At 6.45 on a damp autumn evening, 15 minutes early (as instructed), six young dogs and their human appendages have assembled outside a village hall near Wantage. For our rescue puppy Percy, not quite 3 months and not quite a retriever, it’s the first day of school.
That may seem a bit young, but the Leaps & Bounds ‘Life Skills’ course takes them from 8 weeks, after the first vaccination. Percy’s trainer Mary has sent briefing notes, so we know what to do.
While my son encourages Percy to go on the grass, my job is to take her belongings into the hall, find her ‘pod’ and make it nice and welcoming for her. The pod is a wire cage draped with curtains to avoid distraction. This first session is about settling in, and focus. Socialisation will come later.
I’m not sure if Percy is nervous, but I am, having failed to implement many of Mary’s instructions. A spell on the naughty step might well be on the cards, not to mention summary exclusion. I have no idea what a stuffed kong is. And as for favourite toys, Percy has none. Her 3-year-old foster sister stole and buried her squeaky duck within minutes of its arrival, along with all the fake bones, yoghurt pots and cardboard boxes we invite her to chew in preference to chair legs, cupboard knobs and corners of skirting board. That leaves Percy nothing to play with but her tail and the pee-stained pages of the Oxford Times we use for blotting the kitchen floor. Percy’s outpourings and those of Chris Gray are a perfect fit.
I’m relieved to see we are not the only ones who have failed to splash out on a chest harness and Halti training lead, whatever that is. Mary does not seem to mind too much, thank goodness. Her manner is brisk, but not severe. ‘Practice makes permanent,’ says our Mary Poppins.
We call it puppy training, but in reality we are the ones being trained to communicate with our pets in a language they can understand: food.
‘We’ll be using lots of treats,’ Mary explained in her notes. For best results she recommends ‘high-value’ treats such as chicken, sausage or cheese, in preference to factory-fabricated nibbles. ‘Don’t worry if your puppy vomits,’ she says reassuringly; ‘this won’t affect the training.’ We decide on chicken as the most digestible option and gave Percy half rations of tea before the class.
The pods are ready, and it’s time to go in. ‘Bring Percy in slowly,’ Mary tells my son. ‘Drop treats on the floor between his front paws every couple of steps. We want him to look around and take in his surroundings.’
Sorry, Mary, I know it’s confusing, but Percy is a she. Short for Persephone, after one of Lynda Snell’s goats, remember? No, I suppose not: the organiser of an evening class that starts at 7 o’clock is hardly going to be an Archers listener.
By 7.15 we are all in our pods. Having plied our puppies with treats on the way in, we must now shower the bed with more titbits and keep at it until they settle. Mary demonstrates quickfire distribution, like a farmer sowing corn. We’re already running low on chicken bits, and it’s only twenty past. Percy spins around excitedly scratching at her bed for tasty morsels. She may be wondering if the bed is filled with chicken.
Now that the dogs have settled – sort of – Mary would like to know what bad habits we would like to eradicate. In our puppies, that is.
Going upstairs, I suggest. This breach of our house rules is on my mind, Percy’s wanderlust having resulted in three puddles on the landing this afternoon.
Perhaps she likes the smell of your bed, suggests Mary, raising a laugh in the hall. Chewing and biting are more popular complaints. Mary tells us not to admonish our puppies for picking up stones. They’re teething, that’s all. A frozen carrot will soothe the gums.
To our left, a bouncy young pointer called Moose keeps jumping up for the puppy-class equivalent of conversation over the garden fence. His pod may need vertical extension before next week, or he’ll be jumping clean out of it.
Our other neighbour Ruby, a fluffy bundle of fetching butterscotch hue, is much better behaved than her Archers namesake. A bit of a goody-goody in fact, if the frequency of ‘good girl’ coming from her pod is anything to go by.
‘Good girl is not a marker word’, Mary tells Ruby’s owner (bad girl). Marker words indicate approval on successful completion of a task and should be one-syllable words such as Yes! or Click! ‘You’ve got half a second to say it, before you offer the treat. After that you can say good girl all you like.’
Our next task is to lure our puppies from one side of the pod to the other – a distance of about 7 feet – using their name and ‘touch!’ When the nose touches the fist that holds the treat, we say our marker word and deliver.
Percy soon gets the hang of this, zooming back and forth hoovering up all our remaining treats in less time than it takes to say Percy! Touch! Yes! Good Girl! Do any of these words register, I wonder?
Training is all about positive reinforcement. ‘Thank you for coming,’ says Mary. ‘You’ve all done really well! Next week you’ll be coming out of the pod.’
One at a time we depart, wagging our tails and looking forward to next week.
‘How did it go?’ the home guard wants to know. ‘Was Percy a star?’
She did really well and she wasn’t sick, but Mary thinks we should change the sheets. And stick a carrot in the freezer, will you?