Monday, July 1, 2013

My Journey with Humans

Last month I attended the Instructor Training Course at the Roundout Valley Animals for Adoption shelter in Accord, NY.  The instructors were Pia Silvani, a charter member of APDT, and Sue Sternberg, known for her “Assess a Pet” temperament testing for shelter dogs.  This is my story about the experience.  In typical "Helen" fashion, it's a bit lengthy but I hope it holds your interest to the end because that's my "happy ending."

The Course...
This is a 5-Day course that includes lectures, viewing of videos, working with shelter dogs, demonstrations of some training techniques by the instructors, teaching of group classes by each of the students and attendance in group classes with the shelter dog assigned to you.  The days were long, the breaks were short, the food was not gourmet but generally good, the coffee left something to be desired, the facility was awesome, the shelter dogs were even more awesome and the course was well-packed with info and practice.  It was a well-organized (by Dana Crevling of Dogs of Course) and well-run course focusing on positive reinforcement with much valuable information and hands-on practice for new trainers.  There is something for everyone but more seasoned trainers may find the value derived to be somewhat less than the price of admission… or will they?

My Motivation and Fears...
I had looked at this course every year for many, many years and always wanted to attend.  Timing, logistics and finances stood in my way until this year.  Over the years my needs and reasons for attending had changed and despite being one of the “more seasoned” trainers, I thought perhaps there was something to be gained.  I was right but what I gained was not so obvious to me at first and, lol, well, if you choose to continue reading, you’ll see. 

I wanted to learn how to be a better people-teacher.  I wanted to learn what I was doing wrong and what I needed to change when working with people.  I was hoping to pick up some fun new things I could do in group class to make it a more positive and interesting experience for the humans.  I was not looking for “how to teach [insert behavior here]” and I certainly wasn’t looking to review learning theory and the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning.  Oof!  Been there, done that – ad nauseum.  Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that understanding the 4 quadrants and knowing which quadrant you are in when training is essential for any trainer but this was not something I felt the need to review. 
I arrived at the facility with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation.  Was this going to be fun and enlightening or was this going to be a snooze fest?  Were the other course students and I going to be on a par or were we going to be light years apart?  Would I get along with the human with whom I was to be partnered?  Uncertainty makes me very nervous.  One of the reasons why I love living and working with dogs is that I find them so much more predictable and reliable than humans and that gives me a sense of quiet certainty.

The Instructors...
These women have achieved success in their field without compromise – something worthy of admiration.  There is much to be learned in simply socializing with them, not to mention watching them work.

Pia Silvani has a huge presence that belies her diminutive stature.  She has a calm, quiet, confident manner and an approachable openness that made this student feel comfortable. 

Sue Sternberg has a self-deprecating humor that made her so endearing.  She is honest, down-to-earth and strong.  She doesn’t apologize for her beliefs or methods nor does she force them upon you.  She can agree to disagree with a smile.

Dana Crevling had things running like the best Swiss timepiece with her efficiency.  She was always happy to answer questions and give a helping hand.

There was a vastness of knowledge and experience in all three women that was, at times, almost intimidating but never quite.  These ladies share an obvious and enviable camaraderie, fondness and respect for one another. They all enjoyed a good laugh and often showed their humor and quick wit.  Together they were a powerful team and they made the experience not only educational but enjoyable.

Accentuate the Positive!
That’s what we were told to do.  We each had index cards with the name of every other person participating in the course on a card – about 30 cards in all.  During the course of the week we each had to write something positive about every other person and leave the card in an envelope marked with his/her name.  At the end we would all receive our envelopes with all the index cards with positive comments.  In addition, everyone provided positive comments for each of the two lessons we each had to teach as a group class instructor.

Really?  Um, and what does that do for me or everyone else for that matter?  How could I learn what I was doing wrong if no one would tell me?  How can I improve if my flaws and mistakes are not pointed out to me?   I was not happy about this exercise and I grudgingly participated in this throughout the week.

My Fellow Students...
Almost everyone in the course with only a couple of exceptions was nice.  So nice.  I mean, really, really, REALLY nice.  Sickeningly sweet nice.  Yikes!  My caustic, sardonic, critical self was not comfortable in this environment!  I was the proverbial fish out of water and I was drowning in niceness.  I raced back to my motel room the first night, called my hubby and bitched at him for about 30 minutes straight.  Ahhhh!  Having got all that bitchiness out of my system (my poor, poor hubby), I felt much better and was off to sleep early so I could be well-rested for my next long day.

The next day I felt I was beginning to adjust to all the pleasantness around me.  These ladies were even pleasant early in the morning before coffee!  Go figure.  Whatever.  I was starting to get into a groove of smiling and finding something nice to say.  That evening I fully intended to race back to my motel room and watch TV all night but I was handed a casual invitation to dinner by someone.  I had met this woman at the IAABC conference back in April and had chatted with her a bit over dinner back then.  I found her interesting and extremely intelligent and well, of course, nice.  Lol.  I didn’t know anyone else at the course and she was the closest thing to a familiar face so I decided to join her and whoever else for dinner.

The Amazing Women - You Know Who You Are...
THAT was the beginning of the game-changer for me.  I met some amazing women and had an awesome evening sharing stories and ideas.  I was in the company of some very well-educated women and I felt a little humbled and even intimidated by them.  These women were an assortment of PhDs and Masters Degrees with a background in everything from advertising to zoology.  They were fun, they were interesting, they had struggled and persevered, they were brutally honest and totally sincere.  We dined together each evening after that and one evening we hung out like teenagers drinking wine and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.

I also chatted and shared with other fellow students during the day.  So many great people… the self-proclaimed “inexperienced” trainer who is taking her dog through competition obedience, the young girl attending veterinary school, a motorcycle “mama”, the horse-lovers, shelter workers, nurses, tennis enthusiasts, a history buff, social workers, a groomer, the one male student amongst a sea of estrogen, my partner who was sweet and kind and underestimated her own abilities, even a pole dancer and, of course, dog trainers.  We were diverse but we shared some common bonds – our love of dogs and our desire to improve.

The last day we all shared our thoughts about the facility, the course, our shelter dogs and each other.  We laughed, we cried, we hugged, received our envelopes and certificate and said our goodbyes.  I felt a sense of loss upon leaving.  I felt I had made some new wonderful friends but I knew that the inevitable effects of time, distance and life in general would quickly unravel those new and fragile bonds of friendship and I was greatly saddened by that thought.

All in all it was a great experience and I would highly recommend this course to “wanna be”, new and inexperienced trainers.  Seasoned trainers who are stuck in a rut or looking to change things up will probably find it worthwhile as well.  In other words, something for everyone.

What Was In It For ME?
When I got back home and got back to my routine, I realized that I still had some feedback that I hadn’t checked - my “accentuate the positive” envelope.  I opened the envelope and began to read my index cards.  Funny was the most common comment (I liked that) followed by outspoken (I just KNOW some of those people wanted to say “loudmouth”).  That’s ok; I know I’m a big mouth.  I spent my formative years being chastised and criticized for it and nothing has changed (further evidence that punishment does NOT work).  It’s taken me literally decades to accept that part of me, own it and stop apologizing for it.  I’m here, I’m loud, deal with it or move on!  Some other comments were honest, willing to share and good teacher.  I got to thinking, if I am funny, then maybe I should go for more fun and humor.  If I am honest, then maybe I should be more honest.  And then it hit me.

I had completely missed the point of the Accentuate the Positive exercise that I had SOOO resented the whole week!  I was being given the gift of training my brain to look for the good, the right, the accurate, instead of focusing on and correcting the mistakes.  DIRECTIONS instead of CORRECTIONS! 

Why it took so long to seep into my brain, I can’t say.  I guess I just couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  Or maybe that was just the way my journey had to go.  But there it was in my cards and the cards I had written for others.  Motivate by focusing on the good and build on that success.  Gosh, I do this every day, day in and day out with the dogs I teach – it’s simple, it’s easy and IT WORKS!  Yet, somehow, I left my human students behind on that trip.  I was caught up in “don’t”, “stop”, “no”, “not like that”… in other words, “error marking”.  It was an awful habit that I had trouble changing.  Why?  Because I was focusing on my own errors instead of what I did well!  Once I started looking at what I did well and looked to increase it, then there was less room for what I did wrong.  And, of course, practice makes perfect, so I began to get better at finding the positive in my human students.

It’s still a work in progress but I am finally moving in the right direction and as I make these changes in my teaching style, I find it, thankfully, becomes easier to do.  AND, my human students noticed and appreciated the changes.  Despite having always received exceptionally good feedback on my group classes (via anonymous feedback surveys), most people never continued past the Basic Manners.  This last group that graduated all gave me stellar feedback – so much so that I was almost in tears from how moved I felt.  Better yet, many of them are now continuing on with Better Basics.

The Forest and the Trees:
Was the ITC worth the price of admission?  You bet!  For me it wasn’t so much in the actual materials and specific lessons, good as they were. That was just the trees.  For me the value was in the experience as a whole – the forest.  My deepest and most sincere thanx to all the wonderful women and that one brave man in the course.  You were all my instructors and I am better for having met you all.   And to those very special women with whom I felt a particular bond… I hope we can share a meal (vegan because, yes, Mary, I’ve made the change), some stories and laugh thru the night once again.

Happy Tails!

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