoo lists, books, DVDs, seminars and so forth, that just 10 years there were virtually no resources. Ian Dunbar and Terry Ryan had done seminal work on being more "dog friendly," but not really anything involving clicker training. There were no established clicker trainers in canine competition: Dawn Jecs was up in Washington doing operant without clicker ("Choose to Heel") while trying not to make waves in her club. Patty Ruzzo was "food chucking" back east with great success—also operant without the clicker. There was that little list, and somewhere in 1994 or 1995 Corally Burmaster started the Clicker Journal. My first writing was published there. But whatever resources we had were things we came up with for ourselves. The wealth of information available to folks new to clicker training now is staggering by comparison.

Sometimes I think that we had an advantage in a way, though, because we did have to work things out and we did have to rely on our own resources, and we made it because all of us shared the same core commitment to figuring out how to make it work. I try to give that message to folks coming in new today: be willing to pioneer, try things out, fail, learn and move forward. That's the "can do" spirit that makes this whole approach so great.

But I digress.

In my first training diary I pasted the "10 rules of shaping" and "8 ways to change behavior" inside the front cover, and every time I came up against a training problem I went to those 20 sentences to find a key to solving it. I don't think any, or at least many of us even had training partners; I certainly didn't. So we were basically on our own, stumbling on more or less parallel paths through the jungle, keeping in touch as best we could.

Some time in late 1994 Karen responded to a post I had written—I think on utility signals—and said, "You're really writing a book here, you know." And so it began. It took basically four years to write, because I was writing it as I went. I had no academic background in behaviorism (that shows in some of the discussions), so everything was practical. Every piece of advice, every tip, everything in the book came directly from my own experience training my dogs and teaching the few students I had. So obviously, there was a lot of drafting and rewriting along the way, probably 10 times as much stuff was dumped as ultimately made it into the book.

I was working fulltime in my law practice, training and showing my dogs, and writing the book 4 or 5 nights a week. I went two years on about 4 hours of sleep a night.

Clicker Training for Obedience was basically ready for publication in October 1998, by which time I had been working with Bob and Mouse [Marion] Bailey at CCI for about four months, and as a result of that collaboration I had refined many of the ideas in the book. I remember talking with Karen about that time and telling her that I wanted to go back and rewrite several portions. Without going into details, suffice it to say that at that moment I learned that Karen is quite capable of applying aversive responses when she deems it appropriate.

The process was great for me, because it compelled me to think things through and systematize my methods as much as possible. I'm glad I had students who were willing to let their dogs be guinea pigs and grace the pages of the book. Without working with them I would never have been able to put it all together to the extent I did. In some ways it's wonderful because I can look at the pictures and not only remember the dogs but each of the sessions we did when the pictures were taken, my interactions with the teams, and experiences we had at shows, so it provides me with living memories. All those dogs and their handlers will always have a very special place in my heart.

I'm often asked if I'm going to write another one, and while I think I have another one in me and have started to play with it a little, it's hard to gear myself up for the effort, remembering how much the first one took. Right now I want to refocus on my own training, especially now that I'm adding horses into my training mix. Whatever I have to say in whatever writing I do, I want people to know that it accurately reflects what I actually do and the results I have attained. Aside from a certain gift with language and an ability to explain complicated things simply, practical experience and application is basically all I really have to offer.

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