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My First Conference Experience in 1998

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Date: August 20, 2009

Author: Michelle Douglas

August 19, 2009 - My first conference was 1998, Valley Forge, PA.  As a trainer, I had only recently discovered that there was an association for pet dog trainers, and was excited that the conference was close enough to attend.  I was young, and had only been training for about a year and a half.  I was still mostly using choke chains and spouting dominance theory in my teaching.  I was completely overwhelmed by the experience.  It was a HUGE conference.  I am sure I remember someone saying that there were close to 2000 people in attendance!  Although I was one of only a handful of "traditional" trainers, I was warmly welcomed by many top names (of whom I had never heard) like Joel Walton, Ian Dunbar and Jean Donaldson.  I remember sitting at the bar and having Ian put a beer in front of me, ask where I was from and invite me to sit with his group.  That was a pivot point for me and my business.  I remember being invited to role play, to discuss cases and how I taught certain behaviors. I remember learning how others would solve problems so differently than I, and how much better their methods seemed to work.  They did not preach that their way was better, it was an open exchange of ideas from all kinds of different trainers.  I remember hearing stories from other trainers who had used choke chains for years, who had thrown them out.  I was shocked to learn that several in the group did not even use leashes in puppy class!  I envisioned chaos.  But I listened to stories about puppies graduating from these classes with strong bonds with their families, and solid recalls and sits, even in the context of play. 

The lectures were also unbelievably life-changing.  I learned the Really Reliable Recall from Leslie Nelson.  I remember being in awe of Patty Ruzzo, may she rest in Peace.  Jean Donaldson held her own in a heated debate in the hotel lobby on the last day; someone had taken offense to her analysis of dogs being, well, dogs in the newly released Culture Clash.  Other speakers who have left an impact on me to this day include the likes of Sue Sternberg, Donna Duford, Ian
Billinghurst, Steve White...  I'm sure there are more, it was an all-star cast that year.

The exhibit hall was also impressive.  There were demos on either end, and a 'My Dog Can Do That' marathon.  I think I spent more at the Dogwise (or The Dog & Cat Book Company) booth than the conference fee.

That was the year of the infamous Kris Kates impression of Sue Sternberg at the Saturday night banquet...and the first time I heard Ian Dunbar sing "If I Only Had Been Trained!" 

I went home that year with my head spinning.  It took a few months for me to digest everything I had learned, but by the time I went to San Diego the following year, I no longer used choke chains in my classes and had started learning about how animals actually learn, rather than training on tradition.  Now San Diego, that's where I left Pack Theory behind when I walked out of the Chris Bach session...but that's another story.

Michelle Douglas, CPDT-KA, CDBC
Vice President, APDT Board of Directors


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