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Reflection and Recriminations.Sun, 28 May 2017Dog trainingJim GreenwoodPuppy
This last week, I have been mostly looking forward to this coming week. After the realisation that my mood was not great, in fact it was positively explosive, I had the experience to know that it is those I love that would bear the brunt and I needed to sort it out. So, what was the problem? Simple really, it was me.
A dear friend who has been there for me in the past in her passive/aggressive way, simply asked “when was the last time you had a proper break, no phone, no emails, no anything to do with dogs?” “Ten years at least.” I replied. Her silence said all I needed to hear. So this week, I am having time off and have even got tickets for a festival, you can’t beat The Men They Couldn’t Hang for working out any anger issues.
As last week progressed, I felt more and more in the need of the break. Perhaps it was just that I knew it was coming. The visits that week seemed to all be inter-pack problems. A couple of examples to illustrate :
Two bitches who after five years together, could not tolerate each other and reacted very aggressively at the sight of the other. Another two dogs who used to live together but now when they meet, will fight. The owners need them to get on, as the dogs will be moving in together due to a family bereavement.
As many of you will know, these cases carry a high degree of emotional baggage and are a real test for the trainer. So people skills need to come to the fore, as you need to be able to diagnose what is going on and it’s not always what the owner thinks is going on. You have to see past their emotional response, and yet see what, if any, affect this response is having on the situation.
I knew the format would be to watch the dogs all of the time and provide the owners with achievable goals, often starting with some counter conditioning and game orientated training. The first visit went well and subsequent reports from the owners were very positive. The second visit went not so well and was the final nail in my decision to take a break. I just was not connecting what I was being told by the subtle behaviours I was seeing. This I hasten to add, was no fault of the owners. Everything they were telling me rang true and there was also some evidence to suggest it. Still the little bell rang in the back of my head – “WRONG” I ignored it, I never ignore it.
Consequently, while I was explaining to one of the three owners and NOT watching the dogs, a fight started. I managed to get a finger in the way. No damage to the dogs and a little scrape on my finger. Worse still, was the little voice in my head saying “I told you.”
So I have a week’s break now to enjoy. It is a shame that my finger is bruised near the knuckle joint and holding a fly rod is out of the question just yet but I am sure it will be right by mid week.
Now the owners are using a combination of calm meetings, parallel walking, counter conditioning and a few other case specific measures, the reports are encouraging but it’s still early days.
Added here is a wee bit on marking and enhancing behaviours. Enjoy!
Training a dog to mark is a relatively simple exercise. Just make it rewarding to find a particular scent. It makes little difference to the dog what that scent is, it can be drugs, explosives, rabbits etc. In fact currently, research is being done on a variety of diseases that can be detected by dogs using scent, for example diabetes. The key being, that the dog finds it fun and gets rewarded. That reward can be being given its rubber ball, a food treat or catching a rabbit. The principle is the same.
I like to start training when the pup is around eight weeks, beginning with gentle tug games and then hiding the object from the pup. As soon as the object is hidden, I say “find it”, producing the object if the pup is close to it, or before it finds other amusement for itself, thus keeping the game going. At this stage, the object is anything small enough to hide in my hand or something the pup was playing with.
All I am doing is “marking” the behaviour at this age, no more than that. I will, over the coming months, use these words each time I play the find game.
The next element I throw in, is two plant pots. One has a rabbit skin under it, the other does not. I start by letting the pup, (now around ten weeks old), sniff the pots. I use the words “find it” and as soon as the pup shows interest in the pot with the skin beneath, I reward it. I maintain this sniff/ reward stage, until I see that the pup begins to seek out the rabbit skin. When I get to this stage, I begin to withdraw the reward. The hoped effect of withdrawing the reward will be to get the pup to pick a new behaviour. It can walk away, or can nudge the plant pot, or paw the pot. It may even sit. Whatever the chosen behaviour is, if it is an attempt to alert me that it has found the scent, I reward the behaviour.
I can now begin to hide the skin about the house and garden, never making it too difficult for the pup to find. Help is given by guiding the pup with some pointing and encouragement and of course, when it finds the skin, it is the best puppy in the world. Then we do it again. I now have a young dog that knows when I say “find it”, there is a fair chance that if it finds the scent of rabbit, it will have done well and might even get a treat.
I take this training gently, as there are a great many distractions and new experiences for a young dog to learn. It is important that they be allowed to explore the world with its sights, sounds and of course scents. (That is once it is old enough to come out with us on our walks.)
When we reach twenty weeks or thereabouts, I step up the training a little and begin to hide the skin when we are out. In the winter, I heat a stone on the wood burner and when we are on a walk, wrap the stone in the skin (mimicking the body heat of the rabbit and increasing the odds of the pup finding the skin). Placing it somewhere it will be easy for the pup to find, it does not take long before I am putting the hot skin down rabbit holes in the local park and asking the pup to find. Once again, I am now waiting to see which body shape the pup will give when it can smell the scent but cannot get to the skin. When I see this mark, I reward it. I will use a hand warmer in the summer to achieve the same stimulus with the rabbit skin but a hot rock in your pocket on a bitter cold day is hard to beat!
For the next few months, I will use the adult dogs to confirm any marks I see from the youngster, watching the pup for a mark if I have seen an adult marking. I have used a pup as an illustration of how to teach the mark but the principles can be applied to any age of dog and for any scent. The aim is that the work done in the early stages, gives me a solid foundation for the future work the pup has in front of it.
Making finding the scent a rewarding experience prior to when the pup enters the field, will help the pup take those first important steps when working in situ. It already enjoys the game, knows what it is looking for, which allows it to differentiate between all the other scents that it comes across. Now it gets to exhibit its natural behaviour, learn the many lessons the field has to teach and this will increase the odds of success.
Training is the application of principals not myths. One will give you results, the other will give a long list of failures. Give your dog a head start and you will reap the benefits for years to come.
Minor problemsMon, 22 May 2017Dog behaviourDog training
So this is my first blog. When I asked what they are for, I was told like a diary. Well a diary for me is my life and until fifteen years ago, my life and my work were separate things. Long gone are those days. I share my life with my dogs, I work with dogs, most phone calls are about dogs, most of my reading is about dogs and no social function passes but several people want to talk about their dogs. So my life is dogs and my work is dogs so a blog makes sense.
This past week has been a strange one. I had visited a client with a young five month old pup who liked to jump up and snap at your face. Like a growing number of clients, his owners where lost and confused about how to tackle this problem. They had employed a trainer who had more letters after their name (saw the card) than you could shake a flirt pole at. She was a member of a number of associations and a nice young girl according to the owners. None the less, they were left feeling like bad owners and unable to get on top of the problem. This case is not an isolated incident and makes us question the value of being a member of these associations. Please do not misunderstand me, I have nothing against any association or being a member of one. If I had not seen a rise in confused and demotivated owners over the last few years, who had paid a great deal of money to trainers who waved their membership of an association as a flag of qualification and told owners to avoid anyone who is not a member like the plague as they are likely “old fashioned” ” force based training”, I would not mention it.
This trend sort of started when the strutting peacock calling himself the Dog Whisperer appeared on the scene and quite rightly there was a backlash against his methods. Yet because I am not a member of any association, I am tarred with the same brush. My whole life I have not joined anything, be it unions, clubs, or associations. This does not mean I stopped learning, in fact it is easier now with the internet and the access to research it gives you. So, a degree in animal management training and counselling (Chester Uni 2010) and forty years learning, ( not mentioning other academic animal related qualifications) count for nothing unless you are in their club. I am sorry, I have a built in moral code and do not need guidelines to tell me how I should train. An association membership does not guarantee experience and we all know that experience is the best teacher.
I have added an example of life and it’s application of consistency below, enjoy.
In the mid eighties, I was living in the North East of Scotland and as with many places, the best way to find out how a community worked, was to find a local pub and spend some time getting to know the locals.
Now, I was lucky and met a man that has remained a very good friend since that time. He was working behind the bar of the Harbour Bar in Macduff and went by the name of Big Jim. Big Jim was helping the bar owner, a slight man with thick glasses and a very dry sense of humour, who went by the name of Dod (George). The bar was frequented by a mix of ex-fishermen, current fishermen and assorted characters, so much of the talk was of the sea and fish prices. There was no dart board, no pool table and especially no television in the bar, the only games allowed were cribbage or dominoes. There was also an unofficial game and league table of peanut chewing. Peanut chewing was open to anyone who did not have a tooth in their head and had only one rule, the first to chew the peanut was the winner. I have seen some things over the years but watching two toothless drunk men trying to bite a peanut must rank up there as one of the funniest. It would not be allowed today, as peanuts shooting from the gums of the contestants, would be seen as a health and safety risk !
Dod may have been a slight man, standing about five eight, however, he was no shrinking violet. He was opinionated and knew no fear. He would happily physically throw anyone from the bar if they broke the rules, or in some cases disagreed with him. His Achilles heel was his wife Vera, a thin bird- like woman, who always dressed in a white blouse, black jacket and black skirt. Vera was a leading member of the local kirk and disapproved of most things that involved joy. In particular, she was dead set against any form of swearing and believe me, Vera could wither the soul of any man with her disapproving look. The result of this, was a ban on any form of swearing in the bar and there was not a man who had avoided being thrown out for committing this crime, including myself.
Dod had been given a Mynah bird by one of the lads and very quickly it had been christened Vera by the regulars. As you will know, Mynah birds are good mimics, so a plan was hatched to teach the bird to talk. Big Jim and myself , when Dod had turned his back, would lean towards the cage. This would result in Dod turning quickly towards us and telling us in no uncertain terms, not to teach that bird to talk, in fact his words were ” don’t you teach that f***king bird to swear “, we would then lean away from the cage, protesting our innocence. It was not long before most of the locals would do the same when they came up to the bar and Dod’s response would always be the same. Of course, the result was that he was asked if swearing was allowed as he was doing it and would it mean he was going to bar himself, like he had done to so many of us. It was not long before Dod had ceased to see the funny side of this question and had begun to respond with “ I will set Vera on you”.
The weeks passed and nothing was uttered from the Mynah bird but still Big Jim and I carried on leaning towards the cage to a familiar response. One Sunday afternoon, we were sitting in the bar when Vera and a few of her followers from the kirk came trooping through the door, gathering at the end of the bar before going upstairs. They looked like they were trying to hold fifty pence pieces between the cheeks of their arse, while sucking on a lemon, with disapproval written all over their faces.
Dod scuttled over to Vera and opened the bar door to let her and the disapproving group upstairs. At this, l leaned towards the Mynah bird. Dod shot me a glare, the bird on the other hand, in a perfect imitation of Dod’s voice shouted “Don’t you teach that F**king bird to swear”, slight pause, ” I will set Vera on you”. It then repeated the first phrase again.
Dod rushed towards the bird and threw a towel over the cage, silencing the previously mute bird. The bar was in an uproar of laughter and the kirk group now stood in open mouthed disbelief as Vera furiously tried to shepherd them upstairs.
As a result, Big Jim and myself received a three week ban and the bird was always covered when Vera was in residence. Dod wanted to blame us but it was obvious to one and all that it was his voice, so he had taught the bird to swear not us. The whole exercise was a bet between Big Jim and I. I had said that we could get Dod to teach the bird to talk by not saying a word to it, rather by using our body language to illicit a response from him. As long as that response was consistent, it would not be long before the bird talked. I won the bet and it was the tastiest bag of bacon crisps I have ever eaten.
The method of consistency to the same signal, is a powerful tool for any trainer, that will create a reflex response for the rest of the animal’s life. Remember to use one signal for one behaviour, not a number of words for the same behaviour. Keep it simple, consistent, be patient and success will come. Last I heard, if you go to the Harbour Bar in Macduff and lean towards the cage of the Mynah bird, it will still use that infamous phrase but be warned, if Dod sees you, you are likely to get flicked with a bar towel and told to get out before reaching the cage.
We now have a blog !Sun, 21 May 2017
From time to time, I will be adding posts with my thoughts on various themes.
Watch this space for the latest news.