Frequently Asked Questions

... About Clicker Training

Click on a question.

I don’t get it! What is “clicker – training”?

Let’s start by looking at this question from a totally different angle:
Think about the act of training LESS as “do what I say” and MORE as “explaining to a good friend what you need done”.

  • No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, dogs do not really understand human speech. Their own communications system is based primarily on scent and body language, not vocalizations. They understand posture and patterns of movement when we make “that sound”, and the places we usually do these actions; but it is as difficult for them deduce the meaning of a spoken command as it would be for an average American to understand Swahili.
  • So how can we possibly communicate with such an entity? By building a shared language one “word” at a time. And the first word is “click”.  The clean, intonation-free sound “click” is immediately followed by something the dog loves – a treat, a ball, a tuggy.  Very quickly the dog realizes that “click” means “Woo hoo! Good thing coming!” Then by clicking exactly as the dog does something the trainer likes (say, going into a sit position) the trainer marks/tags that behavior with a click as something the dog can do to get a reward (marker-based training). The dog can choose or not choose to do that behavior – there is no punishment if it doesn’t. But the odds are very very great that the dog will want to continue this marvelous game in which he can get treats just by sitting.

basic box clickersclickers2

  • There’s nothing magic about the clicker itself  – it is just a convenient, inexpensive device that is readily available and easily manipulated by child-sized hands.  The audible marker used to tag the behavior we want to encourage just needs to be uniform, no matter who is delivering it, and quickly and easily produced.

  • The effectiveness of clicker-training is based on the trainer’s ability to build a trust relationship with the trainee, working in a training environment that is free of fear. There is no room for lies, punishment, threat/dominance displays. What we humans are calling “training” is, for the dog, a fabulous game to which they return joyfully (“the little dog laughs!”).

What about “The Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan? Is clicker-training like that?

No. In fact, quite the opposite.

This sounds easy! Will the kids be actual dog trainers after the class?

No, that takes more time than we typically have with a child. We are confining our focus to the portion of training that best supports the goals of behavioral therapists – the “ah ha!” moment when the dog and the child start communicating without words, without coercion.

Referencing the STAR Training Guidelines given to older students (CLICK HERE to open a copy in a new browser window), elementary school children will actively work in Zone 1. For older students, or as appropriate to illustrate a point, the children will dip into Zone 2 and Zone 3 behaviors so they have a clearer view of how the dog will progress.

... About Our S.T.A.R. Teams

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How are your S.T.A.R. Teams distinguished from more traditional therapy dog teams that we see in hospitals and libraries?

The beneficial effect of traditional therapy  dogs is well documented — they provide comfort and emotional support for the duration of their visit.

We, on the other hand, have a behavioral modification agenda: we do want to give children moments of joy and personal empowerment, but perhaps even more importantly we want to gently arm them with tools and knowledge that can improve their chance for a safe, healthy, happy life long after we’re gone.

It is the active nature of our engagement with the children that most visibly distinguishes us from other groups:

  • Within a session, our dogs are off-leash underscoring the fact that they are not compelled to work with the youth – they can CHOOSE to work with a youth based on the youth’s behavior. We actively engage the children in thinking up and teaching our dogs an amazing assortment of games. This does not sound unusual until you recognize that traditional therapy organizations (e.g., Pet Partners, formerly Delta Society, or Alliance of Therapy Dogs, formerly Therapy Dogs, Inc., or Gabriel’s Angels) at a minimum do not allow animals off-leash. Consider the difference to children between an on-leash dog obeying a command and an uncompelled, off-leash dog CHOOSING to work/play with them!
  • Traditional therapy dogs are specifically screened to gently tolerate ANY behavior on the part of the child. Our dogs are encouraged to safely but clearly react to a child’s behavior. One of our goals is for the children to learn to “read” what the dog is telling them so they can begin to understand how one’s behavior affects others.
  • Our dog/handler teams do not operate as STAR teams outside of our supervision – although a handler may suggest a potential client and ultimately be assigned there, all of our clients must be approved at the organizational level, with great attention paid to safety and support on both sides of the relationship.

Why are you using therapy dogs instead of shelter dogs, as some programs do?

Our local county human services, school districts, and animal services all prohibit the use of shelter dogs. Substituting registered, seasoned therapy dogs answers their safety concerns and enables us to move more quickly to the “fun stuff”.

And our handlers no longer think of the dogs as pets. As Linda tells the kids, “Eli is my partner – I do things WITH him, not TO him.” This mindset allows us to talk honestly about what it means to be a friend.

Why are you using dogs at all?

TONS of reasons!

  1. Dogs are not little humans. They are marvelously different, and the ways in which they are different and how this affects our actions as trainers is fertile ground for later discussions on respecting and enjoying differences. We are not all the same, and isn’t it great!
  1. Dogs have no “secret agendas” or thoughts – they wear their emotions on their surface, readable by anyone who cares to learn. Part of our goal is to teach the children how to read these emotions and understand how their own actions impact them.
  1. Dogs are spontaneous – they live “in the moment”. Their perception of causality is very narrow by human standards. What is happening at any point in time is perceived to have been caused by what immediately (and this means within ½ sec) precedes it. This means that dog provides immediate feedback on handler activity. It also means that a punishment inflicted on a dog for an infraction more than ½ second ago does not have the effect intended.
  1. Dogs have been genetically selected for centuries to be tuned to the emotional states of humans. They mirror what they perceive our emotions to be: if we are tense, or frightened, they will be tense or frightened even if they don’t understand the source of our concern. This provides a highly visual external bio-feedback mechanism to the emotional state of the handler – and an opportunity to use personal self-control as a requirement for working with our dogs.
  1. Dogs have parallel but sometimes very different social constructs which invite later discussion about the human version:
    • Dogs have a strong sense of “manners” – but it is many times just the opposite of what would be appropriate for a human.
    • Dogs, for the most part, are social animals and feel safest and happiest when with they are with their “pack”/family – to the point that even if members of that pack mistreat them, they will suffer the mistreatment rather than be alone.
  1. Dogs perceive the world in a very different way than do humans. In many ways their senses provide them with a far richer view of reality. For instance:
    • Their visual perception very different from our own. They are red/green color-blind – that red ball in the green grass is harder to see than you think! For most breeds, their distance vision is less than our own, but their peripheral vision is wider. True to their predator ancestry, their eyes are optimized to detect motion (moving ball) rather than stationary objects (ball at rest).
    • Their hearing is more acute, with a range that goes almost as low as humans can hear, but goes WAY higher. This means that their world is filled not only with natural sounds, but all the electronic hums from lights, appliances, etc. of which we are blissfully unaware and dogs can’t escape.
    • But their strongest sense is without a doubt SMELL! They “see the world through their nose”, so to speak. On a scale of 1 to 10, with humans’ ability to detect odor = 10, dogs are 10,000. Where human noses become inured dog noseto a specific odor over time, or “blend” fragrances into a single smell, dogs smell every single odor individually until it dissipates into nothingness. This gives them the ability to “see into the past” – a dog that meets you is aware not only of your unique smell + indicators that tell it your emotional state, it can detect what you had for breakfast, that this is the 2nd day you’ve worn those jeans, that you walked across the grass on the way to the bus, stopped to pet a cat, and sat next to someone who lives with a cigarette smoker. Scent-based tricks look like magic, and the children are in on the secret!


Why does this approach work?

  • Positive, marker-based training is 100% about building a relationship based on earned trust and clear, timely communication between two different entities – humans on one side, dolphins, orcas, monkeys, chickens, dogs, etc. on the other side. There is something both exhilarating and empowering about having a dog not only do what we ask, but also be clearly enjoying itself.
  • We learn/remember best if we are actively rather than passively involved in what is being presented. Because STAR engages the kids in the training process, they are (unknowingly) active participants in their own therapy.
  • We all tend to feel more positively about a situation if we feel we have choices and that they will be honored. STAR builds in opportunities for participants to make choices, and to recognize that right in others.
  • Dogs have been bred for centuries to interact intelligently with humans. The have very readable emotional reactions to what is happening to them – they provide real-time feedback on interactions.  STAR participants are taught to “read” what the dog is saying and adjust  their own behavior accordingly. Having the “little dog laugh” is a sincere and unambiguous signal to children training a dog that they are doing a good jobEli, works with kids, learning to trust the skateboard


How do you manage risk?

We’ve given careful thought to this topic, and each year we revisit this Risk Management Plan to make sure we stay on top of things.

How has the S.T.A.R. program been validated?

How has the STAR program been validated?

Pacific University Oregon is helping us validate the effectiveness of our program.In a world rightly pursuing evidence-based intervention, we started off with a handicap: we had no hard, objective evidence to validate the effectiveness of our program. STAR was a new model, and our successes fell in the realm of “anecdotal”.  The Psychology Department of Pacific University has changed that. 

As part of Pacific University’s multi-year commitment to the program, starting in  September 2013 year we worked with seniors under the guidance of Dr. Heide Island, Associate Professor, Comparative Biological Psychology at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Summative Evaluation Report The Little Dog Laughed (TLDL) Animal-Assisted Therapy Program Portland, Oregon Prepared by Heide D. Island, Ph.D. Pacific University Oregon July 2016

As of July 31, 2016 The full Summative Evaluation Report has been published, and proudly posted on our site – CLICK HERE for a .pdf copy (warning: it’s 174 pages long!).

Here’s one of my favorite parts (bolding is mine):

Bottom Line: Based on the observational data, The Little Dog Laughed, Animal-Assisted Therapy Program demonstrated efficacy for child residents of two domestic violence shelters. Evidence was established through statistically significant behavioral improvement for each of the seven behavioral constructs (as represented by TLDL mission) within a single 15 to 20-minute animal-assisted activity session. TLDL Animal-Assisted Activity/Therapy model is adaptable to a number of contexts and target populations. It is conceivable that the seven behavioral outcome categories for child residents of domestic violence shelters could be modified for a variety of other populations, including but not limited to assisted living residents, youth and adolescent life skills training, and adults or children with physical or intellectual disability.

...About Our Community Partners

Click on a question.

Who are your partner organizations in the community?

While we have on occasion worked with foster care programs and a juvenile evaluation and assessment shelter,  we partner primarily with professionals in the following organizations:

  • Domestic Violence Shelters – Since January 2013 we’ve made weekly visits to two DV shelters (Raphael House of Portland in Multnomah County and Monika’s House in Washington County), working closely with their juvenile counselors. In late 2015 we added a third shelter (Clackamas Women’s Services in Clackamas County). We prefer to work with one child at a time so that we can support what each particular child needs without distraction. To stay in sync with each facility’s intervention strategies, the visiting handler joins the shelter staff in all relevant training so that goals and language used with the children are kept consistent.
  • Summer Day Camps – The summer of 2016 we added support for  Good Neighbor Center’s 10-week summer camp. We have not completed four years of this happy relationship.
    • Past  Examples of Summer Camps
      • In the Summer of 2011 a team provided twice-weekly dog-training classes to youths at Harkins House,  a short term temporary residential shelter care and evaluation  facility for Washington County in Hillsboro.
      • In the Summer of 2012 a team worked weekly with Pet Club youths  resident in a foster care facility in Newberg.
      •  In the Summer of 2015 a team taught daily age-appropriate animal training modules at the annual Frog Hollow Girl Scout camp in Champoeg State Park.
      • In August 2016 we supported the Portland Police BoyStrength summer camp, and that Fall we provided support for their after-school programs in Portland elementary schools (SUN).
  • Residential Treatment Facilities – In 2014 we established a relationship with Parry Center (Trillium Family Services). This is a more challenging environment, so we are deliberately taking it slow as we add new children to the schedule. In Spring 2018 we began working with with Morrison Child & Family Services.
  • Elementary Schools – What started as “test of concept” series at McKay Elementary School in the Beaverton School Districts has blossomed into a strong, ongoing relationship. In this more structured environment, a team works with the counselor and four to six children at a time. The focus is, of necessity, less intensely on the individual on this setting, and more on group dynamics/teamwork. In each four-session series we work on themes identified by the counselor. After each S.T.A.R. session, the counselor picks up a thread introduced while working with the dog and weaves it into a further discussion on how that concept applies to people:
    • Learning empathy: how to read signals from the dogs and also from people in order to understand and get along with others
    • Positive Influence: training the dog in positive ways helps the students learn how to get along with others without bossing or bullying
    • Social Skills: students will try new skills with the dogs, such as assertiveness, that are difficult to try with people, since the dogs are non-judgmental.
  • Organizations that support domestic violence survivors – We love working with the energetic and innovative group called SCARS – Survivor Collective Alliance, Reaching Society.  We send teams to play with kids at their annual SurvivorCon at Beaverton City Park each October. 
  • Organizations that support homeless youths – We have formed an alliance with HomePlate Youth Services. To stay in sync with this facility’s intervention strategy of fostering work skills, we employ interested youths in a small-scale pilot program. Theye assist in training our dogs for home-grown videos promoting adopting dogs from shelters.
  • Organizations that teach the importance of consent in a relationship – Fall 2018, four of our teams presented a workshop for teens at the huge Consent Convergence event.

CLICK HERE to read comments from professionals at our community partners.

How do those community partners feel about your program?


Spring, 2017

In Spring 2017 we were privileged to have a Pacific University doctoral candidate, Sia Kruss, as our intern. Among her assignments was to design and execute a survey of our existing organizational partners with the goal of collecting specific feedback on how The Little Dog Laughed was perceived and eliciting suggestions on how we could better meet their needs. CLICK HERE to read the full report on her findings.

From her report:

In order to fully understand the value The Little Dog Laughed provides to its partner organizations, survey recipients were also asked how the partnership had improved the quality of the services their organization provides. …The respondent representing McKay Elementary pointed out that “it provides a different way to facilitate social skills/friendship groups, combining dog-assisted sessions with regular sessions, thus ensuring transferability and practice of the skills,” while the respondent representing Good Neighbor Center emphasized that “this program does an excellent job of helping little ones learn important skills that help them heal from trauma. The program looks like fun games or information about how to train dogs, but underneath the fun was an excellent framework that helped our kids learn to regulate their emotions, set and respect boundaries, and develop perseverance, patience, and the importance of encouraging others. These skills are invaluable for kids.”

Survey recipients were also asked what specific changes could be made to improve the partnerships between their organizations and The Little Dog Laughed… Overall the feedback indicated that, rather than having any specific concerns about the partnerships, The Little Dog Laughed’s partner organizations would simply like to see their partnerships expand to encompass more visits from more dogs.

On the whole, the feedback received through the distribution of this survey was extremely positive. Results indicated that the organizations partnering with The Little Dog Laughed have been extremely satisfied with the services their clients have received. In addition, several respondents demonstrated a clear understanding of the multi-layered nature of these services and the deeper benefits this type of dog-assisted therapy program can provide. Specifically, these benefits include teaching children valuable social and emotional skills which can be applied to their interpersonal relationships, not just their interactions with canines. Moving forward, this survey indicates that The Little Dog Laughed has an opportunity to expand the services they provide to their current partner organizations, in addition to exploring new opportunity and organizations where their service may be needed.

The following are earlier testimonials are from the counselors we team with at Parry Center, Raphael House of Portland, Monika’s House, and McKay Elementary.

November 22, 2016

“For the past four years, The Little Dog Laughed has been facilitating weekly groups for school aged youth living in our emergency shelter. Over the years, many families have highlighted the positive impact that participating in The Little Dog Laughed’s Train the Dog groups has had on youth participants’ confidence and engagement. We believe that the program models and reinforces what safe and supportive relationships can look like, as well as helping youth to learn to recognize and respect boundaries. Although this organization addresses the issue of family violence from a different angle than most members, it seems like it would be a valuable addition to the Family Violence Coordinating Council by adding to its youth lens.”

Lindsey Vold
Youth Program Coordinator
Raphael House of Portland

December 4, 2014

“I’m sorry that X was sick. I know he has been looking forward to meeting with you and Lindy. I am happy that he is demonstrating empathy as well. He has definitely been doing better with that lately. Your work with X has been one of the only bright spots of his week. I greatly appreciate your flexibility and patience with all that comes with this work …

I often have children asking to work with you. I can start writing down the names and talking with parents and guardians… I have been really impressed with the work that you do, and would love to help you expand the program here at the Parry Center.”

Joby Mahto, MSW, CSWA
Child & Family Therapist
Parry Center
Trillium Family Services

November 12, 2013

“The Little Dog Laughed program provides the children in our program with a reliable, positive relationship to tether them through a sea of change. The youth who participate learn valuable skills and gain a sense of accomplishment and capability through their work with Linda and Eli.”

Evanna Bradley-Tschirgi, MA
Children’s Advocate
Monika’s House Shelter
Domestic Violence Resource Center

November 2011

“Working with Eli has helped our students learn skills in getting along with others, such as being respectful and influencing others in positive ways. It has been a unique opportunity to teach social skills in a new way, adding to the school’s anti-bullying and violence prevention curriculum.”

Gillian Dyall
MS, Clinical Psychology
SchoolCounselor, McKay Elementary
Beaverton Oregon

“I just wanted to let you know that the dog training was a big hit. N. learned how to be more aware of our dog’s actions and how he was reacting to her. She learned how to command and how to follow through with our dog. She is simply able to do better as well with humans. She has learned how to read people and their reactions to situations and has been able to stand up and get her information out to the other person.

I hope this will continue next year. N. was not aware that she was learning while she was teaching the dog the commands. Thank you for allowing N. to be in this class – it was a winner!!”

Parent of a participating McKay Elementary child