I began my adventure in clicker training, like many people, out of desperation. I had a promising young dog that had a terrible experience that had left emotional scars. Unless we found a way to get over this problem his future in obedience, agility and conformation would end before it began. For two years I tried desensitization, flooding, and habituation, and more, with no success. Lana Mitchell told me she was offering a seminar and I should come. And as they say, the rest is history. Within five minutes of starting our first clicker session, we made more progress than we had in two years. And within a year this young dog had earned his first agility title, a couple of bench championships and legs towards his obedience title. The road was not completely without it memorable moments, joyful, depressing and occasionally embarrassing. Reflecting on his career, and a recent experience of my own I realized that my own recovery (from coercion to positive reinforcement to clicker training) has not been without its own moments, joyful (many), depressing (a few), and embarrassing (a few of those too). One of those moments of depression was also a moment of epiphany. I realized that as much as I believe in clicker training and value the relationship I have with my dog that I was still subject to decades of old habits, and on occasion, I would relapse. So here is today's moment of revelationâ€¦.
Part of my journey toward clicker training was the result of boredom with competition in dog sports. I had studied and learned how many successful people were achieving high scores in obedience, and Schutzhund, and in my opinion I wasn't willing to go "there." When I discovered the joy of doing Search and Rescue with my dog, I pretty much cut all the ties with the old world of competition. Now with some new tools in my belt, I began to think that it might be fun to back to the world of competition againâ€¦. So, after nearly 15 years away from obedience competition and 5+ years away from any sort of canine competition at all, I signed myself and my clicker trained eight year old German Shepherd Dog up for a Rally class. Riki knows how to walk politely on a leash and sit and come and all the other skills required, but could we do them in the environment of a class or trial? The class was offered at a local park, a place we had gone many times for tracking training. When we arrived the park was transformed into a typical obedience training grounds, people with the intensity of the obedience competitors, crates, and rings and tables. Voices rang out with crisply delivered commands (and on occasion the muted sound of a clicker). I set up my own crate, and went back to get my dog, snapped on her leash and asked her to hop out. As soon as Riki jumped out of the car, all signs of attention or heeling were gone, her nose went to the ground, and she started scoping out the scent scene, fully expecting to shortly be set on a trackâ€¦. Without a conscious thought I immediately gave a collar pop and a sharp command to "leave it," and was just as immediately stunned by what I had done. Fortunately the pop was not vigorous enough to be effective (some part of my brain kicked in I guess) and since Riki has so little experience with corrections and has a high pain tolerance anyway, the collar pop meant pretty much nothing to her, and like most dogs, she forgive us humans our moments of stupidity. Probably in fact, she assumed that being a poor two legged human I had probably stumbled over one of my own two meager feet (do you think dog's wonder why we can't keep two feet straight when they have to manage four?). I, however, was devastated! And my brain began running in circles. What had I done? Why had I done it??? After a moment of whirling thoughts, sanity slowly began to return. It didn't matter why, what did matter was what was I going to do next? The class I was signed up for was at a level that a dog was expected to not go along with her nose glued to the groundâ€¦. Perhaps a lower class level? Or could I fix this problem in the next five minutes? What I needed was an opportunity to catch her doing what I did wantâ€¦ heel with attention. How to accomplish that? Of course! Make myself more interesting than the enticing scents on the ground (oh yeah?) and the change the circumstances to something she didn't expect! So I started experimentingâ€¦. The nose would not come up as I walked alongâ€¦ boring! Changes of direction? Nope. Ahh! But what if we move faster? Voila'! That was it! A minute of heeling at a quick jog and we had 15 clicks in already! I began to slow down, and realized that was all that was neededâ€¦ an explanation that the expectations had changed. At least THAT problem was pretty easy to solve.
A few moments thought on what had happened and I realized that all the environmental cues that I had received from the moment I got out of the car had primed me to respond with old habits. Just like my canine partner, I still need to generalize my "new" behaviorâ€¦ especially in circumstances where old habits were well entrenched. Also I must accept that just like my canine partner, my learning does not progress in a linear fashion eitherâ€¦..