Sunday, October 20, 2013

Steve White Seminar: Introduction

In July, I attended a two-day seminar with Steve White. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he’s a seasoned K9 handler who has worked for both the Army and the Seattle Police Department. As such, he learned about training using the old school Koehler methods. As time went on, though, he grew tired of always having to fight with his dog. In the early 90s, he decided to find a better way.

Enter the clicker movement. He got in contact with Karen Pryor, and began reading, watching videos, participating in online discussions, and attending conferences. He applied what he learned and began having successes. At one point, he actually left a job because his boss didn’t want the unit divided by training methods and forbid him to train using more modern methods.

Now, closing in on 40 years of training dogs, he’s an in-demand speaker for both the law enforcement community and for positive dog trainers. I was very excited to see him; I’d previously heard recordings of his presentations and thought he had a lot to offer.

And he does. I enjoyed the seminar, and I enjoyed getting to know him. He’s actually a pretty neat guy beyond the dog stuff; he’s a whiz at accents, owns a kilt, and has a great sense of humor. Oh, did I have fun laughing and joking with him, and he even let me take a ridiculous picture of him and Maisy.

You gotta watch out for those Midwest Muppet Dogs, man. They'll turn on you.

Maisy was there because we had a working spot. I’m definitely glad we did (it was kind of a last-minute decision, to be honest) because I do learn best by doing. Being able to try out what we were learning was much more useful than simply watching others do.

But more than that, I gained some very valuable information about Maisy: she’s still reactive. Now, I knew that. Although I tend to call her normal these days, I am well aware of the fact that the reactivity neural pathways will always be there.

Steve acknowledged that as well, and said that a huge part of his behavior consulting business is about helping his clients accept reality. This is not always easy; how often do we humans rewrite history to better suit us? But the truth is, what has happened has happened, and no many times we revise the story, that doesn’t change the truth. Similarly, when it comes to behavior, you can’t erase a reinforcement history.

Instead, the only solution to pollution is dilution. Steve used an awesome example to illustrate this: Imagine that he has a cup of arsenic and drank it. He would probably die if he did this. Now imagine that he took that same cup of arsenic, mixed it into a bathtub full of water, and then drank it. He would definitely get sick, but he probably wouldn’t die. Now imagine that that same cup of arsenic was mixed into a swimming pool full of water before he drank it. This time he might not even get sick, but the arsenic is still there, and is still probably affecting his body, albeit in minute ways.

So what does this mean? Simply, that once a behavior is in there, it’s in there. Although Maisy is more like a swimming pool these days, reactivity is always a part of who she is. It will come out sometimes.

All of which is to say that yes, she had some reactivity over the weekend. I want to say that I was disappointed, but in truth, I’m really not. I felt bad for Maisy; she was clearly stressed and not feeling so hot. But Steve also spent a lot of time telling us that failure is just information. Which is what Maisy’s reactivity was: information.

The information Maisy gave me was that I have not adequately taught her how to cope with prolonged stress that happens in a situation where there are lots of dogs in a small area, and that happens in spaces where she feels trapped by a leash or a crate. Although I can expect her to be fine at friends’ houses, on camping trips, on walks, at the pet store, or even at a dog park, it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time teaching her how to act in those situations. I haven’t done that with seminars.

I have two options: I can work on this with her, or I can stop expecting her to be “perfect” at seminars. I’m not really sure which option I want to choose, but either way, this is entirely my responsibility. As Steve said, dogs do not fail. They perform as we have trained them to, or what we have prepared them for.

Besides, as Steve said, perfect is the enemy of good. We should focus on progress, not perfection. So, while Maisy had a very hard time over the weekend, I’m pleased that she was able to relax in her crate at times. I’m thrilled that she didn’t seem to have a “stress hangover” and that she bounced back quickly. I’m very happy that she remained responsive throughout the seminar. I’m absolutely ecstatic that she would calm down when I verbally told her “Mais, it’s okay. You’re fine.”

Anyway, the seminar was awesome, and I had a good time. I’ll talk more about the specifics in the future, but for now, just know this: you should go see Steve White if you get the chance.

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