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The Puppy Diaries 5: The Highs and Lows of Dog Training

Written by Anna Hollisey

Updated

Louie snuggling with his toy piggy

This month Louie ‘graduated’ from puppy school. Sure he chewed his mat and peed on the trainer’s shoe, but he got his graduation prize (a chicken-foot) anyway. Fortunately, he has a face that’s easy to forgive… 

This month, Fall has crept in, and Louie has had a “fluff-spurt”, growing a winter coat in light tan. At 4.5 months he’s getting bulkier by the day (don’t worry; he says it’s all muscle), although still insists that he fits perfectly well onto my lap. Despite a nose-bite from a bulldog and a few wallops from the cat, Louie continues in his amicable mission to convert the world to his friendly style of Sprockery. 

Thoughts on Dog Training

After 6 weeks of puppy school, Louie has not turned into a wonder-dog who helps me with the laundry, finds Timmy in the well, etc, etc. “Is there a follow-on course?” asked Granny worriedly. “Or has he learned all he can learn?!” He has, I explained, covered all that he needs to cover – it’s just that we haven’t put in the practice to solidify his learning.

Yes, that’s definitely it. 

One of the great things about our dog trainer was that she managed to circumvent all negativity. Even when the learners chewed their leashes or peed on her feet (okay fine… they were both Louie) she didn’t criticize any behavior. With angelic patience she showed us how to distract, calm, and entertain our dogs. 

When I felt stressed about Louie’s performance (or failure), it helped to remember that he has good features too. He never strays far on a walk, he is always thrilled to see us, and he’s excellent at greeting other dogs with care and caution. The dog trainer pointed out how Louie’s attention constantly returned to us while he was supposed to be doing tasks, and said that was a great skill amidst all the distractions. 

We asked why Louie takes his treasures – even the larger treats – to hide them, either outside by our garden pond or under the far corner of the couch. The dog trainer told us that nobody really knows. She explained it probably dates back to their ancestry, when dogs were wise to preserve precious resources in case of future desperation. So if we’re ever held up and can’t get home, at least Louie has an emergency stash of moldy chicken feet beneath the couch. Smart thinking? He thinks so.

How Bored Should A Dog Be?

As a Sprocker, Louie needs more than the internet-advised 20 minutes of walking per day. Even with 1-hour walks, he is a relentlessly busy dog. He entertains himself outside, digging holes or ripping rubbish bags to shreds; he entertains himself inside, chewing his toys, his bed, or a whole cold cucumber. He always needs more toys.

Are all pups this busy? Louie’s parents were both working dogs: alert, lean, and poised to get to work. I wonder whether it’s sensible to bring a working dog into a domestic environment – if not, it is now our responsibility to provide the right stimulation. 

I noticed that training sessions exhausted Louie, helping him to relax and sleep. I also eventually realized how much he loves training – despite my own anxiety around it. So we’ve become more committed to our practice, and will book him onto another course in a month or two. This week he’s learned how to give his paw, and he and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

The Paw Command

I’ve been watching the Heelwork competitors on Crufts and am now (obviously) hoping that we can develop a full routine, kitted out in matching cowboy hats. Of course, I’m definitely overshooting my mark (and capacity).

I’m not a dog trainer, but here’s how we taught this command:

We started with Sit, which seems to be a good way to begin any training – he knows it, and it brings his focus in. I tried holding a treat in one hand, tightly closed, as instructed in the online tutorials, and waiting for Louie to touch it with his paw… it didn’t work. Louie was incredibly polite and just continued to sit and gaze at my hand. It became boring. Eventually I used my other hand to lift his paw, saying ‘paw’ at the same time; when I lifted it, he simultaneously got the treat. Louie was completely unimpressed by this but tolerated it, eyes on the treat hand. I carried on until he would raise his paw very slightly when I touched it.

I know that dogs dream, like humans, to process their day’s learning and memories. So we stopped training before he became bored, and resumed the next day. It worked! Louie has the idea. With some more practice it will become automatic. 

The Swap Command

This is another command which has been completely brilliant for us. Louie loves to steal treasures (socks, pens, and toothbrushes are in his top 3) and squeeze himself underneath the couch to stash them at the back. With me chasing and shouting “NOOOOO, Louie”, the game was even more fun.

Fortunately, our dog trainer taught us a great trick. She gave us two toys to use in class. One would be ‘live’ – we’d jiggle it around and make it irresistible – while the other was motionless. Then we’d make the first one go ‘dead’ and start playing with the other one, saying ‘Swap’. Louie caught onto this fast. Later at home, I asked him to swap when he picked up a sock. His ears pricked up and I offered a treat, reclaiming the contraband. It seems that whatever he has stolen, sausage always wins.

Louie and the Cat

Now I’m not convinced that owners are able to shape the relationship between their dogs and cats – in our house, this has been thrashed out without intervention. In other words, the cat has preserved her rule of terror. 

Last week Louie ventured to the forbidden upstairs. I found him a while later. He was cowering in a bedroom doorway while the cat prowled the stairwell, preventing him from leaving. Louie was very grateful when I distracted the cat with food so that he could creep past and escape. 

The cat is 19 and knows her place in life. She decides when we humans wake up, she decides where she will take a poop, and she will always be the top dog.