You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks
PUBLISHED: 11:03 16 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013
If you've got a dog, training is a huge issue. Even if you haven't got a dog, there must have been times when you've wondered, perhaps urgently, whether a dog coming towards you will be well behaved.
If you've got a dog, training is a huge issue. Even if you haven't got a dog, there must have been times when you've wondered, perhaps urgently, whether a dog coming towards you will be well behaved. Unfortunately for an inexperienced dog owner like me, the advice is often contradictory - I've been told Jack Russell terriers simply can't be trained, and people have given me dog training books, but I've been so busy frantically chasing my pup Patch that I've had no time to bone up on the theory. However, if you need help, increasingly nowadays you can turn to the professionals.
And it's so easy to find them, too: a couple of minutes spent googling 'dog trainers Gloucestershire' revealed Andrew Wellings and his About Turn Dog Training Academy. Andy is local - he's based in Stinchcombe near Dursley - and he trains dogs at his clients' homes, so he can observe and work on each dog's behaviour in its own environment.
We meet in the daisy-and-buttercup-spangled grounds of Newark Park in Ozleworth, and within seconds Patch is hurtling enthusiastically towards Andy like a heat-seeking missile.
Authoritative and calm despite his youthful appearance, Andy immediately demands Patch's respect by rolling him over onto his back and holding him there for a split second. It's all about dominance, apparently - something I hadn't quite appreciated, though I have since discovered The Dog Whisperer on TV and can now display a range of canine body language befitting the Alpha Status Bitch I have become.
Once established as dominant, Andy takes the lead and walks Patch off on his own for a bit. Every time the pup tries to pull, Andy stops and will not resume the walk until Patch is prepared to trot decorously by his side. Watching from a hundred yards away, I'm astounded at the swift progress they make. Then, when it's my turn to walk him, I begin the (for me) uncomfortable business of imposing my will on my dog. I've always hated confrontation, and it's a family joke that I need assertiveness training, but once I tune in to the principles behind Andy's approach, I realise that it is, in fact, an assertiveness training scheme for me as well as a dog training course for Patch. Buy one, get one free!
Andy explains that there are several arenas where the struggle for dominance will be played out. I learn that in many little everyday ways I can show Patch that I am top dog and he must obey me and co-operate with my agenda. It may sound harsh, but all a dog wants is for somebody else to take initiatives and deal with all the crises. It's like being relieved that you're not the Prime Minister, and you won't personally have to take the blame for everything and be interrogated by Jeremy Paxman (a dogfight if ever there was one).
Andy says that as a young boy he was always fascinated by dogs, though the family did not own one until he was 12. At the age of 21 he acquired two dogs of his own - Rottweilers called Rufus and Merlin. Andy took a couple of weeks off work in order to concentrate on training the two pups and was able to school them outdoors on the large green beside his house.
As Rufus and Merlin grew into dignified and composed adults, Andy was often stopped by people walking their own dogs. He was asked how he had achieved such co-operative behaviour with them, as Rottweilers have a fearsome reputation. He would pass on training tips, and later the same people would tell him that his ideas had worked. Eventually the printing business where Andy was employed was bought by a French company and he was offered voluntary redundancy - 'I grabbed it with both hands!' says Andy with a smile - he was more than ready to turn his interest in dog training into a profession, and after volunteering for six months at Teckels Animal Sanctuary, he undertook a year's course in Animal Management at Hartpury College. Once that was completed, the clients started to arrive: some via his website, others by personal recommendation.
Andy believes that it doesn't matter how old your dog is, or how established bad habits are: any dog's behaviour can be transformed. In most cases the only equipment you need is determination, a few treats in your pocket, and a collar and short lead (retractable leads and harnesses make it harder to train your dog, as I've discovered after being trussed up endless times by Patch). Your sole aim initially is to show the dog that you're the boss - after that everything becomes easier.
Patch's socialisation with other dogs is still a challenge - he always wants to play and will pester older dogs for attention. In our second session Andy brings his Rottweiler, Merlin, to meet Patch, and Merlin's massive presence and authority help to persuade my little whipper-snapper that biting other dogs' cheeks is not such a good idea. They have fun chasing sticks instead, with our sheepdog Peggy in attendance. Although she doesn't do stick-chasing herself, she enjoys chasing the dogs who are chasing sticks - the canine equivalent of a cheerleader, perhaps.
Patch loves Peggy and our other sheepdog Tara, but sometimes his way of expressing his adoration has been to sink his teeth into their faces and hang there whilst they try to run away. Andy helps Patch to kick his face-biting habit with a collar called Spray Commander, which is operated by remote control. If your dog is off the lead some distance away and starts to exhibit undesirable behaviour, you can press the remote and the collar will squirt out a little jet of harmless liquid in the dog's face. This distracts him and enables you to reinforce the training with a stern 'No!' The collar also has a warning beep, and dogs soon learn to recognise that warning so that soon the beep, and eventually, just 'No!' is enough. Patch soon stops biting the sheepdogs' faces and Peggy and Tara graciously accept his company.
Andy sees dog training as a process: every transgression on the dog's part is an opportunity for more training, every dog presents new challenges and will respond slightly differently, and Andy himself feels that he is always learning, too. Andy's work with Patch has certainly removed a great deal of stress from my everyday life, and for one despairing client he has even made the difference between life and death. Her dog had bitten every member of the family, and the vet was recommending euthanasia as a last resort. Yet after just one training session with Andy the dog's behaviour was transformed: her owner established dominance and the biting stopped.
Details of this and other case histories can be seen on Andy's website www.aboutturndogtrainingacademy.co.uk where owners of all breeds and ages of dogs explain how they had been struggling with their pets' aberrant behaviour. Barking, biting, jumping up, running off, aggression: these have all been eliminated in a way the owners describe as 'astonishing', 'miraculous' and 'amazing'. I agree, and cherish the quote by Corey Ford: 'Properly trained, a man can be dog's best friend.'