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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

I’ll Take the Low Road

It's official, I am going senile. Not full blown, running down the street without clothes senile, but senile enough to mess up one of the most important dates in my calendar.

Every year for the past 3 years I have been lucky enough to get invited to the West coast of Scotland, for the final week of the stag hunting season. This week is a little piece of heaven here on earth. It matters not a jot if we stalk or we don't. It looks very much as though this year stalking is off the menu as along with a lot of upland Scotland, the Ardnish peninsula suffered a massive, catastrophic fire, which saw off most of the heather and a good deal of the rest of the vegetation. However, as I said, the stalking is not the point, the point being good friends and new friends getting together in majestic isolation, for a little time away from the madness of the world. No electricity, no telephone, no mobile internet. Water from the loch, food from the land and what you can bring in by boat, a few crabs and possibly a lobster if you are very lucky. Light from oil lamps and the shipping forecast at twenty past five in the morning.

Ardnish is the most magical place I have ever been. I have been lucky enough to see a great deal of the world during the time that I worked; some of it was good, some great, some of it wasn't so; but for me nothing comes remotely close to this place. I suppose it is too near to so called civilisation to be called true wilderness, but when the wind is blowing across the loch and the stags are roaring, it seems a very long way from the city.

When it comes to getting around, you have two options; walk or sail. The terrain is too tough for an ATV and the only path was built by one of the previous occupant of Lagan (the only house on the peninsula) out of great slews of stone.

Out to sea, heading off towards Ardnamurchan Point in the Sound of Arisaig is Goat Island, a hunk of rock jutting up from an unpredictable stretch of water. Sitting at the heart of Goat Island is a vitrified fort, literally a fortification made out of molten stone, turned to glassy enamel. Quite how the intense temperatures required to melt solid rock were achieved, no one knows – a skill lost to time perhaps. In a sense, the whole of Ardnish has been lost to time, from the ruins of the black houses, to the natural beaching grounds for Viking Longships at Paenmeanach beach. Ardnish is the point where Bonnie Prince Charlie left Scotland after the Jacobite Uprising in 1745, a peninsula steeped in history and folk tale.

So why am I going senile and why am I writing about this on a blog that ostensibly should be about dogs. Well, I have just mated my young bitch Trilly. I mated here without a second thought as to the date she would be due to whelp, which happened to coincide precisely with the day that I was due to head north for Ardnish. Bugger! What an idiot. So now, assuming that she has caught, I'm torn between the delights of another litter and recharging the batteries. Of course, there is no choice, the dogs come first.... Ardnish will be there for another year. Yet a little piece of my heart will be there in the middle of October. Maybe I will forget to pay the electricity and water bill and stay at home and just pretend.




Sunday, 21 August 2011

If You Tolerate This, Your Children will be next!

As many of you will know, the docking of working dogs is something of a hobby horse of mine. I believe it is vital for the welfare working dogs. A decision not to dock a puppy that potentially has a working life in front of it, is in my opinion, a decision based on ignorance and cruelty.

Docking has effectively been banned in Scotland since 2007, with a limited exemption allowable for a prescribed list of working dogs in England and Wales. Whilst docking in England and Wales still remains legal, it is increasingly difficult to find a vet who is willing to undertake the procedure. This in many ways is not surprising given the stance that is taken by the RCVS.

Docking is an emotive subject. It causes feelings to run high on both sides of the argument. Yet, there is a slew of evidence to support tail docking as a way of minimising traumatic tail injury. Numerous articles and research papers have been published on the subject; however, informed opinion still seems to be remarkably rare.

So it was with mixed feelings that I see that the Scottish Parliament has commissioned further research, this time in association with Glasgow University to look at the experience of working dogs in Scotland since the ban. Previous research undertaken with the University of Bristol, sponsored by the Scottish Parliament was far from satisfactory; hardly surprising when the body paying for the study has a vested interest in the outcome. So here we go again with another round of market research.... Alex Hogg from the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has been directly involved with this research and indeed it is due to the persistence of the SGA that further study has been undertaken.

I'm an admirer of the SGA – they get many things right most of the time and speak with a good deal of sense; more than can be said for some of our other representative bodies, but I'm afraid I have to say with this issue I'm at odds with them.

We don't need any more bloody market research! How many more times do we need to re-invent the wheel? It is a waste of time and money. This issue needs people on the street; protesting against this specious law. No doubt this "research" will take months to complete, cost a fortune and be as inconclusive as the last lot. It is a classic case of "the SGA are making a fuss about docking again. Let's give them a market research study – we can make it look like we are doing something, manipulate the results in our favour and shut them up for another couple of years....."

For herein is the thin end of the wedge, if you tolerate this........

Perhaps if the male members of the steering committee were made to crawl through heavy cover with their todgers hanging out, as suggested by a pro-docking friend of mine who is a vet, we may get a rapid change of opinion.....

For what it is worth.........

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Brakes or Accelerator?

It's generally true that most pups come with a fully operational accelerator and a pretty dodgy pair of brakes, so in terms of training, it makes sense to pay attention to the braking system first.

A pup's natural reaction is to run around, chase and generally expend their seemingly limitless energy. Sitting still and doing what they are told doesn't come naturally: why stay still, when you can chase the cat!

This is pretty much the stage that Drake is at @ the moment; boundless energy, thick as thieves with the other black dog (who reverts to being a puppy in Trilly's company, even though she is two and a half). Sitting and staying are not part of her everyday vocabulary.

Well, there are a couple of schools of thought here (any opportunity for dog trainers to tell you that only their method is correct!) - one says leave the brakes alone until the dog has matured a bit, whilst the other says brakes first and then you can concentrate on modifying the accelerator. I've tried both approaches and I have to say that like everything else, the approach you choose is dependent upon the pup's character. In the end however, I think some attention to the brakes is beneficial before you progress onto more complicated training.

So to what degree do you train the brakes? What I am trying to achieve with a young pup of about 6 months is some degree of control off the lead; that doesn't mean walking perfectly to heel. I don't want a pup that is welded to my ankle! However, I don't want a pup that buggers off into the next parish every time it is given its freedom. This calls for a modicum of common sense - something that I haven't always had when it comes to training dogs.

For example, you remember the gun shy Labrador? Hands in the air time here - I was guilty of putting too much close control on that dog at too earlier a stage in its development. I wanted the lab predominantly as a peg dog. (For those of you who don't shoot driven pheasants, this is a dog whose sole job is to sit at your feet whilst you are shooting and then retrieve shot or wounded birds when told). Peg dogs don't need to be smart ( I can hear the emails of complaint flying in already), they need to sit, sit some more, sit longer and then fetch and carry. Even a lab should be able to do that! A dog who has working strain breeding naturally wants either to hunt (if it's a spaniel) or retrieve, (if it's a lab). A labrador naturally wants to retrieve a visible shot bird, as SOON as you shoot it. This is commonly known as running in and in generally considered to be a BAD THING!!. Therefore, in the training of a peg dog, you need to overcome the natural instinct of the lab to hare across the field at the sound of every gunshot. In order to do this, the brakes have to be applied quite hard. Most early training is focused on close control and steadiness. However, you can have too much of a good thing. I trained the lab solely on control to the point that the only thing the poor bugger would do was sit. The brakes were firmly stuck on. My prejudice, inexperience and focus on getting a peg dog actually got in the way of seeing common sense.

I learnt a couple of lessons from that Labrador; firstly don't try to train a breed of dog that you intrinsically don't like (I like spaniels and don't have much time for labs, but vainly I thought one would look good in the field) and secondly, don't let a single training goal dominate your training.

What I am trying to say is obedience and control are a good thing in a pup, but don't overdo it. You are looking to shape and control the pup's natural urges, but you still want the character to shine through.

Now is probably as good a time as any to talk about eye contact.

Eye contact can be used for a variety of different purposes in training a pup. Eye dominance (where you stare down the pup) can be used as a method of discipline and to establish pack hierarchy. Dogs generally don't like sustained direct eye contact - eye dominance is a common form of aggressive behaviour in packs of dogs. The alpha dog will stare down any potential young upstarts. If you think about this in a pack of wild dogs, it's far more risky to dominate an opponent with violence (where you stand a chance of getting hurt) compared to dominating in a non-contact way. Eye dominance is often used as precursor to an attack, if the sustained eye contact is ineffective. A useful tip: If a dog squares up to you and looks you in the eye, be prepared, it's going to try to bite you!

As you are the pack leader, any dominant eye contact should lead to submissive behaviour in your dogs, normally demonstrated through the dog rolling on its back and showing you its belly.

Eye contact can also be used in a positive way as well. I am a firm believer in the fact that you cannot command a dog that doesn't look at you. A dog should always want to look to you for commands - literally. You will see this no more clearly demonstrated than in the way a dog handler controls a dog in a Field Trial. The dog constantly looks back to the handler for the next set of instructions. This may not be the ideal situation in the shooting field, where you need a dog to have game sense and a degree of self-reliance when line of sight is interrupted, but for those of us, myself included, who aren't attracted to the Field Trials discipine, at least we can take some of the training positives away.

You can't train a dog that doesn't want to look at you. If you have a pup who won't look you in the face, get rid of it because you will have a torrid time trying to train it. This may sound harsh, but believe me you will save yourself an enormous amount of heartache. Some dogs just like to work for themselves and no amount of training and tears will change that!

Friday, 5 August 2011

How Soon is Now?

You may as well ask "How soon is now?" as try to get a straight answer to the question "How do I choose a puppy?" Every breeder will have a different answer, but it's worth bearing in mind that whilst breeders want their pups to go to the best homes possible, they also want to sell them, all of them, as quickly as possible. The longer you are left with a pup, the harder it is to sell. The easiest pups in the world to sell are those that aren't yet born, the hardest is a 20 week old dog puppy. So breeders may not be the most impartial source of advice on this subject.

As a breeder. I need to buy in pups as well from time to time to ensure that my bloodlines don't converge too closely. So poacher turns gamekeeper.........

Drake is a case in point. He's 16 weeks old and totally unrelated to the bitches in my kennel. Hopefully, he will be my next stud dog. So like most potential buyers I have to go out and assess a pup's potential at 6 weeks, which is too early to tell anything except it has a leg at each corner and isn't completely brain dead.

I could see Drake was smart from the word go. But more importantly, something just spoke to me! I firmly believe that you have to like a dog in order to bring out the best in it. So, your pup may have the most impressive pedigree, but if you don't like the character, you're in for a trying time when it comes to training. Gut feel has an important part to play.

Everybody differs when it comes to what they are looking for from a pup. Ask any established breeder or trainer and they will probably say that they want the most dominant, fastest-going, biggest-personality pup in the litter. This is great if you are an experienced trainer, however if it's your first pup, you may want something a little less hard-going.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that the pup cowering in the corner is not the one that you want. Quite a few years ago, I bought a lab on impulse (I thought that I wanted a peg dog – hang on – I thought I would look good with a peg dog!). My eye was pretty inexperienced then and the so-called breeder persuaded me that I wanted the pup that was hanging back from the rest of the litter. "She's the one I would choose" he said "That's the dog that thinks about things." What a load of bollocks!! The dog turned out to be gun shy and a complete waste of space. Totally my fault - I put it down to experience, saw that my wallet was quite a bit lighter and vowed never to listen to anyone but myself when it comes to choosing a pup and that most definitely includes my wife and kids!

Each dog has a different character; some are very strong-willed, whilst others are more biddable. What you want depends upon your experience as a trainer and how you want to work your dog. Whilst the core of the training you will expose the pup to will remain the same from dog to dog (basic obedience, house training, socialisation and on to more complex training issues) how you achieve this will depend upon the character of the pup.

All dogs need discipline and need to know their place in the pack hierarchy. Dogs see you and your family as part of a pack. If you are not the pack leader, a dominant dog will challenge you, in order to be "top dog"! - This is one of the most common reasons for dogs "misbehaving." The type of discipline that an individual dog needs, depends on its character - a hard-going, oppositional dog needs a stronger form of discipline that a soft, submissive dog.

By far and away the most difficult dog to train is one that is hard-going, but who reacts badly to being told off. His dynamic character is likely to bring him into opposition with you more frequently; however, if he sulks every time you bring him up, you potentially have a problem. In an ideal world a pup with good but not excessive drive and a happy-go-lucky disposition is a great start for both a novice trainer and one who is more experienced.

In real terms, if you can pick out a pup with these qualities @ 6 weeks old, you are far more qualified to write this than I am.

There are lots of old wives tales about how you should choose a pup, most of which are complete crap;

Take all the pups out of the whelping box and see which the bitch picks up and puts back in first, as that's her favourite. This may be the case, but if you take all my pups out of the box without permission you will be unceremoniously told to fuck off and don't come back! Also, at eight weeks the bitch doesn't want anything to do with the pups – she hates them all. Believe me so would you if you had 8 kids all with needle sharp teeth, all trying to chew your boobs at the same time.

Choose the pup that first comes to you or shows some interest in you. Not bad advice – at least the one that comes to you doesn't currently hate you.

Make a loud noise, choose the one that doesn't run away – see above re: not coming back

Choose the boldest pup – ask yourself do you really want the boldest pup? I always thought I did until I was chatting with Mark, a mate of mine who has been a shepherd all his life. Mark has probably forgotten more that I will ever know about dogs – he is amazing. I've picked up and beat with Mark for the past eight years. He's a hard-nosed bastard – not in a vindictive way, but in that way that people are who have lived outside for most of their life and who have used dogs as a tool of their working trade. I've only seen him ruffled once and that was when his dog was killed by a car. He carried the dog back to his car, turned around and got on with the business of picking up. Mark is truly an "old school" dog man.

"You daft bugger, what's tha want t'boldest pup for?" I had to say I didn't know, but it was what I'd read. He then called me an unspeakable name! "Think about it like this" he goes on, really getting into his stride "A litter is like a load of soldiers in a hole being shot at. Your bold pup, being a daft bastard, sticks his head out of t'hole first and gets shot. Lot of fucking use he is! You don't want the one tha's shiteing itsen either, what you want is the one who tell t' bold one to go and have a look." In effect, he was saying boldness doesn't always equate with intelligence. A lesson we should all remember from the school playground.

In actuality, choosing a pup is a shot in the dark; characters change as the pup matures - what was a hard pup, may mellow with age. In the real world, we have to work with the materials that we are given, so unless you are prepared to move the pup on and start again, my tip is:

Stand back and take a good long objective look at your new dog. Be honest and realistic. Not all dogs are capable of being FT Champs and not all owners are capable of training potential champions to a high level. You and your dog will be much happier if you work within your limitations. Aim for success and the chances are you will achieve it. Don't set your heart on something that is simply not achievable.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Great Expectations

Owners of bitches fall into three categories; those who are horrified by the thought of their bitch having pups, those who aren't quite sure and those who know that this is the line that they want to pursue. Of those that like the idea of breeding from their bitch, I guess you can draw another segmentation, those who only have one litter, (Jolly's as they are called around here – Just One Litter) as they find the whole experience quite traumatic and never wish to repeat it, and those who are lucky enough to have a positive experience and want to pursue this course further.

For those of you who are horrified @ the thought of Henry(etta) having pups, I'd firstly say give it some more thought - breeding dogs can be the most rewarding and magical experience. There is nothing to beat seeing your bitch give birth to healthy, solid, beautiful pups - I have to say, I cry tears of joy every time!! But, I realise that this is not for everyone, so if it's not, don't worry, you've probably saved yourself a good deal of stress. But you've also missed out on a great deal of magic!

However, breeding should not be entered into lightly. Given the complete royal fuck up that the Kennel Club has made over the past 100 years of breed registration and breed standards, dog breeders find themselves placed in a particularly harsh spotlight @ the moment.

As a "responsible" breeder, I want the absolute best for my bitches and their pups. At an absolute minimum, this means responsible genetic selection, a seasons' rest after every litter (although there can be extenuating circumstances that mean I would breed a bitch consecutively, but only ever two litters on the trot ,followed by @ least a years' break), and the best possible environment for whelping and bringing up the litter.

However, breeding is not without risk. This is a fact that every dog breeder knows and fervently hopes that they never experience.

If you really want to piss me off, tell me that dog breeding is an easy way of making money. The number of times I hear this from people in the pub!

"Oh it must be a doddle that dog breeding, the bitch does all the work and you sell the pups for a big profit!"

Well, sometimes it is like that, and I truly hope that for all of you who are entering into breeding for the first time that this is your experience, but sometimes things go wrong. I don't breed for the money, I breed because I believe that if a bitch is good enough, it would be criminal not to let her have pups.

Let me be brutally honest with you - for a normal healthy litter of 6 pups (which is a pretty good average size for a Cocker) it costs approximately £800 to bring up a litter to the age of 7 weeks. That's the cost if nothing goes wrong, the bitch has a natural birth and the vet is only called upon to dock, check and chip the pups. If the bitch requires a caesarean section or you need the vet's intervention after the litter is born, you can kiss any profit goodbye and look @ forking out a significant sum, which can run into thousands of pounds.

As I said, breeding from your own bitch is the biggest high that you can possibly have! There is nothing to compare to seeing your pups thrive and grow, move on to new owners and hopefully come back for a bit of B&B on the odd occasion.

But it doesn't come without the lows.

Young pups die! Usually within the first couple of days. If you get through a week without any losses, chances are everything is fine.

God forbid that you ever experience "Fading Pup Syndrome" which has been attributed to a Heamophilous influenzae viral infection, passed on to the pups from the bitches' uterus, which results in apparently healthy pups at around 1 to 2 weeks old, suddenly failing to thrive, and you stand helpless and watch them die over a short, but seemingly endless time.

Pregnant bitches also die in whelp - mercifully this is very rare. I've only experienced it once and I never want to go through that experience again. Burying my amazing bitch Lola along with her pups still inside her, was one of the most crippling and destroying thing I have ever done. I howled for a week.

I'm not trying to put you off breeding, the positives far outweigh the negatives, but you have to be prepared for any eventuality, even losing your favourite bitch and the litter. If this is too much, don't breed, because as sure as eggs are eggs, Mother Nature will turn around and bite you on the arse when you are least expecting it!!

If you are willing to take the risk, and I really think that you should, the benefits are huge, particularly if you have kids. There is nothing like exposing youngish kids to the most natural process in the world – wonder all 'round. Mine adore it (but they've experience the downsides as well!)

So, how do you go about the process of breeding?

Well firstly, you need a sexually mature bitch. Bitches normally ovulate for the first time between 9 months and 16 months (however, I have a little black dog that is two and a half and STILL hasn't thrown a proper season yet). Come on Diva!!!

If you keep the bitch in the house, chances are that you will notice the start of the season quite early. The bitches "bits" i.e. the vulva, swell, become inflamed , redden and generally start to make themselves known, both to you and to any other male dog in the area. Very early signs to look out for are the bitch spending a "more than normal time" cleaning herself. After this the bitch starts to bleed, normally slight in the first couple of days (you may just see a bit of red on the hairs around the vulva), spotting over day 4 to approx 8 and then ceasing to bleed as she approaches ovulation.

Conventional thinking states that you should mate your bitch between day 11 & day 13 – as most bitches ovulate around this time. Bitches will not stand for a dog unless they are ready, if you are too early, the bitch will bite and worry the dog as he tries to mount her. If the bitch is "spot on" she should "flag" with her tail. Bitches that are too early to be mated generally guard themselves with their tail, that is to say they cover their bits with it, or they plant their bum firmly on the ground. A bitch that is ready to mate will move her tail to the side; generally flirt with the dog and in some cases (Lola, you tart!!) reverse onto the dog. Whilst most bitches ovulate between 11 & 13 days, some are late ovulators, can be up to day 16 and some are just not up for it at all.

In general, maiden bitches need a bit more encouragement and it helps if the stud dog is experienced. I guess like everybody, you get a bit miffed if you are gagging for it and all the boy wants to do is make conversation. Alternatively, some dogs are just rapists! Very experienced stud dogs, predominantly FT CH, who may have 2 or 3 studs a week (day??) aren't the biggest gentlemen in the world. "Brace yourself Sheila" is normally the order of the day! Whilst that can be an advantage if you have a reticent bitch, it's not a great deal of good in teaching you when the bitch is really "spot on".

So how do you choose your stud dog? Way too big a question for this blog, but in general I would say, go for a dog that you like; both in terms of conformation and working ability. Obviously incest may be best for Monty Python, but it's not good in dog breeding, so you want some distinction and distance in the pedigree (with the exception of some line breeding) and a smattering of FT CH doesn't go amiss.

However, as far as I'm concerned the focus on having a FT CH as a Sire which seems to be the norm these days, is no more than a load of all balls! People pay huge sums of money for studs from FT CH and particular Cocker Champions (You know who you are Si). Why?? Why would you want a stud from the Cocker Champion, when you could have one from his dad, or even is grandfather? Surely you want the genes of the dog that bred the FT CH, not the FT CH himself, particularly if he is a young, relatively unproven dog @ stud. Yet, people shed out silly money on dogs that have just been made up, when they could have a better, cheaper stud further down the generations.

Trust your eyes – if you like the dog and the owner is personable, why not take a punt?

You should be aware of the etiquette of taking a stud; a responsible stud owner should be within reason, flexible to the time that your bitch is in season, should offer two matings, ideally two days apart, and offer you a free stud next time if the bitch doesn't catch on. Equally, you should be on-time for your stud, ensure to the best of your ability that the bitch is "spot on" and generally make it as easy as possible for the stud owner to like you.

The normal terms of a stud are cash up front (on the first mating please!) or pick of the litter. With very few exceptions, I always pay for a stud. Letting someone have pick of the litter doesn't make financial sense. I sell my pups for £750, the stud is £300, - work it out for yourself! If you do decide to go with pick of the litter, make sure that you broker a deal something along the lines of 3 studs, 2 picks and the last one for free, at least that way you're not getting shafted!

What about the mechanics of the mating itself. It really is a fascinating process – it's like watching an evolutionary echo – the same thing as the way that your dog circles a couple of times before it lies down. Bitches tend to be flirty – reverting to a puppy state – chase me chase me. The dog will normally start with some oral action and if the bitch is receptive, will attempt to mount her. It's at this stage that she will see him off if she is not spot on. Assuming that she is, the stud will hump away until he achieves penetration, at which point you will see him climb high on the bitches back, using his front dew claws for better purchase. If the mating is successful the dogs will tie, the dog reversing away from the bitch, so they are joined bum to bum. Here they can stay for anything up to 30 minutes – it's the bitch that controls the length of the tie. Quite what the tie is for, nobody really knows; there was a popular theory that this prevented other dogs mating with the bitch in the immediate time after the successful mating, however, we now know that a bitch can store different semen from successive matings, to be used at a later date. Tip; don't put a recently mated bitch in with another intact dog, unless you aren't too fussy who the pups dad is!

We all at some time or other have to take bitches to stud, further than we would like. Whilst this is worth it if the mating is good, the excessive travel can take its toll on the bitch. Mating is generally a stressful experience for the bitch, so hoiking her 600 miles from one end of the country to the other, isn't going to help matters. If you have to travel long distances for the mating of your dreams, consider staying overnight with the bitch after the mating. There is nothing more demoralising that the bitch expelling all the sperm just past Scotch Corner, all over the back seat (particularly if it's in your wife's car!!)! After all, if the bitch goes to term, whelps 7 pups and you sell them all, you stand to make about £4000, unless you are an idiot;

Give the bitch a night in a luxury hotel, she deserves it!

One word of warning, unless you trust the stud owner with your wife's life (!!) never leave a dog for mating – no matter how far the journey is. The pristine FT CH hunk of a dog, may turn out to be the three legged one-eyed half-balled mongrel that actually gets strapped across the bitch. You have invested time and money in this bitch – stay and watch the mating! You know who the father is then!

Once the bitch is mated and back with you at home, separate her from any other dominant dogs / bitches. Bitches are brilliant at knowing when they have caught – even to the extent that some will refuse a second day 13 mating, as they know they are already pregnant. However, if dropped back into a pressured environment, bitches can resorb the pups up to about 35 days. This is an echo of the time that domestic dogs were wild.

In the wild bitches would come into season in synch with their environment. In essence they would aim to have their pups in times when food was plentiful and the weather was clement, however, if between mating and whelping the conditions changed, say for example a drought, the bitch had the ability to terminate the litter and choose to mate again when conditions improved. In your kennel, this means that if your newly mated bitch is pressured by another alpha female or a randy dog, she may choose to abort the litter up to day 35. Better to separate her, keep her calm and make her think that she is living in the "land of milk and honey." My mate Ian swears by feeding puppy food to newly mated bitches, to emulate the good times and maximise the size of the litter. Not a bad idea at all!!

63 days is the gestation period of the dog. My god it goes quickly. I'll talk about preparations for whelping and the whelping itself next time, but a top tip; YOU AREN'T AS PREPARED AS YOU THINK YOU ARE!

Have spares of everything that you need and make sure the bitch is in the whelping room at least 5 days before she is due.

Bitches are pretty good at giving birth on time. I start to be vigilant with a new bitch at about day 60, but in reality the bitch will tell you she is ready, if you know what to look for.

As the bitch prepares for labour, she will go off her food. Chances are she will have the squits and she will probably exhibit heavy laboured breathing (stentorious breathing). All of which is quite normal, and as you have her in the whelping room, shouldn't be a problem.

Bitches are fabulous – it never ceases to amaze me how a maiden bitch just knows what to do. However, and I can't stress this too much, if the bitch goes more than 1 day over her due date, get her to the vet. Chances are there is nothing wrong, but better to be safe than very sorry.

I'll leave you with a story about my friend Martin.

Martin's not a proper dog man – he likes Springers for a start; Doesn't make him a bad man, just a bit confused; but he does have two of the most fantastic Springers I have ever seen. Natural hunters, keen retrievers, family pets – bloody hell what more could you want? Well stopping the buggers working @ 80 yards might be nice, but personally I think there's a bit of Gordon Setter in them!!

Martin is just about the most unflappable man I have ever met – Born in Persia, brought up in the Middle East, turn in the army...... took a motorbike across Asia (including Iraq) before Ewan Bloody Macgregor was even born!!!

Martin's dogs are called Charlie and Lizzie; forever known as DOG and BITCH; makes life simple I suppose. Anyway, BITCH is pregnant to a rather good Springer from down south and Martin over a couple of glasses of Guinness confides in me that he "knows bollocks all about dogs really, and could I come and have a look at BITCH when she is about to drop."

"No problem", I say and make a note to visit Martin the weekend before Lizze is due. Before I go, I do however stress the importance of preparation. "Get the room ready mate, get a whelping box and make sure you have some heat in there!"

Thursday before the weekend the Lizzie is due, I rock back up home after a few sherbets, only to answer the phone to Martin. "She's having the pups in front of the fire" he shouts. "Bloody hell Martin" says I "I know you're posh but the whelping room doesn't really need a fire in it" No" shouts Martin, now quite desperate, "she's having them in front of the living room fire, on the Persian rug, with all the bloody kids watching! I went to poke the fire and nearly trod on one!"

Lizzie had 7 fabulous pups, despite Martin's best efforts.

When it comes to dog breeding, preparation is everything!!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Showing Harvey The Yellow Card.

Discipline is a subject that divides the dog community. If most people have an opinion on training, EVERYONE has an opinion on discipline. At some stage or other, you are going to have to discipline your puppy; so we may as well get the subject out of the way sooner rather than later.

Let me put my position on discipline to you. I'm not asking you to agree with it, it's just what works for me.

Dogs need discipline. Without discipline, they have no way of gauging what is "right" and "wrong" in the perception of the trainer. The lifeblood of a happy kennel is routine, spending lots of time with your dogs, praise and discipline.

So what constitutes discipline? How long is a piece of string? Discipline means different things to different people and can range from the smallest inflection in the voice to full scale physical contact.

We have come a long way in our training method over the past 50 years. Generally we have progressed from dog "breakers" to dog "trainers", which has to be a very good thing. The old-school gamekeepers would think nothing of beating a dog into submission - "Break it down, before you build it up" was the old adage. You still see some remnants of this attitude left today.

I have a friend with whom I shoot occasionally, who has a tendency to tell the same old story time and again. He owns a local shoot on which I am lucky enough to get invited once in a while, normally on his "Family Day" - we meet for a pre-shoot drink @ the Hall and whilst giving the safety briefing, he will invariably come out the phrase;

"Gentlemen, when you have finished beating your spaniels, we can begin!" Cue much hilarity from assembled guests. Whilst it's meant as a joke, it has an element of truth in it. I've seen some appalling acts of cruelty, dressed up as discipline, perpetrated by so-called dog handlers, mostly directed @ spaniels. Spaniels are inveterate piss takers - give them an inch and they'll take a mile. They need a firm hand, particularly @ a young age but this does not excuse using your dog as a punch bag!

Discipline needs to be proportionate and delivered "immediately". I.e. whilst he is in the act of misbehaving. Dogs pretty much live in the here and now and live by a code of cause and effect. A dogs power of reasoning is not sophisticated enough to link events separated by time. So, if Harvey's owner commands A, Harvey performs B and gets rewarded for it, Harvey links A & B with praise - happy warm feeling for all concerned. If Harvey's owner commands A, Harvey does C and gets a walloping for it, Harvey associates A & C with a pain in the backside, but ONLY if the pain in the backside is administered in a time-frame short enough for the dog to associate the two events.

As an illustration;

Every other dog trainer that I have read uses this story, so far be it from me to break with tradition.

So Harvey is picking up behind the guns with his master. Harvey catches a whiff of a bitch who is about to drop into season, in the beating line, and rather than sitting @ peg, buggers off in search of a bit of nookie! Master blows whistle, blows again harder and shouts. Cue much hilarity in beating line and from guns. Master continues to blow up now shouting @ top of voice and looking as though he is going to have a coronary. Harvey comes back in his own sweet time, only to get a kick up the backside for his trouble. In Harvey's mind, he's done nothing wrong, a good bonk is far more exciting than sitting at peg, and he came back to the whistle. Because a fair amount of time has elapsed between the "crime" i.e. running off, and the "punishment", Harvey is actually been disciplined for coming back rather than running off. You think you are administering correct discipline, and the dog thinks "why the hell should I come back next time, if I'm going to get a kicking!"

Time and context are of the essence when it comes to discipline!

Before I get into more detailed discussion of what constitutes discipline, I think it's appropriate to say that 9 times out of 10, when you have to discipline you dog IT'S YOUR FAULT NOT THE DOGS. You haven't been clear in your command, you have given contradictory commands, or you have placed a dog in a situation where it can't succeed.

My black dog Diva (the soppy looking one at the top of this blog) has just eaten the bottom air vent on our French Windows. This happened @ the same time as my son was choosing to become teenager. Whilst I thought was dealing with Connor's hormones quite reasonably (this isn't my normal default setting), my wife came downstairs to inform me that the dog had just snacked on the door. Meltdown!! Everything reached critical mass, and everybody got shouted at. Dog and kid got a severe telling off. Looking at this now from a distance, it was my fault the dog ate the vent. I should have kept the bedroom door shut and I shouldn't have left the dog in a situation where it could misbehave (as my wife took pleasure in pointing out). Trip to the vet for her I think!

The art of discipline, is remembering this when you blood pressure is so high that a trip to hospital might be on the cards.

As I said before, if you lose your temper with a dog, you lose. Bonds of trust that have taken months to build can be broken in seconds. If you can remember that it's normally your fault anyway, you probably will be able to temper your reaction.

That is not to say however, that you should let your dog get away with murder.

Dogs on the whole are not deaf. They may choose not to hear your command, but you can be damn sure that they heard it the first time and either aren't sufficiently trained in this area, or are just being oppositional. If you are confident that a dog understands the command that you have given it, don't bother repeating the command 3 or 4 times just in case the dog decides to comply this time. Give ONE COMMAND, then if the dog disobeys you, get after it and correct it. Giving multiple commands that the dog ignores, only serves to reinforce the dog's oppositional behaviour.

So your dog has misbehaved - proportionality and timing are everything. You must decide at the start of training what your maximum disciplinary response will be, for the worst misdemeanour you can think of. This will differ between different owners / trainers - some reject physical contact under any circumstances, whilst some will resort to this if the behaviour warrants it. You must decide how far you are willing to go. I'm not going to tell you that it is wrong to smack a dog - you have to decide that for yourself.

You also need to consider the disposition of the dog. This varies between breeds and individual dogs within the breed. Generally labradors and spaniels are going to be softer in nature than terriers. I have some spaniels where even a change in the inflection of my voice is enough to reduce them to a quivering wreck, whilst for others scruffing and ear pulling have no effect whatsoever.

So discipline not only needs to be proportionate and timely, it also needs to be moderated in the context of the dog's character. This is a tall order to remember, particularly when your dog has just embarrassed you in front of a crowd of people.

What forms of discipline are available for you to use?

Change in voice inflection: The least "invasive" of all forms of discipline. Changing your voice to a lower tone, generally equates to an expression of displeasure, in the mind of a dog. In effect you are "growling" at the dog. This is something that the bitch will do with the pups in the whelping box, and is something that they will be used to.

Eye contact: As we have said before, dogs dislike sustained eye contact. Staring @ a dog for a sustained period of time is likely to elicit submissive behaviour. Eye dominance and voice inflection can be used together for a greater effect.

Disciplinary commands: A phrase that the dog associates with being disciplined. You can choose any that you want, as long as you are consistent with it. The one I use is "Bad Dog, Naughty Dog"

That's the non-invasive methods pretty much dealt with, so what about when you have to lay your hands on a dog. There are many people who never discipline their dogs in an invasive way, but I have to say I am not one of them. If I have to discipline a dog in a physical manner, I feel that I have failed, but sometimes that's just the way it is.

If you have to physically discipline a dog, you have a number of options. Think about what you are trying to achieve with physical discipline - this is best done in a dispassionate environment. Have a good think over a good glass of wine - don't try to do this in the heat of the moment. The only reason that you should be considering physical chastisement is if you have a hard going dog, who does not respond to any of the non-invasive forms of discipline. If this is not the case, YOU ARE A SADIST, AND ARE NOT FIT TO HAVE THE HONOUR OF KEEPING DOGS.

Cocker Spaniel's ears are made for pulling!! A gentle ear tug – and I do mean gentle, you are not to haul the dog around by the lugs, works wonders with some of my more thuggish cockers. This again works because it is a technique that the bitch uses in the whelping box to keep the pups in order. Watch a litter of 5 week old pups with the bitch - @ this stage she is getting thoroughly fed up of them – they bite as they try to suckle, poo all over the place and generally are a pain in the backside for the bitch, who will keep them in order by biting their ears. Pulling on a cockers ears is a direct reminder of the hierarchy of the whelping box, and has a substantial disciplinary effect, for little physical intervention.

In terms of physical discipline, this is ideal. You are aiming for as big a bang, for as little buck as possible. If I can achieve a solid correction in a dog, for as little physical intervention as possible, then I don't feel too bad.

Scruffing also has the same effect, but it is more physical. This is only something I resort to in the direst of circumstances.

You may also want to consider pinning the dog down on its back (easier for smaller breeds) – a position that is indicative of submission. Alpha dogs use this technique in the pack to dominate would be upstarts. This is not to be used on sensitive dogs.

Personally, I feel that this is a far as you should go in terms of physical intervention. Using a stick or your boot can never be countenanced, (well, perhaps if the dog is going to bite you!). However, we all have boots, and most of us carry sticks when we are beating..... It's tempting, but you have to restrain your urge if the dog has misbehaved.

Needless to say, discipline of any form should be toned down for a pup

What I am trying to say is that whilst we may not like physically disciplining our dogs, sometimes it is necessary. 

All of which brings me at last to the highly emotive subject of training collars – those electronic devices, that are used to administer a shock to the dog. E-collars have already been banned in Wales – decreed as being cruel and inhumane. I have to say that I disagree. E-collars can be a useful part of the training armamentarium, but only if used in the correct way.

I don't routinely use E-collars. I only resort to them when it's a deal breaker, use the collar or move the dog on. E-collars are great for specific behavioural problems. What they particularly excel @ is the immediacy element of discipline. Harvey runs off, Harvey can be corrected at the very point where he is messing up.

I'm convinced my cockers know that I'm a fat boy and don't really have the physique anymore to chase them up hill and down dale, so within 30 odd yards of me most of them are pretty compliant. Outside of 30 yards, they seem to know that I can't get to them quickly enough, so discipline tends to break down. They also seem to know that I'm not going to chastise them for coming back!! Little sods. E-collars are great for correcting running in and in this aspect I think we should use them more.

However, if you have to zap a dog more than 2 or 3 times in it's lifetime to correct a particular behaviour, you are not using the collar in the correct manner. Watching dogs in the beating line being continually corrected with an E-collar makes my blood boil, and will result in these useful tools being banned across the whole of the UK.

One final anecdote to finish with.

Quite a few years ago, way before the invention of E-collars, I used to knock about with an old keeper on one of the local estates. Most of his dogs were well behaved, most of the time, in that rough and ready way that suits keepering. He had one cocker however, who was a nightmare – this thing was a true throwback to the original devil dogs of the 1900's, when most people thought a cocker was only any good for target practice.

This dog truly was a nightmare – it would run through every drive on the shoot, and then for good measure run back through the same drives, flushing birds back over the beaters heads. Then one day, everything changed. We'd met for the pre-shoot briefing and low and behold this dog was welded to the keeper's leg, where it stayed for pretty much most of the drives in the morning. When time came for a beer, one wag challenged the old keeper on his dog's new behaviour.

"Have you changed your dog Fred?" says the wag "Cos that one hasn't pissed off yet" Everybody falls about, and offers up a prayer to the god of dog training, that at least their dog isn't as bad as the keepers.

"No" says Fred, "I've shown him the Yellow Card" and at this point he produces a huge marble out of his shooting suit pocket. At this point, the dog seeing the marble, cowers, whines, rolls over on its back and then tries to get even closer to the keepers left leg than before.

"Bugger me!" says the wag "How did you do that?"

"Well, it's like this" replies the keeper, "I was checking the pens this morning, and the bloody dog ran off again. I whistled him up, but he just kept going. So I got me catapult out and let him have it with this here marble. As luck would have it, I clocked him right on the back of the noggin, whilst he was jumping one of the electric fences. He dropped like a sack of shit, and got his tackle caught on the fence. He hasn't left me side since!"

"Bloody hell" says said wag "What's the red card then?"

The keeper says nothing, stands up and opens the jacket of his shooting suit. In the waistband of his breeks is a revolver.

Ah, the power of discipline. Cruel but fair!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Sitting On The Dock of The Bay

Every time one of my bitches has a litter, someone usually asks if they could buy an undocked Cocker pup from me. The answer is short and simple. NO. If you want a puppy, then it's going to have to be docked. There are breeders out there selling undocked Working Cockers, but for the life on me I can't see why. It's a working breed FFS.

Cockers are bred to be game finders. They are a giant hyperactive nose on legs. Once they get a whiff of game, most would tear through razor wire to flush it. The obvious downside of having such a high prey drive is the lack of self-protection that most Cockers afford themselves whilst they are hunting. Cuts, grazes, tears are all in a day's work for a Working Cocker. But it's the tail that takes most of the punishment. Undocked, Working Cocker's tails are thin and whippy at the end – perfect for getting cut by briars and bashed by bracken. A busted tail is never ever the same and is a weak point, which will eventually lead to the retirement of the dog. Taking an inch off a pup's tail at 3 days old can save a lifetime of pain and suffering, as well as extend the working life of any Cocker.

Similarly some people would prefer it if I didn't talk about the D word!

Well I beg to differ.  I consider that it is only through educating the public that we can attempt to redress the appalling imbalance of opinion and injustice that has been forced upon us in the guise of The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (section 6).  This appalling piece of legislation had very little to do with animal welfare and a whole lot to do with salving the collective consciousness of an uneducated liberal public, who don't understand and who can't be bothered to find out why we do what we do.

The Animal Welfare Act in its current form require me to have my puppies docked by a registered vet no later than 5 days after they are born and I must have the same pups micro-chipped by the same vet no later than 6 weeks after the docking.

Don't get me wrong – I'd chip my pups whatever the law said, but I'd do it myself, after all I am trained to chip. 

The old breeders always used to dock their own pups – usually with a blacksmith made tool that looks a little like an Italian mezzaluna.  They would heat it in a flame till red hot and then roll it over the tail cutting and cauterising at the same time.  Well, we now have surgical scissors and ferric chloride to achieve the same effect, but because of this specious act of parliament I now have to drive my recently whelped bitch and the pups 90 miles in order to comply with the law, as my local vet will not dock.  In my mind that is needless cruelty.  Three day old pups don't need to be subjected to this sort of stress.  Can you really tell me that it more cruel for me to dock the pups in the warmth of their own whelping room, without all the travel?  This is what happens when people who make the laws do so from a position of ignorance.  So it's a double kick in the knackers when you have to pay £30 to have the pup docked and another £30 to have them chipped, all of which I am completely capable of doing myself. 

But it's not about the money – it's about the welfare.  Send breeders on courses, teach them how to dock and chip humanely, even if they have been doing it for years, set up an authority to ensure the system is not abused, but for god sake let's move away from this ridiculous system that we have at the moment, that has nothing to do with welfare and everything to do with a stealth attack on field sports.

But it's our own fault – we stood by and watched them do it! 

There used to be on organisation called "The Council for Docked Breeds."  This was an organisation whose role in life was to support, educate and generally generate positive PR for docking and docked breeds.  They were supposed to be the gatekeepers – the people who dealt with the wolves at the door.  They have however been found to be sadly lacking!  You might notice that I talk about the CDB in the past tense – they still exist, but they might as well not do for all the use that they are!

I'd recommend that you have a look at their website .  They talk the talk – you can even buy a "Keep on Docking" baseball cap – although why the hell you would want to is beyond me.  Go out in public in this and see how long it is before the animal "loving" public gives you a right kicking!  However, when the going got tough, the tough got going by cowering, whimpering and generally sticking their heads up their arse.  A least it was safe and warm there – you couldn't hear the sound of our way of life been dismantled brick by brick.

Where is the database of Vets who are willing to dock that was promised to us so long ago?  Where is the voice for any breeder who happens to be unfortunate enough to breed working dogs that need to be docked in order to carry out their job in the field, without injuring themselves?  It's like asking a man working in a steel factory to go and poke the furnace without suitable eye protection and gloves.  Health and Safety would have a shit fit.  Why then are there so many vets out there who a perfectly willing to let animals work in an environment that they know will result in injury, when they could prevent this with a single snip of the scissors?

Yes, it must hurt the pups a bit.  Yes they squeak!  But it doesn't hurt as much as having your tail-end busted every time you go to work, having to have it sewn up 20 times in the shooting season every year and eventually having to have the bloody thing amputated because there is no skin left which can be sewn!

It's not only the grass roots vets that are to blame. The Royall College of Veterinary Surgeons (RVC) has a predominantly anti-docking stance.   Whilst vets can legally dock a prescribed list of working breeds without any possible fear of retribution from the law, their own governing body exerts undue pressure on them not to dock.  I've talked to vets who fear that they would be struck off the register for docking a working dog.  I've also had recent personal experience of a locum vet that refused to work on docked dogs. No wonder it's so hard to find a vet that will dock!

There has been a recent paper on docking – a collaboration between the RVC and the University of Bristol, in order to shed more light on the benefits or not of docking.  What you should also know is that this study was funded by the Scottish Executive!!!! You should also know that all docking has been illegal in Scotland since 2006. How impartial is that!  If you want to read an abridged form of the results you can do here.

Personally, I'd recommend sticking pins in your eyes – it's probably more informative.  Quoting from the Press Release;

"Key findings from the report include:

  • Tail injuries requiring veterinary treatment were rare (prevalence of tail injuries was 0.23 per cent, one in 435 dogs).
  • English Springer Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, Greyhounds, Lurchers and Whippets were at significantly higher risk when compared with Labradors and other Retrievers.
The study, also found that, as expected, dogs with docked tails are significantly less likely to receive an injury. Essentially, approximately 500 dogs (unadjusted for breed) would need to be docked in order to prevent one tail injury.

Professor Sheila Crispin, co-investigator, from the University of Bristol's Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, commented: "While it is obvious that injury to the tail is impossible if the tail has been removed, the dog may have also lost an important means of balance and communication."

However, like all studies results are open to statistical manipulation.  Interestingly this paper is also illustrated with a picture of a Springer who has been docked like a terrier.  There can't be an inch of his tail left.  No one in their right mind would dock so harshly.  But it is a sad reflection on things when the RCV chooses to use such misrepresented images.   Perhaps Professor Crispin should walk a while in our shoes before choosing to add her name to such a piece of crap purporting to be science!