Friday, February 27, 2009

Clicker Training is Anti-Violence

HAWS dog trainer Ginny Marchel and I just completed a 3 week long program working with women and their children who have been exposed to violence. Many times these families have a difficult time communicating with each other in a positive manner. The children have often grown up knowing mostly criticism, and very rarely encouragement.

Adapting a program called SHIP (Strategic Humane Intervention Program) developed by Lynn Loar, Ph.D., we taught the families how to play the clicker training game with each other.

A clicker is a small handheld device used by trainers to teach animals new behaviors. The sound of the click is paired with something reinforcing to the animal. So every time the animal hears the click he gets a treat, an opportunity to play a fun game, a special toy, or anything else he loves. The trainer uses the sound of the click to "mark" desirable behavior the animal elicits. So if you have a dog who tends to jump on people you would wait until all four feet are on the floor, click the clicker and and give the dog a tasty treat.

Clicker training is also used to "shape" behaviors. When teaching a more complex behavior the click happens when the animals makes progress towards the end result. So if I wanted to teach a dog to wave I could shape it by waiting until the dog lifted his paw up off the ground just a half an inch and then click and treat. Over a period of time my expectations for that paw lift would gradually increase -- I might click the half an inch several times and then wait until the dog lifted his paw an inch, and then several inches, etc, until finally the paw was up in the air and moving back and forth several times.

The wonderful thing about clicker training is that the focus is on capturing the behavior you want, and ignoring the behavior you don't want. This is a wonderful way to build confidence and creativity in an animal, and eliminating negativity from your relationship.

The clicker training game is one that people can play with each other. One person is the "trainer" and one the "trainee". The trainer chooses a behavior that she wants to trainee to perform. The trainer can only communicate with the trainee through the sound of the clicker. The trainer is not allowed to tell the trainee that she is doing the wrong thing or give hints.

While clicker training was originally developed for the use with animals, the SHIP program uses it to teach families how to develop relationships using positive feedback. When playing the game mothers and children are not allowed to tell each other they are doing something wrong, and instead have to focus on what the other is doing correctly. The hope is that playing the game will help them in their relationship even after the program has ended.

The second part of the program is allowing the families to use what they've learned by training dogs. Last night Ginny and I brought HAWS adoptables Wayne and Winnie -- 10 week old pit bull puppies.

Wayne and Winnie are very rambunctious and tend to be a bit mouthy and jumpy. The families helped them by clicker training them to keep all 4 feet on the floor, sit and down. It was also great for Wayne and Winnie to get very important socialization to children and new adults.

It was a wonderful 3 weeks. The children and adults told us how much fun they had, and how much they would miss working with the dogs. Ginny and I would like to think they'll miss us too!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rabbits, and Turtles and Chinchillas, Oh My!

One of the things that suprises many people when they visit HAWS for the first time is the large number of animals we have that are not cats and dogs. We have a whole room that always has rabbits and almost always has other types of animals as well.

Currently our "Small Animal" room contains rabbits, chinchillas, turtles and doves. If you were to stop by another time you might find gerbils, hamsters, mice, rats, ferrets, snakes, iguanas, lizards, parakeets, cockatiels, love birds, finches and anything also that can legally be kept as a pet.

When I do education programs for children I like to bring some of the more unusual animals for the children to meet and learn about since some of these animals aren't easy to keep as pets, and some have behaviors that you wouldn't expect by looking at them.

Chinchillas in particular are extremely cute -- with their soft gray fur, large ears, and inquisitive looking whiskers. However they are also very skittish animals -- prefering not to be picked up or held and won't willingly sit still for petting by strangers. Unfortunately many chinchillas are an impulse purchase -- their new owners being taken in by their cute, cuddly looks and then being disappointed when they find out that chinchillas would really rather not cuddle. HAWS currently has three chinchillas from the same home -- the previous owners couldn't afford to care for them.

Girl Scout Troop #2309 visited HAWS last week for a tour. After the tour they had an opportunity to meet the chinchillas. The girls sat in a pen while the chinchillas zipped around -- only staying still for brief moments. Anytime one of the girls pet them, the chinchillas would race away.

I next brought out a puppy -- who joyfully ran around the circle of girls licking faces and enjoying the petting they were bestowing.
After I put the puppy away I asked the girls if they saw a difference between the behavior of the puppy and that of the Chinchilla. One of the girls commented that the difference was that the puppy actually liked them. It was a very astute observation, I thought.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Humane Education Co-Worker

One of my co-workers shares my office, weighs 55 lbs and occasionally likes to clean his private parts in public. Like most non-profit employees he really doesn't get paid a lot, but he never complains about being paid in Pup-Peroni. Mystic is a 4 year old border collie that I adopted at the age of 8 weeks. He's been working with me ever since - accompanying me to day care centers, schools, scout troop meetings, adult day care, nursing homes and work places in Waukesha County. He's also the official mascot of HAWS Kid's 'n Critters Day Camp.

One of the benefits of using my own dog instead of a shelter dog is that I know without a doubt the he loves children and doesn't get overwhelmed when we vist what many times is a very stressful environment for a dog. I also know he won't pee on the floor (which could be embarrassing), and he knows a number of tricks -- which never fails to entertain our audience.

As ambassador from HAWS, Mystic plays an important role in promoting our educational messages. It's easy to dismiss a woman talking about responsible pet ownership and the needs of the animals in the Waukesha community. But bring a well-behaved, enthusiastic and friendly, furry face along, and the message becomes much more relavant.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cats, Cats and More Cats

Two fridays a month I spend time with some of the kids in the after-school program at Blair Elementary School in Waukesha. I'm known as "The Humane Society Lady" who sets up fun games for the kids to play and brings all sorts of cool animals for them to meet.

The games are always animal related, and usually have a lesson. This week we did an activity that was meant to teach the kids what can happen when a cat isn't spayed. You can see in the photo that there are sheets of paper with photos attached. Each sheet represents one offspring or descendent of the original cat, and their offspring within a 15 month period of time.

Of course this week I brought a cat for the children to meet. Tony was recommended by the staff as being outgoing and probably a good choice to take to the school. But as so often happens when working with children, and when working with animals things don't always go as planned.

I had the kids sit in a circle and put Tony the cat in the middle. He jumped out. I went and retrieved him and put him back in the circle. He jumped out again -- this time hiding under a book cart.

I decided to make the best out of a disappointing situation by asking the kids why they thought Tony kept leaving the circle. The kids came up with some very thoughtful answers; he was afraid of the kids, the kids were being too noisy and frightening him, it was a new environment and he wanted to explore and he wanted to go over and look out the window (which he did the first time he left).

Ultimately I committed kitty torture by holding Tony in my arms and allowing each of the kids to spend a few seconds petting him. It certainly wasn't the experience I was looking for - a calm cat walking around the circle and reveling in the joy of the kids petting him. But in many ways it turned out better than I could have hoped; Tony gave me an opportunity to get the kids to think about his feelings.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Humane Education

When I first tell people that I am a Humane Educator at HAWS, many don't really understand what it is I do. I believe some of them initially think I care for animals; cleaning cages, feeding, etc. Because I'm also a Certified Pet Dog Trainer some people think I work with the dogs in that capacity. In reality I do neither of those things as part of my job description, although there have been times where I have done both of those things as a part of my job.

To confuse the issue more is the fact that there really isn't a definitive role that all Humane Educators play. Most Humane Educators work at animal shelters, and I believe that most of their focus is on the education of children. Because animal shelters have limited funding and tight budgets many Humane Educators are volunteers, or do education as a part-time job, or in addition to other duties.

Humane Education, as far as I'm concerned, is about helping people find a connection with the animals we share the world with. If we can find empathy, understanding and a relationship with animals, we are more likely to treat them humanely and responsibly. HAWS ultimate goal is to help people make better choices before they bring their pets home, and give them knowledge and a relationship so that they are likely to keep their pets. This translates in fewer animals being surrendered to our shelter -- our goal is actually to educate ourselves out of jobs.

When I first took this job almost 5 years ago the focus was on the education of children. While I still do a lot of interactions with kids, we have also transitioned to the education adults. Some of the programs that I run here (with the help of fantastic education committee members, volunteers and fellow staff!) are summer and winter camps for kids, tours for scout troops, visits to schools and daycare centers, adult education seminars and speeches on a variety of topics at businesses or organizations. (For more information about our education department visit our Humane Education page)

My job is at times a lot of work. Most of the time it's a lot of fun. I get to spend time with animals, and share my passion with my fellow humans of all ages. What could be better? My hope is that this blog will allow me to share the experiences I have and some of the wonderful people I get to meet when I'm doing my job.