Florida Keys Business
Sunday, March 31, 2013
In training
Florida Keys dog trainer Jan Kase uses 'clicker method' to teach man's best friend

Andy, a 1-year-old Jack Russell terrier, looks up at Jan Kase in tail-wagging anticipation of the familiar, staccato sound that tells him he's doing the right thing.

Kase puts a Cheerio treat on the tile floor near Andy, but tells him to "leave it." As the little dog resists the temptation to scarf up the snack, Kase presses her handheld clicker -- Andy's signal that he's doing what he's supposed to. Kase then quickly picks up the treat and feeds it to Andy.

"Treats should come from you, not eaten off the floor whenever someone drops something," Kase says, before stepping aside and coaching Andy's owner on the proper technique for the "leave it" command.

"Click. Treat. Click. Treat," Kase says, training the owner as well as the terrier. "The click tells him he's doing right," Kase said. "Your voice gets boring to him, he hears it all day, but the click is a recognizable sound that he quickly learns to associate with a treat."

The clicker is just a training tool, she said. Eventually the dog will be conditioned to "leave it," when a tempting morsel hits the floor. The desired behavior will come naturally to dogs like Andy.

Kase has been a certified dog trainer for more than 30 years, since before the clicker method was widely used. She has been using the positive reinforcement approach of clicker training for about 20 years.

"I'm a dyed-in-the-wool clicker trainer," she said, adding that her degree in psychology and her study of B.F. Skinner's theories of operant conditioning helped her understand why clicker training works.

Skinner observed that "The consequences of behavior determine the probability that the behavior will occur again."

In the case of dog training, when good behavior is rewarded with a click and a treat, then it will occur again and again, Kase said.

"Click. Treat. Click. Treat," Kase says again to Andy's owner. "You always focus on what you want from the dog, not what you don't want. I never use the word 'No' in my training. Dogs don't understand 'No.' You have to teach them an alternative behavior that you do want from them."

Instead of running out the front door when someone knocks, or jumping all over a visitor, Kase clicks and rewards a dog for standing nicely next to the door. She rewards it for sitting, staying, anything.

"One client told me that their cat actually became clicker-trained, because he was always sitting on the couch, watching the sessions with the dog," she said.

And it all starts with eye contact, which is the focus of the a dog's and owner's first one-hour training session with Kase, who owns Florida Keys Dog Trainer. When a dog makes eye contact with Kase or its owner, it gets a click -- and a treat -- so that soon, the animal is constantly looking at his owner for direction.

"'What do you want me to do now?' the dog is asking," Kase said.

It creates a whole different relationship with your dog, as opposed to the old-fashioned choke collars and terrifyingly loud commands in a deep, guttural tone.

Kase spends 9 months a year in the Florida Keys, where she offers in-home dog training sessions from Key West to Key Largo. Each session is $65, and the first one is always a free consultation.

"So people can see what clicker training is all about," she said. "Usually, they're blown away by how quickly and how well their dog responds to the clicker."

She works with dogs of all sizes and ages, and with the owners to determine what they want specifically from their pet.

Kase also specializes in puppies and "problem dogs," and she recommends starting such training sessions as soon as a new puppy enters the home.

"The younger, the better," she said. "When they're puppies, they're like sponges. If you don't show them what's appropriate, they'll make it up on their own, and that's not what we want. But once you have a clicker-trained dog, they're constantly asking, 'What else can I do?'"

Once the desired behaviors become natural, and the owners have a dog with nice manners, the clicker goes away and is tossed in a kitchen drawer -- until the owners want to teach the dog something new.

"They never forget that sound, and they know something's up when they hear it," Kase said.

The dogs know their owner wants them to do something, and they'll look to them with the eye contact that was established months or years earlier to figure out the next step.

"Jan started working with my dog, Kerrigan, last winter," said Big Pine resident Susan Miller. "It was amazing to watch him reasoning and thinking, 'What does she want me to do to get my reward?'"

For Kase, the job is a labor of love.

"It's my passion," Kase said. "I could do it 20 hours a day."

But after two hours last week, little Andy was ready for a break -- after one last click -- and treat.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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