Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Interview with Animal Trainer Cecile Ashen Young

Cecile Ashen Young is a passionate animal trainer, advocate of environmental enrichment and a former geological engineer (the second engineer we’ve interviewed this week!). She is speaking at the Getting 2 Zero conference, so we’re thrilled she took the time out to chat to SAT about training.

Tell us about your work as a trainer - what organizations do you work for and what do you do in those roles?

My work as a dog trainer has evolved from working with caregivers and their dogs in a group setting to working with both dogs and cats. I operate a behaviour and training business that focuses primarily on preventative work with puppies and kittens and behaviour modification work with adolescent and adult animals. This evolution stems from my Masters level studies in companion animal behaviour analysis and counseling.

Currently, I run a puppy class at a local vet clinic and I also work with kittens (every chance I get!) at a local cat shelter. In fact, most of my work comes from vet and shelter referrals. I work with vets, veterinary behaviourists and dog trainers doing consulting and my work with the cat shelter involves providing advice and education to adopters and those looking to adopt.

One of my passions is educating the public and other industry professionals on the behaviour, care and management of companion animals and to this end I give presentations and workshops as often as I can. I also lecture in the dog trainers skill set (Cert III and IV) at the Challenger Institute of Technology here in Perth and I act as a committee member for the Industry Accredited Dog Trainers Association of Western Australia, an organization that promotes quality education for dog trainers.

How did you get involved in training dogs in the first place?

I have always been interested in working with animals, but during my university days I ended up getting a Bachelors degree in Geological Engineering and working in the oil industry for several years. It wasn’t until my boys were teenagers that I started to think seriously about pursuing a career working with animals. We were living in Germany at the time and I was working with a fabulous (and well qualified) canine behaviour specialist with one of my dogs, Boudreaux. Working with this woman proved to be the catalyst for my career change: her depth of knowledge, skills and expertise were just inspiring! 

So when my family and I moved to Perth I set out to learn more about dog training and behaviour. I enrolled in the same skill set that I now lecture in, and at the same time I was fortunate to be mentored by a woman who is, without a doubt, one of the best dog trainers in Western Australia. She and I worked at a local dog shelter. In fact she and I started a dog trainer business and worked together for several years. About four years ago I started researching Masters programs in animal behaviour and eventually enrolled and started the ‘hard slog’. I have finally finished all my course work and practicums and am currently working on my thesis.

At G2Z you will be talking about environmental enrichment. What is EE?

Environmental enrichment, whether in a shelter environment or in the home, involves the enhancement of an animal’s physical or social environment. The outcomes of enrichment should be to:
1) Increase the number and range of normal behaviors shown by the animal
2) Prevent the development of abnormal behaviors or reduce their frequency/severity
3) Increase positive utilization of the environment (e.g., the use of space)
4) Increase the animal’s ability to cope with behavioral and physiological challenges such as exposure to humans or environmental variation.
The goal of enrichment strategies is to produce change, whether behavioural or physiological, that improve the welfare (quality of life) of the animal.

Training is not just about the "sit" and "shake".
Why is EE important in relation to cats in shelters?

My work at both dog and cat shelters led to my thesis topic, The impact of adopter expectations and adoption processes on shelter adoptions. It was through my work and the research for my thesis that I began to really appreciate the role of the environment in enhancing and supporting the behavioural needs of a companion animal, particularly during a shelter stay. Environmental enrichment in the shelter addresses the issues of what animals need as well as what animals want. 

The first issue may be perceived as targeting those requirements necessary to maintain the physical wellbeing, or health, of the animals and providing an environment that addresses behavioural needs. The second issue may be perceived as targeting a positive emotional state for the animals. An analysis of the literature on environmental enrichment in shelters suggests that it can reduce environment related stress. Reducing stress is likely to result in improved tractability, a reduced incidence of disease, and increased adoptability for shelter animals.

Can you give examples of types of EE that could be used in shelters?

The program that I have developed uses social, tactile, play, training, and object/housing enrichment strategies. While addressing the basic maintenance needs of the animal (e.g. basic resources and their placement) can be approached in a general way, effective enrichment uses a very idiopathic approach: the strategies used must be designed for the individual animal. There are numerous other strategies that can be employed including those focusing on the olfactory and visual environment as well as on feeding enrichment strategies.

A kitten plays on a scratching post.
What are the barriers to using EE? 

The provision of environmental enrichment is an inexpensive and effective way to enhance the quality of life of shelter animals. Volunteers can be trained to implement enrichment strategies and basic, daily tasks can be put into place for time-poor staff in a way that compliments rather than burdens their normal routine. For many shelters there may be quite a lot of entrenched tradition and skepticism to overcome, not only in terms of perceived budgeting and time issues, but also in terms of how many see the shelter stay: as a temporary ‘roof over their heads’ way-station. The goal of maintain the health of shelter animals until they can be rehomed may overshadow the reality that for many animals, their shelter stay is overlong in terms of their welfare, whether that stay is for weeks or months.

In a recent trip to the United States, I visited several cat shelters, both large and small, that view environmental enrichment as a given part of their policies and procedures. I would like to see this happening in every shelter in Australia.

Cat shelters should NOT look like this!
Can you tell us about Boudreaux and Georgie - how did you meet and do you train them?

My family adopted Georgie, our Irish Terrier cross, from a dog shelter the first time we lived in Perth in 1999. She was 2 years old at the time and her former family was leaving the country and unable to take her with them. I took Georgie to several group training classes in Perth. A couple of years after that we moved back to the United States with Georgie. While there, I had agreed to take care of my nephew’s 2 year old Boxer, Boudreaux. For several reasons we ended up keeping him. Unfortunately, I later discovered that my nephew was involved in a rather unsavory group of people and Boudreaux’s early experiences had quite a negative impact on his behaviour with both people and other dogs.

Shortly after this we moved to Germany (for the second time) where Boudreaux and I worked with a canine behaviour specialist. The family, including the dogs, eventually returned to Australia. So my dogs have flown internationally a few times, although knowing what I know now, I regret having put my dogs through what was a stressful experience for them.
The dogs are 14-15 years old now and quite slow and most comfortable in their home environment. They still love short play and shaping sessions and I make sure that they feel safe, unchallenged, and well-loved.

There are lots of websites and books which teach people how to train animals. Where do you recommend people start?

There are indeed a lot of websites and books that purportedly teach people how to train dogs. Unfortunately, unless one knows what to look for, one may end up with information that is not only hopelessly outdated but also uses a one-size-fits-all approach. This sort of information has the potential to impact on the pet’s welfare and certainly on the human-animal bond. I have compiled a list of appropriate resources that are based on current best practice training methods that I share with my clients, colleagues and students.

For caregivers, I would recommend that they seek out a well qualified, experienced trainer. Unfortunately dog training is an unregulated industry. Until this changes it is going to be difficult for caregivers to distinguish between ‘traditional’ trainers and those educated and experienced in evidence-based training methods.

As a vet I worry that sometimes my interactions with animals are negative, ie I see them for a short time, perform an examination and perhaps give an injection. Are there any things that vets can do, aside from provide liver treats [not everyone takes them!] to avoid this negative reenforcement?

I think it must be so difficult for vets to address both the physiological and behavioural needs of their clients in the short time they have. In terms of behaviour, I think it would be helpful for vets to offer regular education sessions for their clients that focus heavily on prevention of the development of behaviour problems. These should include well run puppy and kitten classes as well as “Introduce Your Pet to the Clinic’ programs. 

In addition, I think it would be helpful for vet clinics to incorporate regular staff training on species-specific behaviour and particularly canine and feline communication. I would also like to see a well-read copy of Sophia Yin’s Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats & Dogs in every vet clinic. This book has excellent advice for putting into place low-stress handling strategies and promoting a more positive emotional experience for pets (and their caregivers!) at the clinic.

What are the traits of a good animal trainer and how can we develop these?

For people who are interested in becoming a dog trainer, I would recommend that they seek advice from qualified trainers, pursue a formal education, work in a shelter, and work with a qualified mentor. Every dog trainer should be armed with a solid working knowledge of the science of learning and species-specific behaviour before attempting to work with companion animals or advice their caregivers. Because companion dog training is really about educating and working with people, dog trainers also need to have fantastic social skills and have perfected the art of effective communication.

Thank you so much Cecile for taking the time out!