Archer – 10 months
Where does the time go, another month has shot past. The influence of testosterone on Archer’s growth is becoming pretty obvious as he has started to look a bit “hench”, as the kids would say. He’s pounded on muscle especially around his neck and chest. It’s reached the point that his head is starting to look a little too small for such powerful shoulders. His feathering also seems more pronounced on the back of his legs, stomach and most noticeably his tail. On the odd occasion that something kicks him off, he truly is something to behold, chest out, head and tail up is enough to give anyone pause for thought, usually followed by a bounding climb down and lots of licks.
Along with the physical changes he’s starting to show a more than playful interest in some female’s, specifically a Newfoundland we bump into regularly. Twice now I’ve had to pull him away, he’s still not sure what he’s doing so he just does a bit of snakey hip dancing behind her, but the intention is there. Worse still when I’ve leashed him and done the walk of shame to the other side of the field, he’s feigned non-interest and as soon as I look away he shoots back off across the field after her. I suspect he’s going to find himself on a long leash more often than not at this rate.
To be fair Archer has few problems, he’s not a chewer, barker, aggressive or anti-social. When I talk to other pup owners and hear the challenges they are facing I thank my lucky stars and wonder if Archer has just not got there yet. There are however a couple of problems I need to get a handle on, chasing after other dogs and recall. He will literally run half a mile across a field to say hi to a dog. When he first arrives at the park he’s like a pinball, ricocheting from one group of dogs to the next, he’s a highly social beast.
Now the simple answer is I don’t let him off the leash but that’s not fun much for either of us. The final straw was a walk in mid-February when he got a whiff of something (probably a female) and shot off across the field and came dangerously close to exiting the park onto a busy road. Luckily his recall worked, or more likely he saw/heard the noisy traffic this time, either way, he stepped back from the brink. It was a wake-up call, for there are many times when he doesn’t have his wits about him.
I enlisted the help of a highly recommended police dog trainer to help me get a handle on the problem. Ken met us at the local Park and his body language from the first was one of business, striding up to Archer he got him to sit and proceeded to put another collar on him, a remotely controlled Citronella collar. We then set off on the normal walking route, looking for victims for Archer to engage with. It didn’t take long and as Archer started his usual interception pattern, Ken issued a clear stop command, Archer wasn’t interested until 2 seconds later he found himself surrounded in a lemony cloud, it was enough of a surprise to derail his train of thought and Ken seized the moment to call him over, which he promptly did, confused but under control.
My first reaction, in spite of Ken’s warnings, was “that’s a bit brutal”, but I couldn’t argue with the results. Archer wasn’t happy I won’t lie, but he was unhurt and importantly under control. Ken then proceeded to put a long leash on him that he’d fashioned himself, that consisted of several meters of chord and a clasp. We then continued the walk, hunting for another target for Archer. Ken demonstrated how to use the long lead correctly, to reinforce the wait command and after a couple of minutes, Archer, for the most part, adapted to the new rules quickly. The weight of the lead being dragged was enough for him to revert to an on-lead mindset.
Ken described the protocol dogs will typically go through when engaging in hunting (and let’s be under no illusions Archer is hunting for fun):
- neutral – it starts off with Archer minding his own business, usually sniffing the grass, bushes etc being a good boy!
- stimuli – whether it’s sight or sound another dog (or prey in the wild). That initial reaction when he looks in the direction of the stimulus.
- processing – you can see him literally doing the maths, what is it (friend or foe)? is it a border collie (he don’t like them)? is it someone I want to play with? how far away are they? At this point, I have 2 seconds to break that thought pattern or he’s gone. That’s what the citronella had done in the first demonstration.
- engage – the chase is on. My attempts at recall at this point are a waste of time. If Archer can hear me over his panting/pounding efforts he’s on a mission and it requires radio silence.
- contact – by this point he’s having far too much fun, can’t even hear me anymore given the distance. Worse still it’s a reward far more interesting than any morsel/action I can offer up as an alternative.
I kind of knew this, I think it’s a pattern almost any dog owner has seen at one time or another. I’d tried countless times to perform a recall at phase 4 or 5 and it is almost always a fruitless task. Having it spelt out in such clear terms however was really useful, especially the need for a more pro-active approach in breaking his chain of thought during that processing phase.
The second time Archer went to go after a dog, Ken issued the stop command and then when he ignored it, stood on the leash reinforcing the command. We did this several times with various dogs. Importantly if the dog engaged with Archer first then he would be allowed to play. On a couple of occasions standing on the lead wasn’t enough and Archer got sprayed again to re-enforce the command but it’s fair to say each time it was used it had less of an impact. So Ken ran through other tactics for breaking his concentration that ranged from obviously rattling food in containers through to falling to the ground. Anything to get Archer to break focus., during that critical moment.
The last 20 minutes of the walk Archer was for the first time walking with me, again I wouldn’t say he was a super happy pup he was under no illusions he was in a training session. As the last test, Ken took the long lead off of Archer just as a couple of dogs came onto the field. The second the lead came off Archer reverted back to his standard play mode with a doggie shout of Freedom. Needless to say when he spotted the dogs coming onto the field he was off. Ken tried the citronella spray but he was at phase 4 and even a lemon mist wasn’t going to stop him completing his mission. It really reinforced the fact that if you can’t break his behaviour at phase 3 you’ve already lost. It also demonstrated the citronella collar although useful for its immediate corrective impact if used properly would rapidly have diminishing returns.
All in all, it was a great session from a practical education perspective. I’m not sure that Archer would agree, but his safety, as well as other peoples, are far more important than the whims of his puppy gratification. I’ll report back on how we get on as we try and apply what we’ve learnt over the next few months, probably when there isn’t 3 inches of mud everywhere.
Last month we had attended a new training class in a local village hall, it had a large number of dogs all at different levels of skill with multiple trainers in a big hall. Now I’m not going to criticise this way of running classes, god knows I’m no expert and there were a lot of people getting on with it.
For me, though it wasn’t what I was looking for from a training class, critically the classes felt too large, it felt impersonal with different dogs/owners at different stages. It lacked the shared experience of previous class where everyone had started at the same time at roughly the same skill level. I’ve therefore decided to switch Archer to a different course starting the end of March. It’s an 8-week course and covers the kennel club bronze certificate. Critically everyone starts at the same time and class sizes are kept to a maximum of 6-7.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Archer has not been in training, we still take 20 minutes a day in the garden to work through the basics. A large part of our recent work has been to get commands to work at distance. For the most part, this is an exercise is building trust that he will get a reward without having to have his nose one inch from it. Current progress:
- sit – he will now sit at distance and rarely gets treated now for sit as it’s often just a precursor to another command.
- down – is better but not quite at distance ye. At least I don’t have to touch the ground anymore.
- stand – I somewhat overlooked this one, so it’s not a 100% reliable yet.
- up – hadn’t realised I’d be inadvertently training him up when getting him to jump up on the sofa next to me. In the classroom, therefore, it was easy.
- rollover – another command we’ve only recently started with. It sounds like a silly trick until you realise every day I have to brush the dirt out of his belly, so it’s a command we should have bedded in a long time ago.
- stay – this is where we are spending a lot of time at the moment. Stay in position for sit sat, down and standing, stretching the distance and even going out of sight are all almost there.
- wait – I think it’s taken me longer to understand the difference between stay and wait than it’s taken Archer to grasp it. It’s not quite there given the mixed signals I’ve probably given him.
- come – come to me, easy when you have proper treats and we practise it a lot in the field naturally.
- fetch – for a golden retriever his fetch is terrible. I’ve also upped the ante by trying to get him to fetch different toys by name. Let’s just say he hasn’t quite grasped the concept yet. It is funny to see him trying to process why returning his duck for the 30th time isn’t the right answer, especially when he gives you that head tilted quizzical look. Time and patience!
- recall – out on the field we work on recall on every walk. Not when he’s in phases 4/5 (see above) but when he’s less distracted. Using a mixture of a whistle and voice commands. Again repetition will hopefully be the key. When he returns on recall he gets extra special treats and hugs.
The most amusing part of our daily training sessions is that both cats will come out and like Statler and Waldorf critique Archers performance. They serve as excellent distractions when he’s practising his stay and when they start vying for his treats, you won’t see a more focussed pup.
I typically listen to music when drifting off to sleep, have done for years and I have a couple of playlists made of various laid back relaxing tunes. Amongst those tracks are a couple that feature haunting female performances by Lisa Gerrard (Sacrifice) and Enya (Aniron). Archer is not a fan of either as I discovered one night when I woke to a paw in the face and Archer making whining noises. The latter track if I play even a snippet is enough to kick him off and he’ll demand by growling and even barking that it’s turned off. I suspect what I think is haunting, he thinks is howling and to be fair he does have a point. Long notes of pure tones probably do sound a bit like howling. either that or Archer actually understands Lisa Gerrard’s idioglossia.
I listen to a lot of music across a wide range of genres and luckily, for the most part, Archer doesn’t feel the need to pass comment. In fact, on a few occasions, he’s begrudgingly joined me for a dance in the kitchen when no one is looking. We don’t talk about Dance Club.
We’ve struggled a little with Archer’s food and treats over the last few months, not that he’s been ill or out of sorts but the end result (if you get my drift) has been a little bit on the loose side. A big part we realised was he doesn’t do well on rawhide chew treats, so we’ve eliminated all of those. He’s only on dentastixs, yak milk chews and carrot/sausage filled kongs at this point.
Training treats (top tip from Ken) is now liver, baked in the oven gas mark 5 for 30 minutes on a Sunday and then cut up into strips for use in the week. Archer can’t get enough of it, the only issue is he’s developing a pavlovian drooling response to commands now. The best part about it is I know exactly what’s in it – i.e. just liver!
We had tried a couple of different kibbles over the last few months as well. None really seemed to firm up the situation. A number of friends had mentioned they had switched over to using tails.com with good results so we thought we’d give it a go. It’s early days but I think the combination of the new kibble and removing rawhide seems to have us back on solid form. Fingers crossed we’ve found something that works for the long game.