Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Introduction

Jane Killion is a clicker trainer best known for her book When Pigs Fly: Training Success with Impossible Dogs. Her breed is the Bull Terrier, and based on the stories my former boss told me about her own Bull Terriers, Jane named the book well. In fact, they are so notoriously difficult that many believe they can only be trained when… well, you know.

Jane calls any dog that is challenging or difficult a “Pigs Fly” dog. Typically, Pigs Fly dogs are terriers or sighthounds- ones who have been selectively bred to work independently of their handler. That said, a Pigs Fly dog is not determined by breed. Any dog can seem impossible to train, and when I talked to Jane about Maisy, she described my seriously biddable dog as a Pigs Fly dog, too. And I suppose it’s true; Maisy may be eager to please, but she hasn’t been easy.

Jane has a training system that she claims will work with any dog, even the ones who aren’t all that interested in pleasing their humans. This system isn’t necessarily new (it’s all based on operant conditioning, and relies heavily on positive reinforcement), but she’s coined some new terminology and phrases that are easier to understand for those who just don’t want to bother with all the scientific terminology (which is probably most people). This makes the Pigs Fly system easily accessible to a wide audience.

Poor lighting+cheap camera=subpar photos.
Over the course of two days, Jane lectured on things like shaping, using reinforcement effectively, getting attention from our dogs, and solving training challenges… and she demonstrated these concepts with the working dogs, too. It was very interesting to watch her work with the dogs, because she is very, very good at what she does. Her timing is impeccable, and her ability to split behavior into the tiniest pieces is impressive.

She is also very much a behaviorist. I don’t mean that in the sense that she works with troubled dogs (although she has). No, I mean that she operates from the standpoint that we can’t know what our dogs are thinking or feeling, and that while it’s fun to try and guess, we need to train based on the behavior we see in front of us. She’s not wrong, and while I agree with her to a certain extent, she takes it further than I do. Perhaps I tend to be too anthropomorphic, but I’ll admit that I don’t care for this approach.

In fact, that was very much my feeling on the whole weekend: while she’s not wrong, she also doesn’t resonate with me. The fact of the matter is that she’s a far better mechanical trainer that I will ever be. But her style struck me as cold, sterile, and lacking in heart or soul. And frankly, I was outright uncomfortable with the way this played out at times.

That’s not to say that I didn’t learn anything; on the contrary, I picked up some great tips. Still, the stylistic differences challenged my beliefs and philosophies on training. They forced me to think about who I am as a trainer, as a person, and how my personality influences the way I interact with dogs. In fact, I suspect that I will be reflecting on the weekend for a long time to come, even after I’ve finished blogging about the seminar proper.

But for now, we must focus on the task at hand. Over the next several weeks, I will be bringing you posts covering what I learned. So sit back, relax, and get ready to enjoy Jane Killion in all her brilliance.


Raegan said...

I've been waiting for this since I figured out who you were alluding to on Facebook!

I'm very interested in "But her style struck me as cold, sterile, and lacking in heart or soul. And frankly, I was outright uncomfortable with the way this played out at times." because I suspect she WOULD resonate with /me/. My technical skills are my strength, and I find that very admirable in a trainer.

Denise Fenzi and Jane Killion, wouldn't that be a pair of seminars! Denise is definitely a goal of mine this year. And I'd LOVE to see what Jane makes of Gatsby.

Jen said...

I love "When Pigs Fly"!

I'm so glad you got the opportunity to meet her and work with her.

Chris and Mike said...

I so appreciate your honesty and thoughtfulness in all your posts. Plus I learn so much from the information from all the seminars you share with us, whether you 'click' (LOL!) with the instructor or not. Looking forward to hearing about this one!

Crystal Thompson said...

Raegan, yes, you'd probably love her. Her skills are almost mind-blowing, they're so good, and as a result she can train just about anything. But she never mentioned relationships, nor worried about how the dog was feeling (we can't know, so why bother?)... I know you've mentioned before you prefer the former approach, and I think everyone here knows I favor the latter.

And that's the thing: she's not wrong. She's just different. I don't expect anyone to change their personality in order to train their dog, so there is a place for both Jane's approach and Denise's.

Susanna said...

I attended a seminar with Jane last fall, one session as an auditor (the prequisite on theory and shaping) and one as a working student (Rally and obedience). I'd do another in a heartbeat.

At least half the working dogs were non-traditional (for obedience) breeds or mixes -- "Pigs Fly" dogs -- and most of the handlers were novices. I was impressed with Jane's flexibility and patience, and with the progress made by the dog-handler teams, including Travvy (my malamute) and me.

I didn't experience the dissonance you did, Crystal, perhaps because Jane's approach was consistent with my trainer's. She didn't seem especially "warm" (effusive, emotional, etc.) but she was a long way from cold, remote, or lacking in heart.

Is "work with the dog in front of you" controversial? What are the alternatives? I haven't been to that many clinics and seminars, but that's been a key point in all of them.

From listening to trainers and reading their works, I've got the impression that "work with the dog in front of you" is an antidote to the human penchant for putting names to behaviors before they understand what's going on: He's aggressive, she's stubborn, he loves that, and so on.

Crystal Thompson said...

Susanna, there is nothing wrong with working with the dog in front of you. In fact, I think it is very smart to do so; we humans do tend to get wrapped up in stories and labels which are not helpful to our dogs.

What I struggled with was that Jane worked with only one portion of the dog in front of her- the behavior. She largely discounted the dog's emotions, and even stated at one point that it doesn't matter if a dog is sniffing because he found something interesting or as a stress/displacement behavior. I can see her point, but I disagree. If my training (or something in the environment) is causing stress, I typically want to adjust my approach. Some stress is unavoidable, but I still want to be mindful of it.

Again, I don't think she was wrong. She just has a different approach than I do. Ultimately, this probably makes this seminar far more valuable to me than many of the others I've been to.

Andreja said...

I'm very interested in what you will share about her seminar.

I never met her in person, only know her from her Pigs Fly! book and Pigs Fly articles in Clean Run. Unfortunately they did not make me a fan. I got her book as I was waiting for my whippet puppy to get old enough to join me. The book didn't help me much in training him. When I re-read it after a year I couldn't believe how many things in the book were described as "surprisingly fast/easy/quick" when they were definitely not such in my experience. What I'm trying to say is that I wouldn't have such high (too high at the time) expectations if it wasn't for this book.

I am grateful however because this same book introduced me to the idea that we CAN teach the Pigs fly dogs to love working with us. Even though it didn't give me the tools I needed (very frustrating!) it sent me on my way to find them.

So a year later I came full circle and expected that since my whippet now loves to work/play, he should be able to learn agility in the same classes as border collies. And what did I find in Clean Run? Special Pigs Fly articles to teach dogs basic handling manouvers. I thought that was quite funny :)

And yes, we went on to learn agility the border collie way. I never make excuses because my dog is a flying piglet :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Andreja, I wonder if the surprisingly fast/easy language comes because of Jane's experiences and skills? One thing that was clear to me in the seminar (and that I hope will be clear in my posts) is that she is extraordinarily talented.

At any rate, I'm glad her book/articles gave you hope, even if you didn't get the tools you felt you needed. Sometimes the gift of patience and encouragement is far better than being told how to do it. :)

Andreja said...

My inexperience and clumsiness played a big role, no doubt about that. But the book WAS written for people like me who were new to training dogs (or at least Pigs Fly dogs), so...
To be fair, I do think it would be easier with a pup that loved food. Almost all puppy advice out there is easier to follow for a beginner if you have a food-driven pup :)

Oh, and she gave me the idea for a bottle-on-a-string toy which was a hit for the first year.

Yeah, I have a love-hate relationship with this book :)

Crystal Thompson said...

That's fair, Andreja. The book is meant for people who are just starting out. I agree that it's always easier when you have a highly food motivated dog. She does talk a bit about using non-food reinforcers (Premack, or as she calls it "ICE")- I'll write about that tonight- but her emphasis is really on food.

Raegan said...

"What I struggled with was that Jane worked with only one portion of the dog in front of her- the behavior. She largely discounted the dog's emotions, and even stated at one point that it doesn't matter if a dog is sniffing because he found something interesting or as a stress/displacement behavior."

One of the things I have discovered is there are differences in how I approach training based on what stage of behavior acquisition the dog is in. I think that early in the training, say the first shaping sessions, why the dog is sniffing is not important. Doesn't meet criteria, doesn't get clicked.

After I've put it on cue (so the behavior is "complete") I'm more interested in why the dog isn't performing to criteria, so I can isolate those factors and train through them. Like the people tunnel in your next post.

Crystal Thompson said...

That's a good point, Raegan. I mean, Jane IS correct that learning is stressful- especially when you're trying to figure out what someone wants of you! Thinking about it in the context of stage-of-behavior-acquisition, yes, I think I do allow more stress in the early stages as well.

I think it's more of a matter of degrees; I have been sensitized to stress because of the dog I have. The majority of the dogs Jane was working with in the seminar were stable dogs, just confused about the criteria. If they wandered away, she wasn't worried about them being reactive or aggressive. I DO worry about that with Maisy. So it makes sense that I would have less tolerance for stress in dogs that she would because of each of our respective experiences.

I will have to think more on this.