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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!


  1. What an interesting article. I have had good dogs and bad dogs and now I can see that the good ones would look at me whereas the bad ones always had this shifty way of averting their gaze. I kept just one of the pups from Doggie, the first bitch I have ever owned and I feel good about this one now. He is always coming up to me, sitting on his haunches and looking at me as if for advice. When I look at him he rolls over with a big silly grin on his face. Unlike his mother, he will come gambolling over to me and learnt his name, Charlie, faster than any dog I have ever owned. He was also the easiest to house train. He is now a shade over three months old.

    I am not sure I will ever be able to properly train one of these dogs, they are all half wild and driven by instinct but I will make a special effort with Charlie so shall be following your blog for more useful snippets like this.

  2. I never keep a dog long that will not look you in the eye. The last one that wouldn't lasted 6 months and was then moved on.

    People talk a lot of bollocks about eye dominance. It can be useful, but if a dog is eye shy it really puts me off.

    I'd love the challenge of trying to man a half wild dog; but I guess part of the attraction is that they are wild?

  3. I didn't go out looking for them, they sort of adopted me. If I find a puppy or as in No Three's case, a badly injured dog, I will do all I can for it. I have even been adopted by a goatling which I found trembling and near death on my doorstep at four in the morning! Charlie is the one dog I will have had from birth so I am hoping that he won't learn too many bad (wild) habits from his mother and I will get a reasonably well behaved dog out of it. Yesterday I managed to teach him 'Fetch' and was surpised at how quickly he caught on. Like a wild dog, though, he comes back but then circles me a couple of times before moving in close and offering me the ball. He also seems to be very gentle, not chewing the ball to shit when he gets it, just picking it up gingerly and bringing it back. It is a real shame that he doesn't have someone like you to train him. That would make an interesting talking point on the line, 'What the hell kind of dog is that?' 'Oh, it a Portuguese Podengo/Hyena cross from Africa...'