There’s nothing I love more than a weekend at ClickerExpo. Okay, so I’ve only been to two of them so far, but most recently it was in the country music capitol of Nashville, Tennessee at the Sheraton Music City Center Hotel between March 30th and April 1st.
If you've never heard of ClickerExpo, here's a brief description from the website: "The  ClickerExpo program is filled with innovative courses, creative teachers, and fun events... Our faculty brings you to the frontier of understanding and best practices, sharing each year’s newest research, techniques, tools, and skills" on positive animal training and clicker training.
It’s always an exciting weekend. For me, it’s like fun family reunion. I get to see people that I know from my Karen Pryor Academy class. It’s also a pleasure to get to know the newest KPA graduates and see their enthusiasm for positive training and the practical application of the concepts.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you just how accommodating the hotel was of (just guessing) about 100+ dogs on their property. There were water bowls with clean water in them at every turn, trash receptacles a-plenty and they even turned one of their tennis courts into a doggy play area. Here’s a hotel that “gets it.” If the dogs have an opportunity to play, the more tired they will be and the less likely they are to bark in the rooms, keeping the well-paying non-Expo guests content and happy, too.
In the three-day seminar, it would be impossible to provide all the highlights of each lecture. There are so many fantastic speakers at ClickerExpo, but I tend to gravitate towards speakers who can organize their material well and provide lots of video and visuals to accompany their written materials.
Ken Ramirez, Director of Training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, is top-notch and one of my all-time favorites when it comes to a well-prepared and enthusiastic “super-glue” presentation (the type I just can’t pull myself away from).
One of Ken’s presentations was titled “Oops – Mistakes Happen.” Well, isn’t that the truth in training. As clicker trainers, you might hear the clichéd phrase, “Set your dog up to succeed.” What does that mean exactly? Well, it means that if your dog is chewing on your shoes, remove your shoes from the floor as a chew-option for your dog, but also maybe throw down a Nylabone as a better alternative. You are promoting the best option to your dog and giving him less opportunity to make an “incorrect” decision. Happiness in the household abounds, right?
Of course! But in this circumstance, when we are working with our dogs and asking them to do something that they have been well-trained to do, there is still a possibility that your dog might temporarily flake and not perform a behavior when cued. So what is one to do? Most likely, it’s not the end of the world. However, in Ken’s world, people pay to see sea life performances and he expects spot-on performances from the animals and his trainers.
So what do you do when mistakes happen? Ken started with behaviorist Susan Freidmann’s “Heirarchy of Effective Procedures” to explain his approach to mistakes. This is a fancy way of saying “the steps I need to take to modify unwanted behavior.”
Important takeaways from this include the need to consider an animal’s physical condition first to determine if it may be affecting behavior. If your dog is sick, for example, not only might it affect their behavior, but also their capability to be taught a more appropriate behavior.
The next step is antecedent arrangements, or quite frankly, managing the animal’s environment to prevent unwanted behavior (i.e. putting up your shoes). Then, naturally, we might move on to training new behaviors with positive reinforcement techniques.
As you might be able to barely see at the bottom of the hierarchy, positive punishment is positioned as a very last resort. Positive punishment might be a leash correction, for example, an alpha roll or a scary verbal correction. Negative punishment, just above positive punishment in the hierarchy, is the removal of the opportunity for reinforcement, like turning your back when a dog jumps. If not timed properly, Ramirez explains, both positive and negative punishment could inadvertently punish the wrong behavior, thus confusing the animal even more.
That’s why Ramirez sums it up succinctly by saying that punishment causes “baggage.” In other words, there’s lots of unintended fallout in an animal’s behavior that can take place when the primary or preferred method of dealing with mistakes and unwanted behavior is punishment.
He also says that in his 35 years of professional training, he has rarely had the need to use aversives or punishment. Instead he chooses to use something called Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors, or “redirection” for those non-science buffs like me. Put simply, if an animal makes a mistake in training, the trainer offers a brief moment of calm and neutral non-responsiveness, and then gives the animal an immediate and easy opportunity for reinforcement.
Often the most easiest thing to ask an animal to do is target (see Ramirez video below). For a dog, this might mean nose targeting your hand. The animal didn’t receive a reward for performing incorrectly, however, there was very little frustration because the next cue was easy, reinforceable and doesn’t quash the animal’s desire to learn.
There was definitely much more to the presentation than this, and undoubtedly, I haven’t been able to give it full justice. But I guess you’ll just have to catch Ken Ramirez at an upcoming ClickerExpo or other event to capture the full presentation.
Other highlights of the weekend for me included thorough insight into the use of classical conditioning by Kathy Sdao (lots of Pavlov mentions, as you might imagine) and a talk on creativity in animals and ourselves by the incomparable Karen Pryor, who celebrated her 80th birthday at the event. Can you believe it? Eighty years old and still innovating!
I wish I had more resources to attend more training events, but whether you are a professional trainer or just someone interested in learning more about positive and creative animal training techniques, ClickerExpo is not to be missed!