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The Ranch Part One: The Mechanics of Training

Last week I spent five days at the Karen Pryor National Training Center, also known as the Ranch. My optimistic plan included posting a recap of each day on my blog. But after nearly twelve hours of training and classroom sessions, I didn’t have the energy left to write. Now that I’m home and rested, I want to share what I learned and explain how it will shape my training process.

On our first day, before we started our sessions with our assigned donkeys and goats, our amazing instructor Ken Ramirez had us practice the mechanics of training (using a clicker and reinforcing for behavior) with each other. It seems such a simple thing—practicing what you’re going to do before you’re faced with an unfamiliar animal (I’ve never worked with goats or mini donkeys!)—but it made such a difference. With our treat pouches filled with timothy grass pellets and clickers, we paired up and took turns being the trainer and the animal, clicking and then reaching into our treat pouch for two or three pellets, which the “animal” took from our hands. We also practiced keeping our hands out of the treat pouch until it was time to reach in for the reward—something we all forget to do from time to time.

These short practice sessions underscored how crucial solid training mechanics are for helping animals learn. Without a well-timed click or marker word and delivery of a treat, your dog may not understand what behavior you’re rewarding. Your hand resting in, on, or near your treat pouch during the training will muddle your clarity and your dog’s focus will be there instead of on you! So simple, but so important! I’ve never thought of giving my clients the chance to practice their training mechanics before working with their dogs. But after seeing how effective such rehearsal can be, I’ll be adding it to my future training sessions.

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