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Briarcliff Dog Trainer Uses Positive Reward System

BRIARCLIFF MANOR -- With treats in her pocket and a clicker device in hand, Linda Lukens has trained all sorts of dogs from regular house pets to service dogs for people with psychological and emotional disorders. She teaches a group class for dogs and owners at the Briarcliff Manor Recreation Center.

"I love what I do. I think I'm good at it. I think I understand (animals) sort of naturally," said Lukens.

Lukens is in her 35th year of dog training. She started her career by going to a dog training school in New Paltz after a career test showed that she could excel at the profession.

"I was the kid who went up to every dog, you couldn't stop me," she said. "So when the test came back with dog trainer, I said 'That's it!' because I always loved animals."

Lukens trains dogs using a positive reward method called operon conditioning that was originally developed by behaviorist B.F. Skinner. She presses her clicker to signal good behavior or absence of bad behavior, and follows up with a treat.

The positive clicking method can be used on all animals, not just dogs, she explained.

"I once trained a wild chipmunk to take food from my hand," Lukens recalled. "I used the clicker and started throwing peanuts and within one week that little chipmunk crawled into my hand and ate a peanut."

Lukens didn't always use the clicker method. When she first trained dogs, she used a punishment-based method based mostly on using choke collars and leashes.

"It's based on hurting the dog, giving them some pain to get them to listen," Lukens explained. "There was no other method in existence then."

Then 12 years ago, Lukens went to a seminar taught by Karen Pryor, an animal trainer who originally trained dophins and orcas for shows.

"The three-day seminar changed my life," she said. "I put punishment-based training behind me. It took me a full year to paradigm shift from punishing to not and I'd never go back. Now I think what I did for all those years was so inhumane."

As an example of the difference between positive clicker-training and punishment-based training, Lukens said there are two ways to train a dog not to jump up on people.

With the punishment-based method, the trainer would jerk hard on the dog's leash and say "No! Off!"

With the positive method, the trainer would teach the dog to sit and greet, rewarding it with clicks and treats when it sat and greeted, thereby not jumping up on a person.

"I want to spread the word of positive training," Lukens said. "It thrills me when people say 'This is so fast and better than what we did before.'"

Lukens teaches many private classes at client's homes, and also group classes in community centers with an average of eight to 10 dogs and owners. In Briarcliff, she teaches beginner, intermediate and advanced classes at a price of $110 for eight classes

Lukens also takes on special projects, like training service dogs for people with severe panic disorder or autism. The dogs help patients to get out of their homes and socialize with other people.

"It's very, very satisfying," she said. "I had a woman who really had not left her home for 20 years, and I got her to cut her hair, go out of her house, talk to people."

When not training other people's pets, Lukens enjoys her own at her home in Carmel. She has two Standard poodles, an Italian greyhound, four cats, a blue and gold macaw and a pond full of koi fish, all of whom have been clicker-trained.

"I do have to deal with so many difficult animals, so when I'm at home I want easy," she said. "That's why I have Standards. They don't shed, they're mellow, good dogs."

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