Sometimes, whilst out in the field, you are hit with a 'Eureka!' moment. Today Jack and I had one of our most blindingly obvious ones, and it left us buzzing. We had been doing something totally wrong.
Because the thing is, just like there is not just one approach to training dogs, there is not just one approach to training owners.
We had a consultation with a lovely couple who were having recall and reactivity issues with their spaniel. In our discovery consultation we heard the list of symptoms and behaviours, and advised, among others, the following management protocols:
1) Fewer walks, but more beneficial walks. What we mean by 'beneficial' is it seemed like he needed more mental stimulation, so although he had two or three very long walks a day, he was physically tired but mentally wired at the end of the day. We suggested scatter feeding out on walks, to encourage sniffing, and ditching the bowl so he could forage for his meals in the garden, reducing the chance of him running into unknown dogs which could cause him to become stressed and react.
2) Invest in a harness and (very) long line. This meant that he could technically be off-lead, as the line could trail behind him, but if he did make a dash for it, it could be grabbed so he couldn't get too far. The harness meant that if the long line did get grabbed, he wouldn't hurt his throat or get whiplash.
Simple enough? Well not really. The owners took a lot of joy in walking their dog, they didn't want to limit his freedom, and although they did buy a very nice harness, the dog had never worn one before and as we hadn't done classic conditioning work with it, he didn't particularly love it.
So after a week, we met up with them again and discovered these protocols had not been adhered to. They had done a great job of practising recall and reflex to name, the actual training parts of the homework we had set them, but they still walked him and hadn't used the long line or harness. Jack and I were a little flummoxed as if what seemed like very simple canine management instructions were too difficult, we didn't know precisely where to go from there.
We decided our obvious next step would be to see him out and about, to view his behaviour for ourselves, analyse it and come up with a training plan to fit alongside the management plan we had already covered. We went for their regular dog walk, a short forest path leading to open beach.
Incredibly, with just a few pointers, the owners successfully marked and rewarded check-ins offered by the dog when he was off-lead, we did scatter feeding, he recalled perfectly and after coming across many, many dogs (teaching the owners how to mark disengagements and explaining about triggers and thresholds), the spaniel only had one very short reaction that lasted all of one bark when an off-lead and out of control labrador ran over to him as we were leaving the beach.
As Jack and I got in the car, all of our preconceptions had been shed. These owners were awesome, and their lack of having followed the management plan was just due to their learning styles. They were 'do-ers'. They needed to see it happen, and once they had seen it happen, they worked relentlessly to ensure their dog was as happy and comfortable as possible.
Dog training is equal parts as important for the dogs and owners. And this couple and their dog demonstrated that so eloquently. I have no doubts this dog will improve significantly now that they have been nudged in the right direction.