Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Training Newsletter Item

Christina, our class trainer, recently asked if I would be interested in writing a small item for their newsletter. I submitted it, and it's been accepted. Here is a copy for the blog readers:


An account of how two dog owners, Jan and Maz, have turned their "little runt" into an up-and-coming Internet celebrity.


There is an old adage which tells us that what comes from our efforts is equal to what we put in to them. While some may question the merits and the validity of this wisdom, we, the owners of Ellie, a seven month old short-haired Border Collie, have no reason to.

We adopted Ellie, a twelve week old puppy, from a rescue centre, in May 2007. All that we really knew about her was that she was the "runt of the litter", and that she came from an accidental mating of two farm-working Border Collies. She was naturally skinny, had very long legs and "wonky ears", and her dew claw was still dangling from one of her rear legs. It is fair to say that she perhaps wouldn't have been the first choice of dog for many a dog owner looking for the ideal pet. However, when we met Ellie for the first time, we fell in love with her, warts and all.

One of the very first things we did for Ellie, was enrol her in the ICC Dog Training Puppy Classes.

During the puppy training, Anna, the trainer in the class, identified that Ellie may benefit from a little more socialisation with other dogs, and offered to walk with us, using her own dog, Max, as a good example for Ellie to learn from. It was at this point that we really knew that we had found the right training class for Ellie. After all, how many people these days are willing to give up their personal time, at no cost, to help others?

During the puppy classes, held by Anna, we were introduced to basic obedience exercises, such as teaching the dog to sit, down, and come. We already knew the merits of clicker training, and had already purchased a clicker each, as well as several books. We also got to enjoy the benefit of the puppy socialisation walk.

After successfully completing the puppy class, we immediately signed Ellie up for the Good Citizen Bronze training class, held by Christina.

By this time, the daylight hours were becoming fewer, the cold evenings were settling in, and many a class was held under the sound of rain hitting the rooftop. But still, nothing would prevent us from attending. We felt that it's part of the deal we each make with our dogs. If we expect a well-balanced adult dog, then we have a moral obligation to give it the best start. We have little right to complain about poor adult behaviour, if we fritter away the opportunities to teach good behaviour as a puppy.

It was during the KC Bronze training that we started to realise that Ellie really was becoming a very capable dog, especially given her very young age. Though our training has not been without problems - far from it. Our main issue has been Ellie's timid nature. For several weeks, she was scared of Maz's height, which meant that she wouldn't do any work that involved standing next to him and looking up at him, such as a finish, or moving in to his left leg. Aside from the stress it was clearly putting Ellie under, it was also making Maz feel bad. For quite some time, Maz had to train with her on the floor, and wait for Ellie's confidence to build up. For the most part, it has worked and he is able to train standing, without Ellie trying to hide, though she can still look quite worried at times. We just have to know when to stop and let her take a break. We have learned that training a timid dog really does offer some very unique obstacles.

However, despite her timid nature, there are two aspects of training where she seems to blossom: behaviours that require high-energy, such as jumping into Maz's arms and up on his back, and behaviours that require chaining several behaviours together, or were more complex in nature. Certainly, during high-energy behaviours, she appears to completely forget that she is a timid dog. Our suspicion is that her personality is more naturally suited towards agility, and not competitive obedience. We decided to test to see if our observations were correct.

We had already taught Ellie to go into her crate on command. However, Maz decided that he would test to see if Ellie would take it a step further and open the crate door for herself and step inside, and if so, how quickly she could learn it. He attached an old leash to the door, grabbed a clicker and some treats, and began to work with her. It took under fifteen minutes for Ellie to fully grasp what was needed, and she became proficient enough to demonstrate her new skill to Jan that evening, without any further practise that day. To this day, Ellie remembers this behaviour and carries it out when given the "In your tin" command, though she has obviously now practised it more frequently.

Since that time, Ellie has learned several new on-command behaviours in addition to what she has learned at the ICC Dog Training classes, including putting laundry items into the washing machine, jumping up and into Maz's arms, and onto his back, retrieving and presenting the television remote control, and shutting the living room door. She is currently learning to walk backwards, and there are plans to get her to start skateboarding, just as soon as we buy her a new skateboard.

We have become so dedicated to training Ellie that we purchased ourselves a small camcorder at Christmas. There were several people who were hearing about what Ellie was doing, through the blog that we have maintained since we first got her, but they weren't able to see it. Now we've rectified that, and she's starting to get a small following around the web. It's inspiring when we receive positive feedback from others. Sometimes it really is difficult to remember that Ellie is only seven months of age, and she's only had four months of training. Much of the trick training comes from the inspiration given to us by Silvia Trkman, the two times world agility champion, and nine-times national agilty champion. Some of the tricks that her dogs perform are, quite simply, just staggering.

Do we think that Ellie would be as proficient as she is today without the great people at ICC? We strongly suspect not. There is real and quantifiable merit in attending weekly training classes. We have goals and objectives to work towards, and we have someone like Christina to point out the tiny flaws in our methods, and offering solutions as to how to resolve them. And as we all know, Christina sees everything! What we do know is that we must be getting something right, as Jan has been asked, and has subsequently accepted, to become a volunteer at the classes. Something that she is very much looking forward to.

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