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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!


  1. Brilliant read as always

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Discipline is essential for a happy dog but must be proprtionate and immediately applied so the dog makes the connection. I can testify, however, that a catapult works. I roared with laughter when I read this article of yours.

    Doggie developed the sneaky habit of climbing up onto an unattended dining table and wolfing any food down. She once carried off a still oven hot roast beef. With ears, well, like a dog, she'd hear me coming back into the room and would piss off in the blink of an eye, I could never actually catch her in the act. So I asked my brother in Germany to send me a catapult. I tested it on a cardboard box and the steel ball shot straight through it. Clearly that wouldn't do but in the shop we sold chewing gum with a sugar coating like small gobstoppers. I left some tempting morsels on the table and hid in the pantry. Got her right in the ribs. After recovering from the shock, she tried it again and received another good thwack. After that she never went near the dining table again.

    As for shock collars, they can save a dog but I agree, they are banned in Wales and are at risk of being banned in England due to irresponsible use by people who really shouldn't have dogs in the first place. I really do not want my wife here in Angola to find out about these collars, though, or I'll wake up one morning wearing one!

  3. I once got my wife to put one on and then shocked her everytime she tried to take it off! She didn't talk to me for a week.


  4. Hippo; if you like this, try my other blog

    same sort of stuff, but not just focussed on gundogs.