Half asleep, I open one groggy eye to see Ettie’s every adorable little face beaming at me, willing me to wake up. I smile back, vaguely aware of something else on the bed. She looks down and as I follow her gaze, I see that she had brought me some treasure. A dead mouse.
So there are two main responses to this. Abject horror where I jump out of bed screaming. Or a genuine appreciation that rather than eating said deceased rodent, she has chosen to bring it to me and lay it at my feet (well, it was actually at my head but let’s not squabble about the details.) Being a well practised dog trainer, of course I chose the latter response.
This scenario was not new to me. Ella had once woken me in a similar fashion. I could hear her playing in the hall. This was unusual for 4am so I called her to me and languorously flopped my arm out the bed, palm up ready to receive the toy and settle her back down to sleep. She skipped into the room and laid an extremely soggy piece of a mouse into my hand. Not anticipating anything with damp, I became very awake very quickly. But I thanked her for the gift and lavished her with compliments as I trudged to the bin with my unexpected and unwanted offering. And this my friend, is what happens when you live with a cat as well as dogs!
The big picture
But hey, I like to look at the big picture. All too often our response to real life events can negatively impact our training. A common struggle is the desire to teach our dogs not to pull on lead. Training this complex skill can be tedious and time consuming. It can feel like we are going backwards more often than forwards. And for every good walk we have many frustrating ones. However, think how often you might have complained that your new puppy was ‘getting under your feet’ or not giving you a moment to yourself as she follows you to the toilet. The puppy who follows you around the house is much more likely to trot happily by your side than the pup who is never with you, always choosing to amuse herself away from you in another part of the house. Each time your pup follows you is an opportunity to praise and reward her for wanting to be by your side. A chance to teach her that you want her to be with you, to beside side you.
Of course the classic real life faux pas is often found in the recall. A solid recall can literally save your dog’s life. It gives her freedom to run and explore and it gives us peace of mind. To ruin a recall is a huge mistake but one I’ve seen more times that I can count. Not only is it criminal but it can also be heartbreaking to witness. I was driving through a park to get to the carpark when I saw a young English Bull Terrier pup being called by her owner. After a few ignored calls, she happily sprinted over to him only to be met with a ‘Bad dog!’ as he grabbed her collar and abruptly clipped on the lead. My heart sank into my boots.
I was saddened for the poor pup who had seconds ago ran so happily towards this man, but who would no doubt think twice about ever doing it again. But also for her life ahead, full of confusion and mixed messages and misunderstandings. Helping people and dogs find a way to communicate has been my eternal driving force for being a trainer. Lack of understanding causes so much needless conflict and so much misery, mostly on the dog’s part. If I can help reduce that friction and give a harmony a leg up, I consider that a job well done. Whether it’s one dog, one person at a time or a group endeavour, it is always worth while.
Blame comes easy
I believe that many people find it easier to blame than reward. If the dog doesn’t come when called she is bad or disobedient or stupid. If she comes on the third call, she should be brought down a peg or two. My approach to training and behaviour has always been skewed the other way. What had I done wrong to cause the dog to ignore or disregard my request? Was my timing off? What had I taught – had I taught one thing when I was trying to teach another? Had I confused her? Did I not understand what she found rewarding? In truth, the answer to why the dog doesn’t respond is much more complex.
As the person making the request, I need to consider the environment and how that affects the emotional state of the dog. Is she intrigued by a smell on the ground, or excited by a leaf fluttering past? Perhaps she is afraid to move past the car or the dog? Perhaps she is too aroused to comprehend my request. Perhaps she hasn’t heard me. This one is why I’m always happy to ask twice. Even when designing Talking Dogs Rally® I built into the system a way to ask for something twice. The handler is allowed to ask the dog verbally and to use a physical cue (such as a hand signal.) If the handler chooses to split these cues rather than delivering them together, they can legitimately ask the dog twice. Twice is not begging, not pestering, not being lax. Twice is allowing the dog to be a dog rather than a robot. To acknowledge that she might have been distracted or misheard you or didn’t hear you at all.
Getting to back Ettie’s wonderful wake up, what pleased me most was that she had discovered this precious treasure and rather than run off and eat it, she was happy to share it with me. A huge part of all training, but in particular teaching the retrieve, is trust. Ettie trusted me not to tell her off or take her treasure. Rather than teaching the dog that when she brings something she will always have to give it up, I teach that she might gain something in addition to her possession. She will gain a reward for coming close to me, for letting go, for letting me take it. And more often than not she gets to keep it anyway. Win-win.
I’ve recently been working on the retrieve lessons for the Scentwork Support Skills course and it’s been wonderful to really observe the many times and situations where retrieving, and all it’s constituent parts, are useful in every day life, real life.
Fetching and carrying is thought of as bread and butter for gundogs, But why not all dogs? I laughingly call Ella and Ettie my gunterriers. Just as I taught my lab how to retrieve (they don’t pop out at birth pre-trained) I’ve taught my terriers. In fact I’ve taught all my dogs. I’ve had dogs that will bring me toys by name, fetch my slippers, bring me the TV remote control or a cushion from the other couch, and even to fetch me a beer.
Fetch has also been integral to how I reward desirable behaviour. Without a retrieve I wouldn’t be able to use a toy as a reward in any meaningful way. If the dog didn’t want to pick it up or carry it and certainly not if she didn’t want to bring it back for me. The session would turn into ‘how do I get the ball back?’ rather than having a quick, intense game between repetitions. It makes scentwork harder too if the dog is unwilling to give up the scented article or the toy that is being used to reward the dog for locating the article. Chasing her around expends too much energy that could have been used for searching. It makes her hot and dry and pant more. Not ideal for scentwork.
I also like to be able to use play as a reward to prevent all my training and reinforcement being just about food. If my dog is on a restricted diet or has a tummy upset, I still want to be able to provide high quality rewards. And while food delivery can be made more or less exciting or physical, toy play lends itself to being active without being out of control. And this is a must if you walk in public areas where the dog is subject to many competing distractions. It’s comforting to know that if I produce a toy, my dogs eyes will instantly be on me and the toy, not on the picnicking family or the children playing football or the fisherman on the bank or the child eating an ice cream in her buggy. I’m not looking for obsession, that is something different, something not quite as healthy. But I am looking for engagement. An extra piece of pie to help my dog make good decisions. Without having to give her more pie.
I stop toy play becoming obsessive by being unpredictable. I don’t take a toy on every walk. I don’t take the same toy. I don’t play at the same spot or the same place or the same walk. I mix it up. I don’t play for very long and I always mix it up with free play where the dog does whatever she wants, such as sniffing, running ahead, swiming, trotting beside me, rolling. I also teach ‘finish’ which means the game is over. I might put the toy in my pocket. Or if it’s large or soggy I’ll carry it. But I won’t play with it. All requests to play are refused with a polite ‘go play’ (free play) I might invite the dog to play with the toy again later in the walk, practising flicking the on/off switch. This is super helpful as it means I can stop the game whenever necessary, or desirable. This is clear for all to see. Ambiguity leads to confusion leads to misunderstandings. Clarity let’s everyone know where they stand.
I would have preferred to wake up to the smell of coffee. But beggars can’t be choosers. At any time of the day, no matter what I’m doing, be it a half chewed mouse, piece of rotting fish, a lamb’s tail, some cat poo, or whatever my dogs find and pick up, I want them to bring it to me. They will always be met with a smile and a reward. I don’t want them running off with things that could harm them either at that moment, like a tin can, or later when it makes them sick. Instead I encourage my pups to bring me the bark they’ve found in the garden or the pebbles on the driveway. They have picked them up anyway, so it’s the best option. Chasing a puppy will not help her to drop the stone. In fact it’s more likely to make her swallow it.
By moulding the behaviour I want, putting the emphasis on the parts I really like and ignoring those I’m less keen on, we come to a mutual understanding. Sharing is good. Sharing is rewarding. Sharing is fun. Treasure is in the eye of the beholder. Showing disgust or revulsion this morning would not have encouraged Ettie to bring me future found treasure. So we laughed, I told Ettie that she was gorgeous, generous and clever as I wrapped the poor little mouse in a tissue and scooped Ettie’s breakfast into her bowl. As she ate, I slipped out the front door, mouse in hand heading for the outside bin. I was met on the path by Pan. My large ginger cat sat licking his paw and cleaning his face. He stopped as I approached giving me a look that seemed to say ‘Did you like the treasure I left for you?’ I won’t share my reply!