Our "Epiphany" - The Story of Maggie the Pug

In 1996, we hosted a seminar
with Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes. This was the first live presentation of clicker training we had seen, and the effect was monumental. Everyone here came away from the seminar convinced that we wanted to explore the science, and learn more. We were not about to blithely toss over the method that had served us well for over 20 years of successfully training people and their dogs, but we did want to experiment with clicker training.

About a week after this seminar, our head trainer, Laura, came to me with a problem. She had been training Maggie, a five-year old rescue Pug who had recently been adopted by two of our Doggy Daycare "parents." Maggie had been coming to Daycare/Training for three weeks, and was doing well, except for teaching her to lie down. This otherwise sweet, loving Pug became a Tasmanian Devil, viciously biting any attempt to down her. Laura had tried everything she could think of. Luring with food didn't work. Physically placing her in a down was out of the question. Even with desensitization, Laura had made little progress, and the pressure was on because the family was moving to California. Training Maggie to lie down had become a mission, and we had just three days left.

With other options exhausted, we figured we had nothing to lose-let's try clicker training. Armed with a clicker and a bowl of cut-up hot dogs, Laura, Maggie and I started clicker training. We began by clicking and giving her a treat. Maggie thought this new game was pretty neat. 'You make a funny noise and throw me a hot dog? Awright!!!' Then I clicked her for different behaviors. She sat-click/treat. Stand up-click/treat. Walk toward me- click/treat. Eye contact-click/treat. No commands, no cues, just click and throw her a treat.

A Pug's face, with its wide, alert eyes, smiling mouth, and open, honest expression is easy to read. We could tell Maggie was having fun. Suddenly her expression changed from pure enjoyment to thoughtful. In a moment of clarity Maggie realized that I was clicking her-that I clicked when she did something. Her eyes got even wider, and then she tested me. Looking directly into my eyes, she sat-click/treat. From across the room, Bernadette, our Receptionist, saw the change and said, "Wow! She just 'got' that you're clicking her behavior, didn't she?!" Yup, she did!

Then I began to shape the behavior we wanted. I clicked anything that led toward lying down. If Maggie lowered her head, dipped her body, sat and put a foot forward-anything that approximated starting to lie down-I clicked (and treated). Such selective clicking meant she was no longer clicked for everything she did. Maggie didn't like this change in the rules, and she got mad. Looking right at me, she started swearing-barking, spitting, sputtering, growling-language that would embarrass a longshoreman.

We couldn't help laughing. I covered my face so she wouldn't see my laughter. Fortunately I kept my eyes on her, 'cause suddenly, in a fit of temper, Maggie threw herself down! Click/treat (a JACKPOT of treats!).

Silence. Maggie stopped dead. Clearly, she was thinking. Then she started barking furiously again-and threw herself down. Click/treat. She immediately began barking again, and quickly lay down. Click/treat. Then I decided to hold out for a quiet drop, or Maggie would firmly learn to bark when lying down. Waiting for quiet took a while. Maggie continued barking and throwing herself to the ground - then she took a breath as she went down. An accidental moment of quiet - I'll take it! Click-Jackpot. She went through another spate of barking, then quiet and another down. Click/treat. Two more quiet ones-click/treat, and we took a break.

We looked at the clock. From start to finish, from the first click to the third quiet down in a row, had taken . . . what?! . . . . could it be? Just eight minutes! We were flabbergasted. There was something really powerful going on here. In eight minutes we had accomplished more than we had in hours of training and desensitization. Over the next two days, Maggie continued to improve. On her last day with us, after just three days of clicker training, we showed her Mom the progress Maggie had made. She performed beautifully.

Daisy Mae the Wheaten Terrier -
Flunked Traditional Training Class

If we had needed any further proof after Maggie, it soon followed. Daisy Mae, a 10-month old Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier had attended our traditional Level 1 program. Her owner worked hard with the training, but Daisy Mae was not an easy dog, and just didn't seem to get it. A typically active Wheaten, she was detached and disinterested in people or in training. She wasn't deaf, but she didn't react to voices-not praise, reprimands, not even her name. It was as if her mind was encased in a lead box. Her owner brought her to us for Daycare and training, hoping Daycare would eliminate some of her energy and professional training would enable him to gain some control of her.

When we began her clicker training, we thought Daisy might be our first failure. We could not get any reaction from her. She was mildly interested in the treats, but even after three sessions, still had not learned any association between her behavior, the click and the treat. This step usually takes just a few minutes, as it had with Maggie. Laura and Shari, our trainers, had each spent 15 to 20 minutes with her, and had made no progress. I was asked to evaluate her.

I took Daisy into the supply closet, where there were no distractions-not even the smell of other dogs. Even in such a barren environment, Daisy busily ignored me. Every once in a while I could lure her into a behavior for which I would click-treat. But immediately she was on the move again. She'd walk to the door, she'd walk to the wall, she'd walk to a carton, she'd walk to me, she'd walk to the door-continuous motion with no purpose, no direction, no focus. She didn't react to the click, and didn't even alert to her name-not an ear flick, not a glance in my direction. Nothing.

After about 15 minutes, I began to see a tiny glimmer of learning-a glint of an association that if she did something near me, she would get clicked (and get a treat). She offered two or three downs in the next couple of minutes. I thought that while she was certainly difficult, there might be hope in getting her trained. We'd just have to keep trying. I took her out to where Laura was waiting for the verdict.

While we were talking about her, I thought I saw Daisy alert to her name. Thinking I must be mistaken, I called her - and she came! Laura called her, and she went! I called her back again, and she came running. Suddenly, Daisy was paying attention to us. She was interacting with us. She was responding to her name, responding to our presence, and to our praise and petting. It was the first evidence of real personality we had seen-and it was thrilling! The next day, Daisy really got into the clicker training. It was as if we had broken through to an autistic dog. I am happy to report that after that breakthrough, Daisy became a totally normal dog. She was responsive and affectionate, and has taken beautifully to the training. I am convinced that she would not have been trainable except through clicker training.

We have now clicker trained many hundreds of dogs. In September, 1997 we made the commitment to eliminate all our "traditional" training classes and offer nothing but clicker training. Each new dog we train, and each new class we teach has been an exciting adventure of discoveries and experiences as we continued to learn and grow with clicker training. It's fair; it's fast; it's fun; and to top it all off, it works.

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