Sarah Shapiro-Ward, like many trainers at When Hounds Fly, left an unrelated career (Biochemistry), to pursue her passion for dog training. Also, her experience with training didn’t even start with dogs, or positive reinforcement – her experiences begin in her 20s with horses, where she trained using traditional methods.
Today, Sarah leads When Hounds Fly’s Vancouver location, and has attained fame both for the amazing tricks she has taught her Cockapoo, Percy (Playing Jenga, Connect 4, and other impressive tricks – see them on Instagram: @prancing_percy) and her teaching and coaching ability with human clients.
We know that you were working with horses long before you started working with dogs. Tell us more about that.
When I was in my 20s doing my Masters degree, I took a lesson on a whim at a place called Firtree Farm. They set about teaching me all of the foundations that I needed to know, and those foundations have served me very well ever since. I went on to part-lease two horses (Leo and Boo) in the UK, and full time lease and train my first horse Tehya, a beautiful mare, on Vancouver Island. Leasing means you don’t own the horse, but care for them either part-time or full-time for the owner.
Horses are trained with compulsion methods mainly, so I’m guessing you started that way. How has your experience with horses shaped your understanding of training?
Horses are generally trained with a technique called “pressure and release”, which is effectively an Negative Reinforcement (R-) technique. Pressure in the form of a tactile aid (a touch with leg, rein or whip) is applied until the horse completes the behaviour. In some cases, the tactile aid is given at a much higher intensity and used as a direct punishment or “correction”. The vast majority of horse people love their animals and strongly advocate for the welfare of the horse, so relying heavily on Positive Punishment (P+) is mostly frowned upon in my experience.
Having this background, I can strongly empathise with dog trainers who do use aversive techniques. I’ve been there, and I understand that it’s possible to use an aversive tool with the very best of intentions, and it’s disheartening to see people use these tools badly. Before I learned about positive reinforcement training, I believed I was using the best tools available, and that these tools were absolutely necessary for communication and safety. Without them, I believed at the time I wouldn’t have been able to handle my horses safely.
I trained Tehya using pressure and release (R-) in 2016-2017. While I was always bugging my trainer/mentor with sceptical questions about how the training worked, I couldn’t argue with the amazing results I saw. I felt like I was beginning to create a strong, lasting bond with this horse. I even reached a level of confidence with her to ride without a bridle or saddle, even on the trails. I was always pushing our limits, teaching new things and making what felt like incredible progress. I used aversive tools to get results, and I don’t believe they damaged my relationship with my animal. This is a very controversial statement from a dedicated R+ trainer!
You began as a classroom assistant at When Hounds Fly, and at first, is it true you were skeptical about the use of positive reinforcement in the real world?
Initially, I didn’t accept it as being applicable to real life situations at first, or being applicable to horses at all. I remember very early on talking with senior trainers at When Hounds Fly about pressure and release and how I felt that I absolutely could not train a horse without it. That conversation was a breakthrough for me, and I started to see the wider application of clicker training beyond cute tricks and “easy dogs”. I bothered the When Hounds Fly staff relentlessly with questions for a long time after that (sorry team), and the answers I received filled me with excitement and passion.
How did exposure to Positive Reinforcement / Clicker Training mesh with your experience with horses?
I stopped riding all together once I started really learning about positive reinforcement. I felt pulled in two different directions by two opposite communities and I couldn’t reconcile the differences.I couldn’t figure out how to apply Positive Reinforcement (R+) to horses, and I no longer felt comfortable using the pressure and release methods I had been taught. My horse trainer friends couldn’t really satisfy the questions I had, and absolutely would not humour the new information I was learning. I felt very uncomfortable for a very long time. I didn’t think what I had previously done was abusive, but I was starting to feel like there was a better way to do things. I just hadn’t worked out the specifics, yet.
I’ve found my way with horses again after moving to Vancouver. I have found several horse people who are knowledgeable about and open to using positive reinforcement techniques. I worked with two miniature ponies (Bella & Panda) during my Karen Pryor Academy course and have been part leasing a lovely mare called Echo since the beginning of this year. I’m excited about what the future holds for my relationship with horses. I no longer feel conflicted about how to train – I use some pressure and release to model behaviours, and I use positive reinforcement to strengthen those behaviours and put them on cue. I have dabbled with using targets and shaping to create new behaviours and so far, I am very happy with the results.
How did you transition from horses to working with dogs?
Quitting my old job as a Biochemist was very hard on my mental health. I was burned out, depressed and I’d lost my passion for my science career. Once I finished my first postdoc at UVic, my husband and I moved to Toronto and I began looking for another job but struggled to find something I wasn’t over- or under-qualified for. I began seeing a therapist to help me figure out how to rebuild. He suggested while I was hunting for a new job, I should find a way to work with animals, as caring for animals had always been a part of my daily life that was now missing. There weren’t any real horse options in the city, so I turned to dog training instead as the next best thing. I’m so glad I did!
The moment I knew I wanted to be a dog trainer was when I turned down a job at a vegan ice cream start up company. They wanted somebody with my background in probiotics/prebiotics to be involved in product development and it seemed like a really unique opportunity (plus, one of the perks was free ice cream). Prior to this point, I had thought of dog training as a fun, temporary activity to keep me busy between jobs. But when push came to shove and I had to decide what I wanted, I chose not to give it up. I chose to remain in my then-role as a dog walker and I decided to double down on my efforts to become a trainer. I had found something I was passionate about, and I didn’t want to give that up. I sat my CTDI and CPDT-KA shortly after making this decision, and I started up my own training business called Mind and Manners. When When Hounds Fly offered me a position in their team, I was excited to accept and contribute to the team that helped me get started.
Percy was your first dog? How was raising, socializing and training Percy? What challenges did you/do you face?
Percy was a complete menace of a puppy. He would happily pee and poop in his crate, making crate training a useless tool for house training for us. I had to maintain a very strict potty routine until he was 8 months old. I had to take him out every 45 minutes between 6 and 11pm or he’d have an accident! It felt impossible, but we eventually managed. He showed mild signs of resource guarding and separation anxiety from a very young age, which I had to work on from the beginning (thankfully I had some expert guidance from Rachael). He was always a dream dog to train tricks with, though, and I think teaching him a wide variety of specific skills helped him develop into a well adjusted adult. At least, it kept him busy enough not to get into other mischief!
Percy’s trick repertoire and general training repertoire is impressive. What’s your motivation for going that far with some of his behaviours?
Training and socialising Percy gave me a lot of purpose and structure in my life when I really needed it. I continued to train Percy every single day because it had become a habit for us and neither of us felt right without it. When you make daily training sessions a habit, you quickly run out of “easy” stuff and end up working on more challenging behaviours. Before I knew it, I was able to emulate all the impressive tricks I saw online and even invent a few of my own. I think it’s important that I never had very strict training goals with Percy. If something was hard I just threw it out and tried something new. It wasn’t about the end product, it was about clocking our 10 minutes per day. Often I’d go back to a trick I’d “thrown out” months before, to find it was much easier to teach the second time around.
What do you like about teaching group classes, as simple as puppy class or foundations?
I love teaching the basics. People start their classes without always knowing what to expect, or how to communicate effectively with their dogs. I get to watch them develop their skills and their relationships with their dogs. I love when people show off the tricks they’ve learned, or talk excitedly about how smart their dog is. There’s nothing more exciting or rewarding than that! I’ll never get bored of teaching the simple stuff.
You still see and help people that have some serious fear, anxiety, aggression issues. How do you feel about that kind of consulting?
Honestly, sometimes I dread this type of consulting because there is a lot of pressure to immediately “fix” the problem, and that isn’t always possible. However, these appointments are often the most rewarding as working through serious issues like fear, aggression or anxiety can make a really huge difference to the lives of these dogs and their families. I’ve had some very hard cases, and some very emotional cases, but I’ve been able to help people through very hard situations and it does make me feel good to know how much I’ve helped.
Why do you want to continue in this line of work?
Because I cannot see myself doing anything else, now!
Dog training is constantly challenging me and there’s never a dull moment. I love always learning and growing, and I love bringing people closer to their dogs.
The future for dog training is exciting. As a community, we’re always finding new, better ways to communicate with our dogs and we’re always refining our skills. This means that the field can move quite quickly! As a huge nerd, I love keeping on top of the publications and going to conferences to learn from the experience of others.
Part of my role at When Hounds Fly is to update our curriculum so we can deliver the very latest and best training methods to our students. It’s the perfect role for me, and I imagine I’ll keep doing it for a long time.
Right now, I am busy growing the Vancouver branch of When Hounds Fly. I hope one day to be able to expand out here and help to train up a new team of amazing dog trainers.