Practice makes Percy

Here beginneth the second lesson.  The pod drapes have been pulled back a little, allowing our puppies to rub noses through the bars of the cage.  Or bark like hell, in Percy’s case. ‘Close Percy’s curtain please,’ says our trainer Mary, in her best Joyce Grenfell voice.  ‘She’s holding up a paw to show us she’s nervous.’    

Let socialisation begin. Benji and Bo put Percy to shame

Moose, the bouncy pointer we met last week, has been moved to the far end of the hall, in a XXL pod to accommodate his extreme bounciness.  Our new neighbour Benji is a beautifully groomed spaniel who has done nothing to deserve being barked at in this impolite manner.       

Last week, when Mary asked us to nominate crimes we would like to train our puppies not to commit, she was none too impressed by our suggestions.  ‘Put up a stair gate,’ she said in a dismissive tone, when I mentioned our desire to stop Percy going upstairs.  ‘Give her something else to chew,’ she told Ruby’s owner, whose favourite Turkish rug is in shreds.       

For this lesson Mary has come up with her own problem situation and training strategy.    

‘The doorbell rings, and what do we want our dog not to do?’ she asks.  That’s right: charge the door, jump up and plant muddy paws on our guest’s party frock.   

The exercise works like this.  When Mary plays her pre-recorded doorbell sound we shower our puppy’s bed with treats, as we learned to do last week.  That way, whenever the doorbell rings, Percy will make a dash for her bed, and settle there.  Yes! we exclaim, remembering our marker word.  Settle!    

The exercise works perfectly.  After a couple of repetitions, every puppy in the class responds in the desired way, gobbling up their chicken bits instead of running towards Mary.  One or two problems do come to mind.  1: We don’t have a doorbell (and if we did, I’m not sure Mary’s ‘Avon calling’ ding-dong chime would be our ring tone of choice).  2: The chances of me being anywhere near Percy’s bed with treats to hand when someone comes to the door are almost nil.

I see: we are to do the exercise at home, substituting a bang on the door for Mary’s ding-dong, over and again, until Percy races for her bed without my being there to throw treats at it.  ‘Practice makes permanent’.  Quite so.

However, 3: Percy’s bed is beside the door that deliverymen use several times a day to bring the items someone – not me! – has ordered from Amazon; the same door is often used by our much less frequent visitors paying a social call.  Unless we redesign the house, the bed will be a perfect springboard for Percy to greet the guest in the usual noisy way, smearing mud and laddering tights.

One more thing.  How much do we actually want our dogs to run in the opposite direction and not bark when someone comes to the door?   Percy isn’t supposed to be a guard dog, but there are advantages to the warning system she represents.   Especially when you don’t have a doorbell.                  

Our next exercise was designed to help our pets deal with frightening surprises, which might otherwise be …. well, frightening, with possible longer-term consequences too ghastly to contemplate.  The method involves, guess what, treats.   Give her a fistful of chicken every time she has a nasty shock, and she won’t be alarmed next time it happens.  

Mary told us the story of how her dog Brooke fell from a bridge into, coincidentally, a brook.  Ever-ready for such a mishap, Mary fished some goodies out of the pouch on her belt and thereby averted disaster.  Instead of suffering from a lifelong terror of river crossings, Brooke scampers gaily across every bridge she encounters and has to be restrained from jumping in.

For the purposes of the exercise, Mary dropped her keys on the floor of the hall as a cue for us to drop treats on the floor inside the pod.  Unfortunately, the sound of a bunch of keys landing on a wooden floor left our puppies collectively underwhelmed.  I’m not sure Percy even noticed.  She enjoyed the treats though.                   

It was soon after this, while we were concentrating on Mary’s next set of instructions, that Percy saw the open pot of chicken bits unattended on the seat of a chair, and scoffed the lot.  That ruined our chances of putting on a good show when Percy’s turn came to be pulled – led, I mean – out of the pod to have a go at the obstacle course Mary had set up – a tunnel, a rubber ring, ‘weave poles’ (dogspeak for a slalom), jumps – designed, I suppose, to test our ability to coax them through the hoops with what Mary calls ‘the food magnet’.   This sort of thing is good for a dog’s mental development, apparently.

Considering our lack of chicken and Percy’s inexperience on the lead, she did us proud, galloping through the tunnel without hesitation, which is more than Moose could manage.  To be fair, he’s so much bigger than the others, the tunnel would be a tight squeeze for him.  

Moose wasn’t too keen on the tunnel

Now for the week’s final test: the recall, which, as Mary scarcely needs to remind us, is the most important of all commandments.  (We’ve all watched the Fenton video).  Mary has two points to impress upon us.  We can’t simply use the dog’s name as a recall command: they hear it all the time.  And the reward must be extra scrumptious, to make them extra keen to oblige.

Moose was first up, and redeemed himself by sprinting the length of the hall in about three bounds and leaping in to the arms of his master who had wisely adopted the brace position.    

Percy did well too, although the contents of my fist may have come as a disappointment. It was a good positive note on which to bring the lesson to a close.     

‘Don’t forget your stuffed kongs next week!’ said Mary, as we collected our belongings.  I still don’t know what a kong is, let alone how to stuff it.  Mary has promised to send some recipes.   

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