Click HERE to watch a YouTube compilation video of my Instagram stories from the expo.
I want to introduce myself for those of you that are new to the website or new to following me on social media. My name is Amy Pishner, and I’m the owner and head trainer of Valor K9 Academy, LLC. Dog training is a passion turned career for me. I am certified through Starmark Academy for Dog Trainers and Vohne Liche Kennels, and I’ve studied under world-renowned trainers such as Michael Ellis. To read my full bio, click here.
As a dog trainer, I believe in the power of balance in training methods. I use all four quadrants of training (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment), but more importantly I cater the training methods I use to the dog I’m training. I don’t use a cookie cutter approach to training. Some trainers call themselves balanced, and they put a prong collar on every dog. Some trainers call themselves balanced, and they never use a clicker in training. Balanced training is oftentimes misrepresented in the dog training world, but there are still those of us who believe that balance means catering training to the dog’s individual personality and learning style. It means using the best approach to train the dog in front of you, and it requires a solid understanding of what to do and when. Most of my training starts by forming a strong foundation using positive reinforcement. All of my training is founded on three key principles: communication, motivation and relationship.
As a business owner and professional dog trainer, I believe that my education will never be complete, therefore
I’m on a mission to never stop learning.
I am constantly reading new books and attending workshops and seminars across the continent to continue honing my skills. The most recent conference that I attended was the January 2018 SoCal ClickerExpo hosted by The Karen Pryor Academy. I first heard about the ClickerExpo years ago and have wanted to go for awhile. Over Christmas break, I looked into it and saw a promising list of speakers at the SoCal expo, so I went ahead and signed up! I booked my expo tickets, plane ticket, hotel and rental car and started counting down the days.
I have always enjoyed clicker training and use it often with dogs I’m working with,
so I figured the ClickerExpo would be an excellent way to hone my craft and add more ‘tools’ to my toolbox. I was super excited to attend the clicker expo and learn from world-renowned clicker training experts. I’ve always loved school, and I love learning, so getting a chance to soak up more knowledge was something I really looked forward to.
I flew down to the ClickerExpo with my personal dog (and service dog), Zoey. She is a six-year-old Australian Shepherd x Border Collie who I adopted at five months of age from a backyard breeder. Zoey has been working as my service dog for several years, but since I work all day with dogs I don’t use her now as much as I used to. For long distance traveling, and when I’ll be alone at my destination, I bring her with me – why I need a service dog is very personal to me, and although I’m usually very open this is something I’m not willing to discuss (yet) with the world.
En route to Orange County, Zoey was well-behaved as usual and got lots of compliments from passengers and flight attendants.
January 18th, 2018: Early Registration Night
Zoey and I went to early check-in to pick up our information packet. The event was hosted by Hotel Irvine, a very nice hotel with a great layout for expos. I was pumped for day one and couldn’t wait to learn as much as possible!
January 19th: Day One
First things first, I picked up my binder. I’m a written learner so having all my notes in one place organized by presentation was very appealing to me. The binder was pricey ($85) but I figured it’d be more than worth it. Plus, I had pre-purchased access to 20 additional videos to watch starting in April since it would be impossible to attend every single class, so having a binder would be a great way to keep track of things and something I figured I’d use a lot in the future.
Little did I know, I wouldn’t be needing the binder at all.
The first class I sat in on was titled: “On Guard: Modifying Resource-Guarding” by Lindsay Wood Brown. I was shocked when she opened by saying that she picks the dogs with “the best prognosis for success,” then proceeded to lay out a very basic resource guarding modification plan that was flawed at best. The information was nothing new, and the presentation itself was slow and boring. I quickly realized that in working with the ideal dog, they don’t get truly aggressive dogs. It’s no wonder they’re ‘successful.’ Their dogs are easy to work with! Their idea of resource guarding is nothing compared to what I work with every single day as a balanced trainer: the difference between mild and red-zone. I left an hour in because it was so boring and frustrating.
The next class I went to was called “Keep Calm and Click On: Evidence & Improvement in the Click to Calm Method” about dog reactivity. Yet again, cherry picking the easy dogs: food motivated dogs who had mild dog reactivity. And all their “training” was on video – they didn’t work hands-on with any dogs at the expo who struggled with real reactivity. I learned nothing new…yet again. And I started to realize that these +R only trainers were only working with what I consider to be “very easy dogs.”
Even then, their methods aren’t practical for real life application: Nine times out of 10 when Zoey and I passed someone in the hallway that had another dog, they went around us (way out of the way) while shoving treats down their dogs’ throats. They couldn’t walk past us, they had to go around. And Zoey couldn’t have cared less about them! All four of my personal dogs are neutral around other dogs.
At this point, I was still trying to keep an open mind; I kept thinking,
“The next class will be better…right?”
After lunch, I decided to sit in on a class called “The Seductiveness of Shock,” a new class offered at the expo. I could imagine what they were going to say (about e-collar training), but I wanted to hear it from their perspective. I know +R (positive reinforcement) trainers strongly disagree with e-collar training, but I wanted to find out why. How did they think balanced trainers are using the e-collar? What did they think about it? Were they aware of how life-changing the tool is, and all the ways it’s been used for good by knowledgeable and experienced trainers? I’ll admit, my first introduction to the e-collar was not a good one (see this blog post), but being open-minded I gave it a try again and realized the way I was introduced to using the e-collar had been wrong, and that it’s actually a very useful tool in dog training. But +R trainers sit behind their science and theories and claim that we’re “shocking the hell out of dogs” so I wanted to find out why they think that way. What evidence do they have? Who are their sources? If they don’t ever use e-collars, how do they know if they’re good or bad?
E-collars, by the way, are muscle stimulators, much like TENS units
And when used appropriately most dogs respond on a very low level, barely a tingle. In her opening paragraph, the speaker jokingly (but also seriously?!) compared an e-collar to an assault rifle. And for the next five minutes there was absolutely zero science and all opinion. The woman hated e-collar training and e-collar trainers, that much was clear. But why? I quickly realized it wasn’t about facts, because factual evidence doesn’t support their claims of abuse and torture. The class was about opinion and getting everyone to ‘believe’ the same thing. I left the class after just a few minutes. Another huge disappointment. The whole thing was brainwashing…not education or “science” at all.
After leaving the “Seduction of Shock” class, I went to a class called “Change the Vet & Groomer Experience” presented by a lady named Laura Monaco Torelli. The class itself discussed ways to use the clicker and treats to get dogs used to routine examination procedures, which was a decent class. I agreed with most of the ways they suggested going about things, because that’s how I do things as well. When it comes to helping a dog feel comfortable, you want to use rewards not force.
Good training doesn’t use force or punishment to make dogs relax. Good training helps dogs feel comfortable by controlling the environment and introducing things one step at a time using rewards to create a positive association. This idea has presented itself as the new wave of “fear-free” and is sweeping the veterinary world. I think that’s fine, and I wish more veterinarians would take the time to learn how they can make basic procedures more comfortable for dogs. What I didn’t think was realistic is the amount of time it would take to help a dog get comfortable with everything. I would rather use that time to focus on foundation work and confidence building in general, because that in my experience transfers nicely to vet visits. Zoey had recently been to the vet for a check-up to get cleared for flying, and the vet tech commented on how calm and relaxed she was, with a heart rate of only 70. Confidence and positive exposure are key.
Laura Monaco Torelli was very funny and a great presenter. I appreciated her energy and enthusiasm. Although the information itself was nothing new, I sat through the entire class because I appreciated Laura’s passion for dogs. She works at a veterinary clinic, and I couldn’t help but think that she’d be a great balanced dog trainer.
Late afternoon I attended a class by Laura v.A. Baugh called “Building Behavior: Shape the Future” expecting to learn more/better ways to use shaping to teach behaviors. Instead, it was like a Shaping 101 class. Nothing new. What I did notice, again, is how many people’s dogs would not just sit next to them quietly during the class. So many people had to keep their dogs ‘entertained’ to keep them quiet and in one spot. One lady’s dog was constantly pawing at her and barking for treats…throughout the entire class. Unreal.
I was getting compliments from strangers on my dog’s behavior,
Meanwhile the +R trained dogs were acting up. Those dogs represent the very methods KPA preaches, and they were not well-behaved at all. The majority of dogs were just plain naughty. I would describe them as pushy, impatient and dominant-by-default. And the owners? They were like pez dispensers bribing the dogs with steak and chicken for good behavior.
One of the things that blew my mind is the +R philosophy that teaches that if one dog barks, everyone in the room should give their dog a treat…regardless of whether their dog barked back or not. So when dogs barked during the class – and it happened usually several times in each class – half of the dogs barked back and all of the dogs got a treat. I couldn’t make sense of it. “Be good or be bad, it doesn’t matter, you’ll get a treat.” Riddle me that! At one point, Zoey looked up at me when the dog next to her barked and got a treat. It’s almost as if she was saying, “Did you see that? What the heck?!”
In every single class throughout the expo, Zoey laid quietly at my feet.
I left the shaping class early and headed to a class where the speaker and the audience members bashed balanced trainers for a good thirty minutes. They had some pretty terrible things to say about us. Apparently we’re all pretty awful. I couldn’t help but smile feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. By the end of the first day I thought to myself: Just two more days, and it’ll all be over.
The disappointment had started to set in.
The next morning, I made sure to get a gym workout in. I lifted weights and Zoey ran on the treadmill. We were both mentally drained but physically wound-up so getting some exercise was good for both of us. I was starting to get irritated that I had learned nothing new my first day, and I was disappointed that I had spent so much money and invested so much time to make this trip happen. Even so, I approached day two with an open mind hoping that maybe, just maybe, I’d find a class that made the whole trip worthwhile. I looked for classes taught by people I hadn’t listened to yet.
January 20th: Day two
The first class I attended was by Ken Ramirez (Chief Training Officer for the KPA) titled “How to Get Started with Concept Training.” Concept training was actually new to me, so I was excited to see what the process was to teach it. I took notes and appreciated the information, but the concept was simple enough. It’s basically a matching game you can teach your dog.
During Ken’s lecture there was a woman behind me with a Poodle. Within minutes the dog started nudging her so she quickly grabbed a snuffle mat and hid treats in it to give her dog something to do. After a few minutes the dog must have found all the treats, because she picked up the snuffle mat and put it back in her bag. The dog immediately barked at her, so she quickly grabbed the mat, put it on the ground and re-filled it with treats. Unbelievable! Across the room, a lady was playing “touch” games with her dog in the front row, because if she didn’t give the dog something to do he barked at her repeatedly. Other dogs were getting treats every 30 seconds or so to keep them happy. When the owners stopped giving them treats, they pawed at their owners. I thought to myself, “These people are slaves to their dogs!”
Fewer people brought their dogs to the expo on day two.
After concept training, I looked up notes for the next round of classes. A lot of the information seemed super basic so I opted for a class called “Arousal: Science, Not Sex.” Long story short, what I thought would be a great class turned out to be a simple canine body language class with lots of scientific-y pictures; overall, the class was slow going with no new information. I left early and dropped in on a class called “The Orient Express.”
“The Orient Express” class was taught by a very nice, down-to-earth person named Hannah Branigan. She was an awkward presenter but very funny, and I could tell she was very passionate about dog training. Unfortunately all the information was very basic, but I stayed to finish out the class.
At one point in class, there was a restless Aussie who didn’t want to settle down. The owner pointed to the ground four times, and the dog ignored her. So she grabbed a treat and attempted to lure him 3x before he finally laid down at which point she gave him the treat. After taking the treat, he immediately jumped up and started pawing at her, so she gave him more treats. It was like ‘treats on demand.’ I had to resist the urge to stare with my mouth open. The Aussie finally got bored and laid down so she quickly pulled out her phone, took a picture of him, pulled up Facebook, and posted it to social media. And I thought to myself, “And this is how +R trainers make their dogs look good.”
I’d never seen so many naughty dogs getting so many treats in my life.
By afternoon day two, I was disappointed, frustrated and annoyed. So I skipped the rest of the classes, grabbed my stuff, loaded up the car… and headed to the beach to relax. My new friend from Instagram met me there.
I needed to get away from the madness.
January 21st: Day Three
As luck would have it, in my first class of the day there was a lady sitting behind me with a Labrador laying down next to her. She said “Yes” and gave the dog a treat every 10 seconds for 40 minutes straight. At this point, I was getting annoyed by all this click/Yes + treat stuff.
The dog got 220 treats in 40 minutes’ time!
The class itself was a joke. The whole idea was that it’s okay to teach dogs to say “no” to commands. To give them a choice to obey or not. Unreal…
Observation: Of the dogs left at the expo, the majority were Poodles, Chihuahuas, Australian Shepherds, Border Collies and Heelers. I saw one (white) German Shepherd and one Akita; I didn’t see any working-line German Shepherds, Malinois, Rottweilers, or other high drive working breeds.
The next class proved to be just as uninteresting. What I did find hilarious, though, was that people who came in late had to carry their dogs or lift their front feet off the ground by the harness to keep them from pulling as they looked for a seat. At this point in the expo, I had yet to see a truly well-behaved dog (with the exception of one very old dog who slept under his owner’s chair). It wasn’t looking good for their so-called awesome training philosophy. If the trainers’ dogs weren’t behaving, I could only imagine what their clients’ dogs were like.
After two more classes, I really wanted to leave and go to the beach but resisted the urge. The whole expo was turning out to be a freaking joke. I couldn’t help but think it felt like a cult. A bunch of sheep nodding their heads and doing as they’re told. The information was basic, bland and boring. I knew it all already. Didn’t expect that.
I wasted $585 on a 3-day ticket to the expo.
Not to mention the cost of the plane ticket, hotel, rental car, meals…and missed training time! I was amazed that most people were learning these simple concepts for the first time. They categorized the different classes as beginner through advanced, so I assumed I could attend the advanced classes and learn something new but nope. If you know the basics about clicker training, you likely won’t learn anything new at the expo.
The “Drama at the Door” class was a joke. In short: click and treat no matter what your dog does. Same idea they teach for dog reactivity! Oh, and if your dog doesn’t want the treat don’t make him take it. “The dog has the right to decide if he’s hungry for the treat.” Their training philosophy is so completely messed up, it’s unbelievable.
Apparently, dogs are in charge and they can do no wrong!
After that class, I walked out into the hallway and witnessed someone’s dog jump up on someone else and grabbed treats from her treat pouch. Nobody corrected the dog. They ignored him! The dog got away with it.
The number of naughty dogs at the expo was baffling.
Dogs that had potential to be good dogs were allowed to be pushy because they owners never stepped in to provide the dogs with clear rules or boundaries. Positive reinforcement-only trainers obsess over making sure dogs are always “happy” and “safe.” That’s all they care about, it seems. A volunteer casually told me that a KPA faculty member’s dog is “crazy but happy” and routinely runs around the office grabbing food off the counters and getting into the trash. Crazy and happy don’t go hand-in-hand, sorry. Dogs want leadership. They crave boundaries. They need to know what’s allowed and what’s not. And they’re happier when they’re calm versus wild & crazy.
At one point in the afternoon, I got a chance to talk with a girl I met through Instagram who’s interested in learning more about dog training. She started with a traditional training background then jumped over to positive reinforcement training before realizing there has to be a happy middle. What she’s having a hard time finding is someone who teaches true balanced training and is affordable, approachable and realistic.
There is a huge need for a good dog trainer school.
The next class I attended at the expo was titled “Get (Buy-) In or Get Out! Convince Clients to Adopt Your Training Plan.” The lady presenting the class seemed nice enough. She was eloquent and well-spoken and gave audience members lots of information on how to manipulate clients into signing on the dotted line. I’ll be the first to admit positive reinforcement trainers are usually very good at sales and signing clients. She encouraged the audience members (mostly trainers and business owners) to lower client expectations and persuade clients to do things their way. Then they discussed feedback the audience members typically get and one comment that stuck in my mind was: “My clients say ‘Oh you’re just extending the training program to get more money out of me.’” That is something my clients have never said. Instead they say things like “You’re worth every penny!”
The final class of the expo was a website design class. It was a good refresher and I made a few notes on ways I can improve my website, but for the most part I walked away feeling proud of the website I already have. I put a lot of work into my website, training programs, social media and other such thing; being an entrepreneur without a business background is no easy feat. I’m proud of all I’ve accomplished and have enjoyed learning along the way these past few years.
I was happy when day three was over so I could pack up and go. Zoey and I spent the next 18 hours relaxing, enjoying the beach and trying to make the best of what time we had left of the trip. I went home deflated, disappointed and emotionally drained.
The expo was a waste of time and money.
But I did learn something. Here are my takeaways:
Apparently I know more about clicker training than I thought, so that’s good!
I won’t be signing up for anything offered by the Karen Pryor Academy in the future.
Positive reinforcement trainers preach science, but it’s really all just common sense. Nothing special about it.
Food for thought: I think the difference between positive reinforcement-only trainers and balanced trainers is far deeper and more complex than I realized. It goes back to childhood, lifestyles, religious beliefs, political beliefs…you name it. The concept of “punishment” is hugely misunderstood, misused and abused. I train the way I train because I’ve found it to be super effective and because it aligns very closely with how I was raised by my parents.
I don’t have any ill feelings towards +R trainers; I just wish they would acknowledge their own limitations when it comes to training. They can keep taking the easy dogs, but please send the more challenging dogs to trainers who possess the necessary skill set to work with such dogs (like me). I think it does a huge injustice to both the dogs and owners to claim that a dog “can’t be trained” as so many +R trainers do rather than say “Hey, I can’t (or don’t want to) train your dog, but here’s a trainer who can.” Lots of people don’t realize there are +R only trainers and balanced trainers and traditional trainers. They assume a dog trainer is a dog trainer and all dog trainers are the same, so they take what they hear at face value and don’t investigate further. Countless dogs have been euthanized due to +R trainers’ inability to tackle their issues.
I may not have learned much about clicker training, but I got an insider’s look at the world of +R trainers…and it’s not for me!
I hope this synopsis helps provide knowledge and insight to anyone looking to grow as a trainer. If you know nothing about clicker trainer, read a book. If you want to learn more about clicker training, sign up for a class. When it comes to the KPA ClickerExpo: I came, I saw, and I ain’t goin’ back!
“Mom went to the ClickerExpo, and all she got was this lousy shirt!” -Havok