Monday, 14 March 2011

Who's training whom?

We knew Ellie was trouble from the start. When we first adopted her, at nine weeks old, we took her to three puppy parties at the vet’s. The humans watched instructional slide shows and received instructional leaflets while the puppies fought over a heap of toys in the middle of the floor. For the first half of the first meeting, Ellie hid under Frog’s chair. By the end of the third meeting, she had moved all the toys to her corner of the room and attacked any other puppy that came near.
            Because of this, and because Frog and I had major rows over the training of our first dog, twenty-four years ago, we sought professional help. The vet recommended Dogs R Dogs and I liked the rhyme on their website:
‘Always be kind to animals
morning, noon and night.
For animals have feelings too
and furthermore, they bite.’
            This seemed appropriate as, not only did Ellie attack other puppies, she attacked Frog and me too. Her favourite sport was to run in circles around us, growling and lunging at our legs. It was frightening, you couldn’t catch her, and – when she did manage to sink her teeth in above the protective wellies – painful.
            ‘She’s a control freak,’ said Leanne the trainer, scarily efficient with her short haircut, perfect skin, and sports clothes. ‘It’s the collie half. They have to control flocks of sheep.’
            ‘You’ve got to get to grips with it now. At this stage she’ll just give you a flesh wound. It’ll hurt but it won’t be serious. When she gets older, she’ll be able to inflict real damage.’
            Right. 
            ‘My dog took a chunk out of the back of my leg when he was a puppy,’ she laughed. 'I’ve still got the scar to prove it.’
            She must have seen my look of terror.
            ‘And if you don’t think you can deal with it, give her up now. The sooner the better.’
            I cried all the way home in the car. Even though it was hell looking after Ellie, I didn’t want to give her up.
            ‘We’re not going to let that little ratbag get the better of us,’ said Frog.
            Frog learnt about dogtraining when he was a child. In those days, you jerked leads and forced dogs to do what they didn’t want to do by dominating them and making them frightened of you. Not only did that not work on Ellie – she laughed at Frog when he shouted at her and barked back at him even louder. Sometimes she even pawed the ground with a front foot, like a bull about to charge - but times have changed, thank goodness.
Now, you get dogs to use their intelligence. You get them to ‘offer’ you behaviour.
‘The first thing she needs to learn,’ said Leanne, ‘is self-discipline.’
Wow. I wasn’t sure I’d learnt that lesson fully but within the space of five minutes Leanne had taught Ellie to sit and wait for food.
‘She’ll extrapolate that,’ said Leanne. ‘She’ll use it in different situations. ’
            And she did. Her default behaviour, if she wanted something, was to sit down and be quiet (once she’d remembered, and once she’d managed to calm herself down). It was extraordinary. How many humans could make those sorts of connections?
            The key to the lunging business was to move in closer to the piranha-like jaws. Ellie was to trail a lead behind her at all times and when she lunged you stepped on the lead and slid your boot up the lead towards her head so that she was pinned down. You had to be quick and you had to get it right. The other option was to grab her by the collar and hold her under the neck, again making sure she couldn’t get at you.
            ‘And what do I do if she’s coming straight at me?’ I asked, trembling.
            Leanne laughed. ‘You stick your boot out, look her in the eye and say “Don’t you even think about it”.’
            So, Ellie had to learn self-discipline and empathy. Frog had to learn patience and subtlety. And I had to learn to be brave and to stick up for my own rights.
            And how are we getting on?
            Well, we’re all still together. And my legs are clear of wounds.
And that’s all I’m saying.

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