Teaching an old dog new tricks.
Murphy (in case there is anyone who doesn’t know) is my dog. He is a beautiful lively stabij. Not that he is old, he is only two but there are those who would have you think that if a dog doesn’t go to classes and have professional training as a pup, they can never learn anything.
Murphy was born in July 2016 and came to us in that September. Now I’m not daft and so I told family and the few neighbours we speak to that he was coming and asked everyone to pop in and out so that he could get used to seeing people during his first few weeks.
That seemed to work but then it got cold and soon we were the only fools on the common or in the woods and Murphy was all alone. Then the same stupid neighbour who offered us a puppy hours after Benny died thought it was funny when he scared Murphy with a huge yard broom and then guffawed a big belly laugh at my poor pup who jumped as if he had an electric shock and barked.
Im sorry to say this was the start of a downhill slide in Murphy’s socialisation. We walk early in the mornings, so we tend not to see people and we like the more remote places away from the crowds where we are more likely to spot wildlife. We don’t have a big family or a huge circle of friends in fact if I’m honest I’m a bit of a loner and avoid social gatherings if at all possible so that didnt help much.
Even so we worked with him and his recall and obedience was really good until he was about 9 months when he suddenly became selectively deaf and developed total amnesia when it came to words such as ‘no’ or ‘come here’...
I thought about taking Murphy to some training classes to get him over his fear/aversion to people and new situations, but I’d had an awful experience with Oscar our rescue border collie years ago and I had been very anti dog class ever since. Oscar was about a year old when we got him and as he was very nervous, I phoned the local dog club about classes. They asked if he had ever had classes and I said no, so they said he would have to start in puppy class but then asked how old he was and when I said about a year, they said he was too old for puppy classes but because he hadn’t had puppy class, he couldn’t go into the intermediate class either. The snotty woman then asked why he hadn’t been to puppy class and I explained he was a rescue to which she replied that ‘with those kinds of dogs it’s not worth the bother anyway…’ I hung up with the steam coming from my ears and a deep dislike and distrust of dog classes/clubs in general.
So, I had put aside the idea of training classes until this summer when I saw an article in my local paper about some very small dog classes run at our local rescue centre. Ten classes in total using a reward-based training with all the profits going to the shelter. I thought it sounded ok but once I had signed up, I got a knot in my stomach. What had I done? Signing up for a group event like this was really not my comfort zone, group events of any kind are not my idea of fun, in fact anything involving other humans gives me chills. But I had committed myself and I was doing it for Murphy, so I told myself it would be ok.
The day of the first class arrived and I will admit I thought of any and every excuse not to go.
We arrived and introduced ourselves the trainer checked our vaccination book just to make sure Murphy was up to date then we went out to an enclosed sandy area at the back of the shelter grounds that was to be our training area. The training... I know they said it would be positive and reward based but this was more treats than Murphy normally got in a week... The trainer explained that we want to always set our dogs up to succeed and that we should reward the smallest triumph at this stage. Everything was a game designed to encourage attention toward the owner and following instructions while being rewarded for compliance.
There were one or two games that Murphy didn’t get, after all why would he take his eyes off the prize to look at me? The idea was instead of them looking at where you obviously have treats, they look at you and when eye contact is made (however brief) they get the reward. Forget it, he knew where the treats were, and he wasn’t taking his eyes off them! But all in all, he did quite well and the social interaction with the other owners was minimal, so I was ok too.
By our third lesson Murphy was getting the hang of the idea that any compliance on his part was rewarded and he was enjoying every minute. I was very proud that he hadn’t responded to one of the other owner’s husband, a man who lurked at the edge of the training area and then when some local louts thought it fun to throw fireworks into the grounds of the shelter (not the area we were in) Murphy just stood very still and stared in the direction of the noise.
Five lessons in and we were seeing real improvement and we had started using the tips picked up in training during real life situations although on one morning while playing ball Murphy was startled by two very low flying swans who flew in just a few feet above our heads. He lost all interest in the ball as he took off running chasing along the field in the direction of the swan’s flight. There was no way he could catch them, and the field is secure on three sides but Peter (my husband) panicked and we had a Fenton moment (Fenton is the infamous Richmond park dog).
That night at training I mentioned it to the trainer saying I wasn’t sure if Murphy would do anything that evening because he was being such a monster but, just like children who exist to show up their parents Murphy performed like a star that evening doing all the tasks first time and without hesitation. He walked across foam cushions, raised platforms and through hoops without any spoken cues just hand signals and even did a sit and beg to finish when he knew it was treat time.
Since then things have gradually got better, he is learning to ignore noisy people and people with sticks, he is being very good with strange dogs and generally seems less stressed.
So, it was with a slight feeling of regret that we went off to our last official class last night yet again Murphy enjoyed himself and I’m determined not only to use the tips we have learned but also some of the brainwork games we have learned to occupy and help him overcome his remaining fears.
Murphy isn’t perfect, he isn’t even anywhere near but he is less nervous than he was, he has learned to trust me and I have learned that Murphy is a cautious dog he doesn’t run headlong into things barking Tally Ho the way Benny my beagle did, he isn’t the stick to my side and read my thoughts dog that Oscar my border collie was, he isn’t even a Velcro dog like little Remy was. He is a bundle of energy who would be a fantastic hunter (if he was allowed) he loves to play, and he loves to be out and about. But he needs time when it comes to new situations, he likes to take the wait and see approach. He likes to study the situation and weigh up all his options before deciding what to do and I have learned to give him that time.
I’ve also learned that not all classes are run by up their own backside snobs and not all trainers expect dogs to be perfect little canine machines but that you have to look around until you find the class and trainer that suits you and your dog.
I’ve also learned you can teach an old dog (and their owners) new tricks, and they can enjoy it.