The desire to make a change is what brings many people to learn about dog behaviour and training. Some people want to learn how to do a sport with their dog; others find themselves with a dog who behaves in ways that make life difficult.
Seeking change can set each of us off on a fascinating journey of learning and discovery. It can help us find new friends, new connections in the world, and build a better bond between our dog and us. The process of going from where we are now to a new place is often transformative.
Information gathering is a key part of making changes. This was a big part of my work as a programmer in financial services and is a big part of my work as a dog trainer.
I couldn’t count the hours of my life I’ve spent examining code, data, and documentation to uncover the information my customers needed to make the correct decisions about their business.
Only once enough information has been gathered to decide can any planning take place.
This is key when it comes to dogs because so often it is tempting to skip the information gathering stage and leap right into planning and training.
When it comes to dogs, I know that the information is so much more important than it is in I.T. Developments. Computers don’t care what you tell them to do. When working with them, all we must do is decide what we want to do, the best way to go about it and then get on with the work.
Dogs do care. They have fears, desires, things they feel they must do, they get ill or can’t be bothered some days. When working with a living, breathing, emotional individual, it isn’t enough for me to decide what I want to do and the way to go about it. I also need to be able to work out if this is something the dog is capable of doing right now and if it is something that the dog will enjoy doing – which is particularly relevant for training for sports.
Time spent information gathering is vital for I.T. Developments and an absolute must for anybody working with dogs. Hopefully, this little story will underline why I feel so passionately about taking the time to understand the dogs who we love so much.
When Cuillin reached adolescence and started to disappear on walks after wildlife, I didn’t realise initially how big a problem it was. Calgacus and Katie had both been quite interested in wildlife as adolescents but with both of them a bit of recall training and teaching them to find toys to bring to me resolved it. I assumed Cuillin would be the same.
To say I was wrong massively understates things. Cuillin started to get lost if he went off – sometimes for hours. I had to ring my boss one day from a walk to tell her I’d be needing certainly the morning off and possibly the whole day depending on how long it took Cuillin to find his way back. I was late for numerous social events. This was beyond anything I’d dealt with, so I started to research training hunting dogs – and talk to my dog trainer colleagues about it. What I experienced shocked me.
Hunting dogs, I believe, are often in a worse position than dogs who display aggressive behaviour sometimes. Initially, my research revealed lots of somewhat upsetting methods such as putting a dog into a barrel with the body of one of the animals that they would disappear off after and rolling the barrel down the hill. The idea is that the dog will become so frightened of that type of animal that they won’t go off after them. I found this advice repeatedly.
When I dug more, I found that even among the positive dog training community, there weren’t many ideas to help. I bought one book with what looked like a promising method for teaching Cuillin to chase toys rather than wildlife. Ultimately it wasn’t right for Cuillin, but it did help me learn lots more about him.
The last chapter of that book advised that if the method hadn’t worked, then cotton wall balls soaked in lemon juice and forcibly held inside the dog’s mouth along with a citronella spray collar could be used to make the dog so frightened of the animals they love to chase that they never would again.
The method in the book didn’t help with Cuillin. I spent about 18 months on it and at the end of that time, what I had gained was knowledge. I learned that chasing isn’t Cuillin’s primary interest – following smells is. So, then I talked to people about that. What could I do about a dog who lived to follow smells but who got lost while doing it?
Positive trainers were stumped and fell back on keeping him permanently on a lead unless we were in a freedom field. Another suggestion was to smear something smelly like Vicks under his nose so that he wouldn’t be able to pick up scent trails.
I fell back on my I.T. experience and kept on digging, kept on observing Cuillin, making plans based on what I found, and then making new plans as I learned more. Positive gundog trainers have been a real lifesaver in this quest. They spend their lives working with the dogs who have been bred and then trained to hunt, often by using their noses. Speaking to people with that experience helped enormously.
I was able to make changes in what I was doing so that Cuillin started to see me as more of a partner and somebody worth hanging out with even in exciting places. I found that being more creative with rewards – and learning to observe Cuillin better was really what was needed.
For years now he has been able to walk off the lead in places with wildlife. I keep a GPS tracker on him for walks now just in case he does manage to get lost. Usually though, Cuillin lets me know when the deer are close enough to be a problem - and we use a long line at those times.
If you enjoyed this and want to hear more from me, I have a free webinar that you can get access to. It is pre-recorded so you get it straight away.
It's called "A fresh look at reactivity" and I think you'll enjoy it.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.