A personal view - by John Thorogood
AgilityBoxer.Com Note: This article originally appeared in the "Boxer Bark" which is the Newsletter of the Queensland Boxer
Club. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors only. John Thorogood is a Obedience and Agility trialer in
Queensland, Australia. He had a wonderful career with his Boxer Suzie and is now trialling
Shelly very successfully. John wrote this when Shelly was a baby. We thought that this article, written by someone to whom Agility trialing is already an aim with a puppy, may be useful to others.
Recently I had the opportunity to ‘road test’ two local puppy pre-schools with my new boxer pup Shelley. Why two? Well you can’t be too educated these days can you but seriously, whilst I had gone ahead and enrolled in one, my wife unbeknowing had shown interest in another, and given that a young pup comes along only every decade or so in our household we thought we would treat ourselves (and the pup) to both. Having been through both courses* (overlapping by two weeks), I though readers might be interested in the comparison and a consideration of what purpose these courses serve.
Perhaps I should first state what I was seeking form each. Shelley is my second dog, and from my first (Suzie) I knew I wanted a dog that would be a bit of a ratbag, but that could impress on occasion by a show of good manners and discipline. With Suzie, I’d struggled through basic obedience (taking far too long to learn that a dog with a repertoire of tricks was not a substitute for an obedient dog), but eventually getting it together and going on to earn obedience and agility titles. Whilst having a veil of casualness, our relationship was actually very disciplined. From (very limited) past experience I know the sorts of contradictions I’ve just described make training a real ‘challenge’ and I doubt they’re catered to by any ‘off the shelf’ training package. I guess I’d accepted that that would be a cross I was willing to bare. So why go to puppy pre-school? We’ll, as my pup was not yet fully vaccinated, I was not taking her out of the house: puppy pre-school was my only opportunity to extend her socialisation beyond our family and their dogs. Having said that, most ‘students’ at each puppy pre-school were first-time dog owners and very interesting in learning how to train their dog to be obedient / not be a nuisance; and I was keen to see what I’d failed to pick up on first time around.
The Puppy Pre-School
Our first enrolment was with The Puppy Pre-School, run by Diana Lungren and Judy Dowling. Diana and Judy are both very experienced dog trainers and two of the more successful obedience trialers in south-east Queensland. Both have instructed at various times at the Redlands Dog Obedience Club, and both have decided, through experience
gained with their own dogs, that the key to a well behaved dog is to train with an emphasis on motivation and the reward of good behaviour. The atmosphere is very positive, owners are relaxed and encouraged to adopt an enthusiastic approach: to get tails wagging and pups paying attention. The course moves through a series of exercises aimed at gaining your pups attention; at developing the skills to motivate, reward, and gently correct you pup, and to gain increasing control. The use of treats is encouraged to manoeuvre pups into drops and sits, and socialisation is catered for with a good play session at the end of each class. Owners were encouraged to handle each others dogs in an effort to have each dog feeling safe and confident, even away from ‘mum’ or ‘dad’. Briefings are offered on topics ranging from toilet training, to countering aggression , to ‘advanced training’ (where can you go after graduating from the pre-school). A class visit to the local vet provides a good grounding for new owners, and a demonstration of advanced obedience by Judy’s doberman Chelsea, was a great motivator to show what can be done with a bit of commitment. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and felt Shelly benefited by getting to interact with a group of other dogs: I think she learnt something from it. I saw many of the other dogs gaining in confidence and inter-doggy skills. If I had a criticism of the course its would be that Judy and Diana fail to stress just how much more work will be required over the coming years to reinforce the training that is started at the pre-school: the average dog owner may end up frustrated when they find they still have a problem or two after completing the course and then doing a bit of follow up. Perhaps a separate, follow-on ‘problem solving’ service could be offered but then they do provide referrals to a couple of ‘advanced training schools’.
Barkbusters operate from the Wellington Point Vet Surgery (and many other locations I understand) and provided a contrast to the relaxed and positive atmosphere of the Puppy Pre-School. With little backgrounding, our instructor Brett provided each student with a short length of chain and an addition to our vocabulary : “BAH”. There was no mucking about here, the emphasis was on developing dominance and gaining your pups respect through threat. Explaining that owners should save their hands for praising, Brett explained that the chains and the “BAHs” were used to gain the pups attention and / or reprimand bad behaviour.
Over the weeks we learnt that given the chains and the “BAHs” were our only means of control, they may have to be used in an escalating fashion: drop the first chain near the dog; the second closer; and the third on to one of the dogs feet. The object was to gain the dogs attention and submission. Praise and a motivation voice got occasional mention, but watching the other students, the positive side of things obviously didn’t sink in as well as the “BAHs”. Each evenings instruction was delivered to the accompaniment of varyingly committed “BAHs” as owners attempted to correct their dogs misbehaviour. Quite simply given that the young pups had to keep out of trouble (no barking, no jumping up, no saying ‘hi’ to the other dogs, etc) for an hour and a half, provided owners with ample opportunities to practice “BAH”; but few to praise. Motivators and the use of food in training was not encouraged (though my use of food was not criticised). As with the Puppy Pre-School, the course progressed with a series of exercises: sit, stay, drop, heeling, etc. Given the above, our instructor demonstrated a clear liking for and rapport with each of the dogs. His demonstrations emphasised the effectiveness of this stlye of training in experienced hands. There was no malice or intended cruelty, just great firmness and an emphasis on correction. Indeed, Brett’s ‘parting words’ were that we each needed to praise and encourage our dogs more ! Whilst I found myself nodding at much of what Brett had to say (for example not moving on until the basics of an exercise had been mastered), and thought the hand outs were very good, I felt rather uncomfortable with the overall delivery of the course. No socialisation was provided for, “we don’t want any fights” said Brett. I suspect Brett’s advice on feeding of pups, and the relationship between diet and hid problems in certain breeds would also have made most vets very uncomfortable.
Whilst very young dogs can be taught to be obedient, it is far more important to teach them that obedience is a rewarding
behaviour. It is also vitally important for pups to learn how to relate to other dogs, if you intent taking them beyond the back yard.
Once a dog learns that obedience is rewarding, teaching new skills and exercises becomes a pleasure for both dog and owner. Certainly, dominance-derived obedience can also produce an obedient dog, but I for one am wary of the ‘side-effects’. I want a dog that enjoys being part of the family and enjoys learning; not one that simply keeps out of trouble and does what it’s told. I also want a dog that socialises well with other people and other dogs. For me, it was clear which was the ‘better’ course.
The Puppy Pre-School offers a very positive and enjoyable experience (for both owner and pup). At worst, your pup will graduate having improved its social skills and learnt a few ‘exercises’ (sit, come, etc); at best you’ll have a dog that has learnt to enjoy training and that will progress with enthusiasm. The dog’s potential is enhanced. In contrast Barkbusters seems rather draconian, with an emphasis on correction. If you pay careful attention to what is said and read the hand outs, you’ll certainly learn that reward and praise is important, but you could easily miss this (and clearly many did) under the ‘strain’ of getting those “BAH”s out. At best a ‘hard’ pup may be tempered, and you may develop some skills to get it under control; at worst an average or timid pup may learn to hate training and to see you with albeit grudging respect, as a right mean ‘pack leader’. Whilst the Barkbusters method may be ‘suitable’ for dog owners who just want a peaceful backyard (thought of buying a gnome?), I would not recommend it to anyone of limited experience seeking to develop a partnership with their dog (ie anyone interested in trialing). At five evening sessions (one more than Barkbusters), the Puppy Pre-School also offers the better value for money.
* My wife took Shelley to the first two nights at Barkbusters
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