Debi Davis

1. Tell us a little about your training background.

I come from a more traditional training background, and trained horses for many years, as well as dogs. I trained my first service dog in 1977, and only wish I had known about clicker training back then. Though I got the behaviors, I didn't get them as refined as I could have though clicker training. And of course, my dogs sure didn't enjoy the "corrections" I leveled on them, so training was more a war of wills than a dance of harmony.

2. How do you define clicker training?

I use the definition Karen Pryor and the Bailey's hammered out together: "Clicker training is that part of operant conditioning that utilizes positive reinforcement and a conditioned reinforcer used as a marker signal."

But less technically, I consider clicker training to be a positive, hands off, stress-free way to communicate with animals that uses a click sound to mark a behavior we want to see repeated, followed immediately with a treat or something the animal finds rewarding.

3. Why did you switch to clicker training?

Traditional praise and correction training was making my dog's unwanted behaviors stronger, and breaking down the bond of trust between us. It had become a war of wills, and training was not pleasant for either of us. In a last ditch effort to be able to keep my dog, I enrolled in a clicker class, and almost instantly our journey of learning changed to that wondrous dance of harmony. My dog's enthusiasm for learning grew rapidly, to the point where he would steal clickers out of other's bags to entice me to have a teaching session.

I switched to clicker training because I saw immediate results, and saw such an attitudinal change in my dog, who was now happy and unstressed---as I had also become. It truly was an epiphany for both of us.

4. You used clicker training to train a service dog. Is it really reliable enough for life and death behaviors?

I think it's even more reliable than any other methodology, because you have a way to assess each step incrementally, and never have to "proof" behaviors---you know as you go how well the dog is generalizing each step of any behavior chain in any given environment. We only have to look at the work the Baileys have done to see how reliable this science is!

Also, clicker training teaches problem solving abilities---something that is of great help in the service dog field. A thinking, problem solving dog is not afraid to try new things because this has been constantly reinforced: keep trying until you find what will be reinforced. There is no fear of doing something wrong, because incorrect choices are not punished by the use of aversives. Instead, the dog is set up to succeed, and constantly reinforced for successes incrementally.

How important is a problem solving dog in the service dog field? Here's one example of how it can be reliable in emergency situations:

My friend Carolyn was on the way home from a party. Her friends had unbeknownst to her, put her backpack in the trunk of the car as Carolyn was leaving the party with her clicker trained service dog.

It was 2:30 in the morning, and Carolyn had a tire blow out, and went into the ditch. When she realized she could not get her cell phone, that it was in her backpack in the trunk, she didn't know what to do. With a level of paralysis high enough that crawling wasn't an option, especially up and out of a ditch, she had only one way to get the help she desperately needed on that dark deserted road that night: rely on her problem solving dog.

She opened the door, and fell out of the car, down into the ditch. She couldn't even open the trunk release button ont he dashboard at that point. So, with her clicker and some old beef jerky she had in her jacket pocket, she shaped that dog to go press the trunk release button, to then move away from her toward the rear of the car, (he'd never been taught to do go-outs) and to then do a paws up on the bumper, to jump into the trunk, and to tug objects.

Unfortunately, the backpack was hooked on the spare tire and the dog could not pull it. But the dog knew one word, "PHONE" and knew the phone was kept in the backpack. So from a distance, there on the ground, Carolyn was able to shape the dog to "fetch the phone" and the dog kept trying to get the pack opened to get that phone. Finally he was able to get a nose into a corner of the zipper just enough to poke his nose through, and finally find that phone and bring it to her. She was then able to get help, and get rescued.

Now this was a pretty long chain of behaivors, and it would have been very easy for a dog who was not used to pushing through the wall of frustration to just give up at any point. Had she lured all the behaviors the dog knew how to do, likely the dog may have been more apt to wait for this kind of direction again---which Carolyn was not capable of doing, being down in the ditch and having to work totally from a distance, in a totally hands-off way.

So for me, one of the biggest reasons why clicker training is so exceptionally helpful in service dog training is because it builds this stick-to-it-keep-on-trying response that can make all the difference in a difficult situation as Carolyn found herself in.

So if I had to pick one reason why I think clicker training is the wave of the future in service dog training, this would be the reason, above all others. It teaches a dog to problem solve and to not give up, and to problem solve in really difficult situations when direct luring and hands-on teaching can't be used.

5. Tell us Peek's story.

Peek was a dog who arrived as a puppy with many behavioral problems. He hadn't a clue of how to communicate with his own species, and the strongest behaviors in his repertoire were object and territorial guarding, manic barking and extreme reactivity/aggressing toward any other animal of any species. He also arrived with mistrust of men.

He was the best teacher I ever had, because he would not be forced to do anything: he'd fight back. At one point I'd tried every possible method except a forced retrieve to get him to retrieve objects, and he hated it so much he began to projectile vomit when anything was gently placed in his mouth.

It was clicker training that saved his life, and turned him around. With clicker training, he was incrementally desensitized to environmental triggers, learned to walk on a loose leash, learned to trust men, learned to accept other dogs, cats and animals of all species.

And, 4 years later, he was dual certified as a service dog and therapy dog, and eventually went on to win the higest award in the service dog world, National Service Dog of the Year in 1999. He was the first toy breed dog to ever win, and also the first clicker trained dog.

The war of wills became a dance of joy, once learning was FUN and fast and efficient. He still loves those daily problem solving games!

6. You've trained other dogs since Peek. Tell us about them. How is the clicker training working out for them?

Clicker training has revolutionized how I communicate with ALL animals! It's been so liberating. I find training so peaceful, so much FUN now, and so do the dogs. I have video footage of my 9 week old puppy offering rapid "doggy pushups" (rapid sits and downs in succession) for his click and treat. And 9 week old puppies who wait quietly at the door without forging out of it, and 10 week old puppies who walk nicely on a loose leash.

Another thing I love about clicker training is that because it's all fun, all a game for the dog, it's stress-free and young puppies take to it like flies on a pie. They are total sponges, and so much fun to shape! And clicker training doesn't require long, grueling training sessions. Short ones are better, and those 1-3 minute sessions can be spread out through the day and night, and it's just amazing how fast a puppy can learn with these short, upbeat problem solving sessions.

What I also love about clicker training is how it liberates people with disabilities! I was at the point where animal training was not something I thought I could do anymore, as my physical abilities decreased, and hand strength and agility diminished. But clicker training allows me and others with high level disabilities to train all the way through to a high level of skill all by ourselves. We don't need to have people hold objects in our dogs' mouths to teach a retrieve, and we don't need people physically pushing our dogs around the floor to learn positioning. We don't need leash corrections, prongs, choke chains or shock collars. We just need a clicker, treats, and knowledge of how and when to reinforce and how to observe behavior.

7. You're a cross-over trainer. How does that affect your training?

Great question! I find that it's much harder to extinguish old default responses I built up over the years. It took two years for me to not tighten up on the leash when something unexpected happened in the environment. Those leash pops were just so normal for me, and it was very hard to stop "correcting" everything, and start thinking of catching the dog doing it right and setting the dog up so it couldn't fail.

I still have way too much body movement and tend to "over' cue quite often, especially when I'm stressed. But I think clicker training has given me so much more patience, because I can measure as I go, see tangible results, and don't think anymore in terms of looking for big CHUNKS of behavior, but little tiny steps toward a desired result. Learning to be proactive has been a journey, and is a journey I expect to be on the rest of my life. I'll always be "crossing over" in some aspect.

8. What advice would you give to new clicker trainers?

Lure less, free shape more, learn to read dog body language, learn to observe carefully, and practice constantly on timing. Also, don't be stingy with the reinforcements! When I'm shaping new behaviors, I'm getting in about 40 clicks and treats per minute. Also, I'd advise newcomers to clicker training to read all they can about behavior, to attend workshops by clicker trainers, attend classes that might be available, and to join Clicker Solutions and ask questions!

9. What are you doing now to popularize and promote clicker training?

I try to post on email lists whenever possible, and to mentor new-to-clicker training students on the internet, plus hand out information and clickers in my community daily. I present workshops on clicker training for service and therapy at conferences, and also write articles on clicker training for publication in magazines and books.

10. What's your vision for the future of clicker training?

It can only grow stronger. The door is now opened to this humane, fun, friendly and accurate way of training and I don't think we could stop the forward movement if we tried! I look at how much things have already changed in the past 7 years, and it boggles my mind. I think clicker training will totally revolutionize the way we communicate with animals.

11. What's your part in that future?

To continue to enthusiastically promote clicker training within the service dog training field, where compulsion still is the most accepted way of training assistance dogs. Also, hopefully, to write and publish a book with another clicker trainer on clicker training for service dogs.

12. Aside from the career aspects, has clicker training affected your life?

Clicker training has given me ways to change unwanted behaviors in humans in the same way I do with animals. It has allowed me to minimize service dog access problems, because I have communication tools to prevent heated, emotional exchanges that can put people on the defensive.

In addition, it's changed the way my husband approaches teaching, as a high school geometry teacher. The principles of clicker training are now his strong defaults, and is working supremely well for him and for his students.

13. What has clicker training taught you?

That we have a choice in how we communicate with all beings. We can choose to be on the defensive, or we can choose to proactively find things we CAN reinforce, and do so enthusiastically.

14. What was your favorite clicker training moment?

The first month in clicker training classes, I recall when my instructor told us we were going to begin the back-chained clicker retrieve. I snorted loudly: my dog was known as the "vomiting comet" and no way would anyone ever get him to hold anything in his mouth: he would vomit. I was so convinced it was an impossible task, I told that instructor I'd eat kibble if she could get Peek to put anything into his mouth.

Funny, that was the best tasting kibble I ever ate, and Peek is now a retrieving wizard---it's his very favorite task. With clicker training, HE made the choice and he chose to retrieve without any coercion or force. Eureka!

Sorry, but as a storyteller, I just can't stop at one. <G> My next favorite moment was when Peek and I were in the mall for our final field trip with the certification testers, who were carefully documenting our team performance. At one point the tester had me put Peek in a sit, move away 50 feet, and cue him to into a down position.

I was excited, nervous. Peek was excited, feeding off my nervousness. And I happened to be packing his favorite treat in the world: Grueyere Cheese. He was all business, and just waiting for that click.

So I rolled to the spot across the mall, started to lift my hand, and found my keys stuck in the brake. So I stopped, loosened the keys, and dropped them. I had to try to get them on my own, as Peek watched from a distance, trying to figure out what part of my gyrating body might be giving him a cue. He was totally alert, ready to perform in a nanosecond, at the hint of a cue. And he was so wound up.

So I cue him to down finally, and in his frustration, he barked. JUST as he barked, I clicked.

Of course, we tried doing the behavior over. But each time, he'd offer a bark just as he went down, since that is what I marked the first time!

We had to go home and reteach the behavior again, which didn't take long, but it sure was funny (and embarrassing) that day in the mall to see how clicker savvy my dog had become. He offered a bark with the down position, I took it, clicked it, and he was off and rolling!

But we can't stop here. I have yet another clicker tale to tell. A service dog user friend of mine took her clicker trained dog to a clicker tricks class. The dog was a star, and caught on to each trick quickly. His favorite, though, was the ACHOO trick where the handler sneezes, and the dog pulls a hankie out of the handler's pocket.

One night at a very elegant dinner, my friend had her dog under the long dining table, resplendent with white linen and crystal. Local dignitaries were in attendance, and my friend and her dog were on best behavior. The dog was quiet and non-obtrusive on his mat under the table.

The handler was busy talking with others at the table when she sneezed. The dog, hearing the sneeze cue, instantly rose from his down position, and walked the length under the table looking for a hankie, which he finally found in an open purse on the floor at the far end of the table. The dog pilfers the lace hankie, brings it back to his horrified owner, who hadn't a CLUE of where it came from.


| Interviews Contents || Site Home |

Copyright of all posts is the property of the original author. Please obtain permission from the original author before copying, quoting, or forwarding.

List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @