I seem to be seeing a lot of posts which say ‘never take your dog’s food away ‘ ‘don’t grab things off your dog’ – but how is that equipping your dog for the ‘real world’? Where they might have found something edible (well, what the dog deems edible anyway!), but life threatening? Got hold of something that could kill them? Or is their life going to be so well managed for the next X number of years that will NEVER happen?
Can you guarantee someone, at some point in your dog’s life, is NOT going to move swiftly to try to take articles away from your dog? If a dog manages to get hold of some pills, goes to get hold of some food dropped on the kitchen floor or finds a rotting carcase on a walk – have you taught your dog to accept someone trying to take them off them? In case you aren’t the first person on the scene?
‘Real world’ training suggests to me we should aim to teach our dogs to be as fine as we can with the vagaries and unpredictability of human behaviour, because IME teaching ALL the humans they are ever going to meet in theit whole lives how to behave around dogs as safely and carefully as they should just isn’t going to happen.
We can teach our dogs to give up articles and food items easily enough (and yes, I’d be teaching that as well); but will everyone else know what cues you’ve taught the dog for them to do that? In an emergency, will they ask the dog calmly? Or might they panic a bit and move fast? If you have children, can they sometimes act like, well, children, and go to grab things from the dog? Visiting children – do they know not to pick up the dog’s food bowl or chew?
Collar grabs, taking food from their mouth, article grabs – high on my list of things to teach a dog to associate with a positive outcome, in well planned strategic stages, as soon as possible so they are less likely to be taken by surprise, it be less likely to trigger aggressive, fearful or defensive behaviour, should it be needed to save their lives. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’ or showing the dog who is boss – just sensible training, for the ‘real world’.
As I experiment and play around with getting to grips with the challenges of bringing order to my various projects online, I am struck by the parallels with learning any new skill whether it be a deeper dive into WordPress or Joomla or training a dog.
Hands on – playing around with the tasks – learning by trial and error though choices and decisions made in a reflective way is my approach of choice. I enjoy it – its fun! Decisions influenced, and skills improved, by seeing results I like, and want to repeat, reinforced by an outcome that pleases me and helps me achieve my goals. Whether it be an image appearing as I like on a blog or a dog homing in on a behaviour I’ve clicked – all will be informed by hands-on practice. That it can sometimes be frustrating when I don’t get the results I want doesn’t matter too much – I have learned, through experience, that I can take a break, go back to it later and try a different approach. The dog doesn’t need to get frustrated, and if they do, well, IME they learn to problem solve and find out what they can can do to get me, as the trainer, to adjust my criteria – they have no idea, nor care, what the target behaviour is. So long as they don’t get into trouble, or get corrected for making the choices I’m not interested in, and get what they want out of the negotiation whether it be food or toys, why would they? So long as I can help the dog solve the problem, there is no problem. But sometimes I need help to solve my training problem- so then I go to the experts to help me out, or for enlightenment. And do I really want to try and reinvent the wheel all the time anyway?
At some point any skill is going to be informed by the expertise and skills of those who have been there before and already know how to do it. I can learn from watching others at work; others putting into practise the skills they have honed through their experience. I can learn from them describing and teaching; from their books, workshops, social media, YouTube and webinars. So learning from others – also important. Far less time consuming usually too (just how much time do I want to spend on how to get an image in the place I want it I wonder? <big, big sigh!>)
It will also be informed by people who have studied it as well as put it into practice – the people who do research (both formally and informally), who measure, observe and analyse results. That is what science does. For example understanding what the observable signs in a dog’s behaviour mean can inform what trainers do. It can measure, analyse and examine what is happening when a dog is trained, and how it is learning, but under controlled conditions which aim to isolate the variables in a way that might not be possible in the ‘real world’, so it might be clearer what is happening. That they can’t do that effectively where there are too many variables to take into account doesn’t negate the value of those that do.
So although skills can be acquired in variety of ways – I wonder if I would have enjoyed my exploration of clicker training (indeed, all my training) quite so much if I had only learned how it was supposed to work through an online webinar, in a classroom or by reading a book? I doubt it. I know Peg thought it was great fun too, when all she had to do was ‘behave’ – offer behaviours – and manipulate me into giving her more sausages.
As I experiment and play around with getting to grips with the challenges of bringing order to my various projects online, I am struck by the parallels with learning any new skill whether it be a deeper dive into WordPress or Joomla or training a dog. Hands on – playing around with the tasks –…
I get asked a lot of questions about dog training and behaviour, but I’d be lying if I said the main purpose of this blog would be motivated be some egotistical need to satisfy the need in other people to learn from me. No, in writing and exploring gripping dog training and behaviour topics, like…
I seem to be seeing a lot of posts which say ‘never take your dog’s food away ‘ ‘don’t grab things off your dog’ – but how is that equipping your dog for the ‘real world’? Where they might have found something edible (well, what the dog deems edible anyway!), but life threatening? Got hold…
Imagine… You are a very sociable person. You were raised in a large family. You love your fellow humans. But suddenly you find yourself in a new home. No more humans. None. Your family is the strange animals that care for you. Pigglepigs. They don’t behave like humans. Their behaviour is a complete mystery to…
I remember the day I went out with a client with a lungy barky GSD – at the training stage of ‘dealing with random stuff on walks’. At one point a large truck pulled up and a man got out clearly intent on talking to us, so while the handler did her ‘move the dog away to create a bit more distance and move behind mum’ strategy, I ran interference – the man was just asking directions. Which I gave him. Dog and handler doing really well on their own behind me. No lunging or barking. Almost relaxed owner. As our accidental helper was about to go back to the truck I felt I had to ask – ‘do you know about dogs?’ because he hadn’t looked at the dog and owner at all. Not once. SO unusual. It turned out he had been a dog handler in the RAF and knew exactly how NOT to (as well as how to no doubt!) turn the dog into a whirling dervish monster dog. Turned a random encounter into a great positive training opportunity for which I thanked him.
But how often can you rely on random strangers out on walks behaving in such a way to help you and your dog? IME hardly ever. They let their dogs come too close. They let their off lead dogs run over to us. They try to stroke and fuss our dogs – especially if they are cute puppies. Ask them to stop and they don’t. None of them mean harm. They love dogs just as we do. But every experienced dog owner can relate tales of how well meaning, but (but let’s be frank here!) ignorant people seem to mess things up for them. It’s a very human thing to want to hug and touch and make contact physically. It’s what most people do.
People will come up with loads of things to try and prevent those episodes happening. “My dog has mange” “Let me try and hug you to show you how unpleasant it is to be groped by a stranger”. I once had occasion to say clearly and deliberately to one person “my dog has bitten people for doing exactly what you are doing now. Please take your hand away”. Yet that person persisted in stroking her. It was a testament to Poppy’s progress that I was able to bring her away before she bit one more person for touching her in a way she deemed offensive! Calling out to people in the park “please call your dog away” as their dog runs over to say hello, rarely has a dog magically understanding the recall cue the owner might already be trying, in vain. That’s assuming they are trying. But many an owner could be genuinely mystified as to why a complete (possibly quite mad!) stranger is telling them to call their dog. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try these things. But IME we are so often left frustrated, angry or upset by what appears to be the thoughtless behaviour of these random strangers.
Being your dog’s advocate?
So if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there is no point in relying on random strangers to change their behaviour to accommodate you and your dog. Being assertive and practiced at “being your dog’s advocate” in telling people to stop doing what they are doing can work. For sure. Always worth trying. But all too often unless you are prepared to be pretty rude to some people either in what you say, or what you do, and risk losing their willingness to help you in the future, as well as cause offence, you probably need to work on changing you and your dog’s behaviour rather than rely on changing their’s. If you aren’t very good at being assertive and start to sound worried and anxious in your attempts, you might well make your dog more anxious. Sound at all aggressive – ditto. But not only that – if it has come to the point where you and the other person are close enough to have that conversation, it’s probably already too late. They will have already stretched their hand out. They might already be cuddling your puppy. They have probably already made eye contact with your dog. Their dog is probably already trying to make “friends” with yours even more intimately.
Have a plan
So have a training plan to deal with ‘random strangers’. A strategy. It might be as simple as making sure you can easily turn and move away before the intruder- human or canine – gets too close so the situation doesn’t arise in the first place. It might be teaching your dog to move behind you. Your dog being up close and personal to you, with you acting as physical barrier, is likely to stop most humans in their tracks.
You could enlist the help of friends by asking them to role-play being a “random stranger”. Practice saying phrases like “Please don’t touch my dog” in a firm tone of voice, whilst rewarding the dog for moving behind you, for instance. Practice taking a step away, more or less subtly as the situation dictates, as the stranger moves closer.
Random strangers and their dogs can be a menace. They aren’t friends or training buddies who can be instructed in what they should do, or not do, to aid your cause. Accept it. 🙂 IME it’s much easier, and usually less stressful, to change how you and your dog behave than trying to change theirs. IME it’s much easier to train and manage a single dog than train or manage an entire population of random strangers.
One of the first competitive activities pet dog owners took up with enthusiasm some 70 odd years ago was ‘Competitive Obedience’. It was an opportunity for like-minded enthusiasts to get together and train their dogs in a series of set exercises and be judged at just how well the dogs executed them. The exercises themselves have changed little over the years; but the techniques to train them most certainly have.
The originators of the Kennel Club tests knew what they were about. The jargon and science we use today might not have been there, and our modern day understanding of the concept of ‘obedience’ has changed, but throughout the tests the dog is being trained for all the skills we want today. Impulse control, reliable responses to cues, being able to focus whilst being aroused and excited. Ability to become calm at the drop of a hat. Scentwork. Sharing and giving up articles willingly and happily. Independence and confidence in responding to cues at a distance from the handler. Being attentive to the handler. A willingness to work as a cooperative team and choosing to be with the handler. The first real test for any new competitor is usually finding a way to motivate the dog to want to stay in the ring! There are so many important lifeskills a dog acquires; so many training skills a handler has to learn to succeed.
Nowhere is the change for more positive, motivational techniques reflected than in the Obedience shows run by the British Competitive Obedience Society. The emphasis in the rules and tests is on the dog showing enthusiasm; wanting to join in with the handler in what are, by and large exercises of little immediate practical value. They have borrowed the best of the Kennel Club tests and given them a positive twist.
So it is excellent news that BCOS already has their first post-covid show planned. Look out for it – if the idea of dogs being ‘obedient’ has put you off ‘Obedience’, then think again. Competitive Obedience (capital C; capital O) is for the dogs, as well as the humans.
One of the things a lot of trainers used to insist owners taught their dogs was to make sure they – the owner – went through doorways first. It was believed that it supported the owner’s position as ‘pack leader’ and showed the dog who was in charge by leading the way. Like much advice associated with outdated ideas about how to deal with ‘dominant’ dogs, it has fallen out of favour and doesn’t seem to be taught much these days. But is that wise or sensible? I say not.
However much I’ve tweaked and adapted my class content over the years ‘dog following owner though doorways’ has always stayed in there, somewhere. And I teach it to every dog I own. Yes, really. For many people it conjures up pictures of ‘pack leaders’. Dogs being subservient to the human in charge. But in my book it’s just plain sensible for the dog to learn to tuck itself behind the owner, and let them deal with whatever may be out there first. It is also an excellent way for a dog to learn self-control.
Many years ago I used to teach classes in a hall which had a stage where people sat waiting for their class to start. An owner with a large RottieX arrived, dog out ahead of him at the end of the lead. The dog went through the door onto the stage – but something made the door swing shut on the lead. So the owner was one side – dog the other. What the owner couldn’t see, and didn’t, was there was a child on the stage just the other side of that door. As the dog bounced though the door, he jumped at the child and grabbed his arm. Fortunately, playfully, and without doing any damage. But by the time the owner had opened the door, the dog had let go, and the owner was blissfully unaware what had happened until he was told. Disaster was averted – but only just.
What I took from seeing that near miss was that from a safety point of view, the dog mustn’t be the one to discover what is on the other side of any door first. It’s simply too late, and potentially dangerous, to let the dog go through and then discover there’s a hazard on the other side. He will have already kicked off at the dog that is just outside, or started to chase the cat sitting on the step or grabbed the child waving its arms about excitedly. The harm will have been done. Shutting stable doors and all that.
In the context of reactive dogs it is even more important. Nothing puts more dread in my heart than seeing an over-aroused dog appear in a doorway before the owner is visible! Seeing them drag their owners ahead at stiles, doorways and gates, around blind corners – especially front doors or into a dog training hall – you just know it won’t take much to send that dog spiraling upwards and kicking off before the owner is even aware there is another dog around.
It’s not a ‘teach the dog a sit stay and then give him permission to charge through ahead of you’ obedience exercise (although it can be helpful to teach the dog go though ahead on some kind of cue), it’s an exercise where the dog, as a default, learns to drop back behind the owner in order to negotiate narrow spaces. Where someone – either the dog or the handler – has to go first. And if needs be, pausing in that doorway first, so the environment can be checked out first. That it’s safe to proceed. No lurking cats, passing dogs or children. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’, just plain sensible.
People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues with their dogs and FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to consult a trained and experienced professional. In the dog behaviour business though, there are no legal requirements; no rules at all about who can set up as a behaviourist or a trainer so you need to check their credentials with care.
But which do you need anyway? A trainer or a behaviourist?
Essentially a trainer works with owners to help healthy, relatively untroubled dogs learn things. To use the old-fashioned term to be “obedient”. We talk about responding reliably to cues these days, and the techniques used are very different, but training is about helping the average, problem-free dog learn what owners want of them, and for owners to learn what is fair and reasonable to ask of their dogs. Trainers might be called in to help with housetraining puppies, or coming when called, or more specialist needs like competitive sports dog training or assistance dog tasks. The good dog trainer will have enough understanding of behaviour to spot if these training needs are symptoms of a more complex health or behaviour issue, especially if the dog is finding it difficult to learn to be responsive to what the owner needs or wants him to do. If they aren’t qualified to deal with those things (which they might, or might not, be), they should have the knowledge to know when to refer clients to other professionals.
A behaviourist works with owners to help resolve behaviour problems. For example fearfulness, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, dog/dog “reactivity”. They aim to bring the dog’s behaviour to as near to problem–free as possible; the aim being to enable dog and owner to live in peace and harmony, the dog to live a ‘good life’ and to be more open to learning (training) if its needed. Not just for the owner’s sake of course, but for the welfare of the dog. That may need some ‘dog training’ skills as well, but that isn’t the behaviourist’s main role and they may refer clients to a trainer once underlying behaviour issues have been sorted out. A good behaviourist works in cooperation not just with trainers, but with vets too. Most work only on vet referral since many behaviour problems result from pain or illness.
Some trainers are qualified behaviourists, and vice versa. There is inevitably a lot of overlapping of skills between the two.
Experienced or qualified?
Any trainer or behaviourist will do their best to ensure that their advice is founded in good science. Unfortunately evidence and good science is not only rather lacking in important areas of behaviour work, sometimes it’s pretty hard to apply to the ‘real world’. But it is widely accepted that a behaviourist would be educated in a directly relevant subject to at least degree level, so will usually have a relevant degree – either undergraduate or post graduate, typically in Applied Animal Behaviour or Clinical Animal Behaviour, and would normally have been mentored or examined in some way in order to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge and skills working with clients.
If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem then the first port of call should be the vet who can, and should, refer you to a qualified behaviourist. Veterinary surgeons don’t receive much training in dog behaviour at vet school, but they can specialise in behaviour work and some have pursued post graduate qualifications in behaviour, so it’s worth checking out if your vet’s practice has such a person. There are a few vets who are listed as specialists in veterinary behavioural medicine with the RCVS.
Some vet practices have vet nurses that have some extra training in behaviour to handle minor behaviour problems. Some may be qualified to work as behaviourists in their own right.
Coaching and counselling skills also form an important part of the job. An effective behaviourist will have those too.
Dog behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills, so although there are certain evidence based protocols which a good behaviourist would normally follow, it’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive so there will be variations in how each carries out their work. There are two important significant variables that makes each case unique – your dog. And you.
So its a real hotch-potch of things to look out for. It pays to do some research to find out who is the right person to help you and to find out what their qualifications and experience can offer you.
LISTS OF BEHAVIOURISTS
There are other organisations than these listed – but these (below) should identify most currently in practice in the UK and some include the members of those other organisations. Each organisation has their own criteria for membership so you may want to check that out. Typically they will have minimum academic standards, usually an assessment process, a code of practice and/or some kind of ethical statement, how members or their courses are accredited (if they are), if they have a complaints procedure (just in case things go wrong) and how they expect members to behave professionally, and how they maintain their skills. They vary. Note there are also behaviourists who are well qualified, and experienced, who are not members of any organisation. There is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any behaviourist to join any organisation.
ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.
An organisation which brings together members of a number of organisations, including the long established Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/
Register of ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB)
The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) runs a certification scheme and lists those who have fulfilled their criteria. https://www.asab.org/ccab/
FABClinicians – The Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
An organisation established in 2020 which is a support organisation for those already academically qualified in clinical animal behaviour and working towards becoming certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour (ASAB). https://fabclinicians.org/
The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants is what it says on the tin – it includes a number of respected British behaviourists as members so is worth checking out https://m.iaabc.org/
Expect to be asked to go to your vet for a formal referral. It is usually best to approach the behaviourist first though to check out they are happy to take on your particular case, to discuss how soon they can see you and importantly how much it will cost. Behaviourists aren’t cheap. But you may be able to claim it on your veterinary insurance. The behaviourist (and your insurance company of course) should be able to advise you on that, so don’t be shy about asking – they will want to you to be able to pay them. You may also need immediate ‘first aid’ advice on how to manage a dog safely until you can see someone. That can be especially important where aggression is involved.
If they don’t want to ask for a formal vet referral, or suggest a visit to the vet won’t be necessary, ask why. It is considered ‘good practice’ to make sure health issues are eliminated and they ought to be able to justify such advice. Some behaviourists like to schedule a short assessment visit first.
Do your research
By now, hopefully its become clear It is important to do your research, even if the person you come across is on one of the registers, above. Or indeed, if you find someone who calls themself a behaviourist, who isn’t on any register. They may also be good at the job, but be mindful they aren’t under any obligation to adhere to laid out codes of practice, or be answerable to a professional body. So long as your vet can satisfy themselves that person is fully qualified (and insured) it ought not be a problem for you to express a preference.
Other organisations will have their own criteria for membership and have members who may be excellent at the job, and well qualified in most significant respects.
1 – Internet – Check the various registers, above.
2 – Check the websites of likely candidates.
Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Especially if they aren’t on the registers, above. Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a behaviourist because I love animals and grew up with them” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. experience of specific issues which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems
Are they members of reputable organisation? (See above).
Do they describe HOW they work? Do they state what approach they take? They should. If they say things which suggest they buy into techniques which appear to rely on being a ‘pack leader’ or dismiss using food treats as a tool before they have even met your dog, for example, then you probably want to steer well clear of them. If they are also trainers running classes, go and watch them at work if you want reassurances (but do ask first – it’s the polite thing to do J).
3 – Ask other people locally. Get personal recommendations
Chat to local dog walkers, the local pet shop. Other dog owners. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions as well as sing praises of the people they respect though. Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a behaviourist is, and their effectiveness, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.
Now you have a behaviourist on board?
Once you have connected with a behaviourist, work with them as a team. A good behaviourist will want your feedback, and ready to adapt their advice (assuming its in everyone’s best interests to do so of course) to suit the circumstances, so don’t be scared to talk with them if their advice doesn’t appear to be working, or you believe it might be too difficult for you to follow. Check out you really are doing what they intended.
But let’s assume all goes well and you are happy with the help you are getting. Behaviourists also love to know when things are working out and the problems sorted – so if they don’t ask, don’t let that stop you dropping them a line or giving them a call to say’ thanks! We are all well and happy now’. It will be appreciated.
I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.
And carried on lecturing.
It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not. It was very rare for anyone to.
So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’
Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.
The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).
The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.
The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.
The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.
I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.
I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.
I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.
Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it. They might help each other, they might not. An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,
When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.
It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it. RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.
When I was a child I was encouraged to take the obligatory (in my dad’s world, anyway ) piano lessons. I was duly coached and learned on the upright piano that sat in the spare room. It was quite old, and the ivories were a bit stained. I can remember what some looked like. The D above middle C was yellow. The E was white with some dark speckles. I practiced. Not a lot, but enough presumably for it to be declared that I was competent enough to take my Grade One piano exam. The lowest level of exam. The basic, easy-peasy entry level exam.
I failed it. I still remember the experience. Instead of being in the spare room at home, with comfortably familiar keys on that old upright piano, with my piano teacher sitting beside me offering kind support and feedback, I was sat in glorious isolation at a shiny grand piano, sitting on a strange piano stool that felt weird, all the keys beautifully white and (very confusingly!) identical. I was high up on a stage. On the floor of the hall (Balham Town Hall) were some strangers sitting at a table watching me. The JUDGES.
To this day I have no idea how good or bad I was, and no recollection of what my father or my music teacher thought of my performance, but since I failed it I’m guessing I wasn’t being marked down as a future Chopin or Rachmaninov. I never took another piano exam in my life and mostly stopped playing although I did love to tinker on it from time to time when no one was around.
So here’s the dog training lesson I (many years later with the wisdom of hindsight and adulthood) took from that experience. It doesn’t matter how well you (or the dog) ‘know’ something – if you don’t generalise that learning, habituate to an environment and don’t practice it under varying conditions the learning WILL almost certainly fail at some point. If you know that skill inside out, have it so familiar to you so you can almost do it on your sleep, it may stand up to more challenging conditions, but all too often, for various reasons, we put that learning under too much pressure too soon and so it becomes vulnerable to failure. As a little girl I was put on a stage, with an unfamiliar piano, being watched by complete strangers, under test conditions, being expected to reproduce ‘Study in D minor’ by Thomas Dunhill, without any of those factors having been taken into account first. Had I but known it, I was doomed before I even set foot in that hall.
I hadn’t forgotten the piece of music I had practiced for the exam. I could still play it when I got home (and could for years afterwards). But at Balham Town Hall, on that day, I couldn’t. I wasn’t being stubborn, or ‘difficult’. I wasn’t playing it badly to spite anyone. I wasn’t “choosing” not to do as I was asked. I wasn’t being disobedient. I simply hadn’t been prepared for the conditions I was being expected to perform under. I was totally undertrained. My brain couldn’t handle all the different stimuli being thrown at me,
When people take their ‘trained’ dog to a dog show, to compete in perhaps obedience, or the breed ring, or agility, consider what are often common excuses they give for their dog messing up. He’s “stubborn”, or he “knows it really, he’s just being difficult”. He doesn’t like shows. He’s a bit ‘off’ today. He…anything and everything other than he was simply not prepared or trained well enough to ‘perform’ those behaviours, under the conditions he was confronted with.
So when your dog loses concentration, doesn’t do as he is told, messes up – consider – have you prepared him well enough? Before blaming him, check you have completed your part of the job of training by preparing him for those conditions. I often wonder what path my musical career might have taken me on, had I smashed Study in D minor at Balham Town Hall on that day instead of the ignominious failure it became.