Saturday, November 29, 2008

18 Months Today

One of the great things about maintaining a blog dedicated to your own dog is that it can be used to record significant milestones in the dog's life so that development, temperament and growth can be viewed retrospectively as the dog progresses. Today sees another of these milestones, as Ellie reaches eighteen months of age, having been born on May 29 2007. So how has our timid and skinny short-coated Border Collie changed in the last six months?

Feeding & Weight

Ellie isn't motivated by food at all. She isn't greedy and food offers little to no incentive for her in training or in play. She appreciates the fact that she may receive a treat at the end of a behaviour, but the prospect of the treat does not drive her to try and succeed.

She is fed once a day on Burns mixed with a 'Nature Diet' wet food, once a day. Two months ago she weighed 12.5 kg which is at the lower end of the expected Border Collie bitch weight range of 12 to 19 kg.

Her body is 'filling out' a little more now as, by natural process of growth, less nutrition is going towards skeletal development. Being short-coated, she will always look abnormally thin when compared to a standard long-coated Border Collie but this is to be expected. I suspect it is because of this fact that most people we meet struggle to believe that she is a real Border Collie. If we had £1 for each time a person doubted her breed, we'd be supremely wealthy.


As the litter 'runt', Ellie has a natural tendency towards being overly timid. This personality trait has made, and continues to make, training incredibly challenging at times. You might remember that for the first few months she was scared of my height and so I couldn't stand next to her without her running up the stairs for safety. In this respect, she is, by far, the hardest dog I've ever trained.

Working with Ellie is a paradox in the sense that she learns new tricks and behaviours incredibly quickly (quicker than any other dog I've trained, I should add) but anything she learns can be undone so easily. All it takes is the wrong sound to be made, or the wrong word said in the wrong way at a certain point of the learning process, and weeks of work can be undone in an instant. She requires incredible levels of care and patience to ensure that she isn't spooked.

In terms of behaviours, like many Border Collies, she enjoys learning those behaviours which involve movement and action (such as opening doors), over those which require little movement (such as crossing her paws over).

All of the above said, there is no doubt at all that Ellie has recently become more eager and able to experiment with new activities. We have recently purchased her a large fitness ball and skateboard to help her with balance, and she's taking to both without any fuss or negativity. The skateboard is still a mystery to her, but she seems to be enjoying the fitness ball.

We have recently begun home-boarding other dogs while their owners go away on holidays. This has resulted in many different dogs coming to stay in our home with Ellie. So far, no negative incidents to report, despite having had some quite immature dogs that seem to enjoy bouncing on Ellie (and stealing her bed). With really calm visiting dogs, you barely notice a difference in Ellie as she prefers to be left alone. With the more bouncy and lively dogs, she tries to keep out of their way, but when needed she will issue a correction to the other dog to remind them that she isn't a trampoline. Considering she is only eighteen months of age, she handles these regular 'intrusions' very well indeed.

As has been the case since day one, Ellie is a people dog. If you ever see her running towards a dog and its handler, she will almost always go to the handler, not the dog. She doesn't really care for other dogs, but if there's a chance to get some stroking, she's there in a flash! I am hoping this subsides with age as I dread her jumping up at someone who is going to work in their lovely clean suit, only to find a pair of muddy paw prints decorating their legs. The trouble with this particular behaviour is that nine out of ten people reward it by crouching down and stroking her. Such is life...


As you will know from previous entries, Ellie has already reached the Kennel Club Good Citizen Bronze, Silver and Gold awards through our training classes. Originally, the plan for Ellie was to compete in competitive obedience events. However, given her timid nature, it's unlikely (though not impossible) that she will do well in this particular field. The jury is still out on this issue. It may be that she learns to love it and get enthused over it. Some of the best dogs I have seen taking part in C/O have been about five years of age, so there is still plenty of time for her to blossom. I just want to see that she enjoys it. There is no point if the dog isn't enjoying it.

What she does enjoy is the more energetic and active events such as agility. I also suspect that she would love flyball. Jan takes Ellie to Heelwork-to-Music classes as and when she can and Ellie seems to enjoy this too. Personally I don't like Heelwork-to-Music and so I don't get enthused about that particular pursuit, but each to their own. By three years of age, we will know where her real passion lies and that is plenty young enough to compete. She doesn't have to win anything, but she does have to enjoy what she does. That's mandatory.

I personally couldn't do agility with Ellie. It's too quick for me. It staggers me, the speed at which the handlers are able to think over the twists and turns. I think that knowing one's own natural weaknesses is important, and I'm not one of life's quick thinkers. I can admire the obvious skill and discipline that goes into agility but I don't think that I could successfully compete. I much prefer the less thrusting discipline of competitive obedience. I think agility would be Jan's thing.

Ellie is still attending regular training classes but this is really more for the socialisation and the fun, as opposed to training towards any particular goal. In the meantime, Ellie is my 'trick dog'. I know it's a much-maligned pursuit - teaching your dog tricks - but I love it, Ellie loves it, and I swear I know nothing better to help teach a dog confidence and to help cement a bond between dog and handler. I am disheartened that the pursuit is so maligned in some areas that 'trick training' is often described as 'fun activities' instead. This is because 'trick training' is considered, by some, as too demeaning, trivial, and frivolous. What nonsense! I am on a personal crusade to get people to enjoy, support, and respect the concept of "trick training" for dogs. It needs no disguise or euphemism. It is certainly no more demeaning than dancing with costumes to music.

In terms of what Ellie now does, here are the ones that come to my head. These are in addition to obedience commands such as sit, down, stay, come, and basic tricks such as 'shaking hands', etc.

- "Beg"
She sits up on her two rear legs and bum and assumes a beg position. She will respond to hand-signals or voice command. Though voice-command is only about 80% at present.

- "Socks"
She will grab your sock with her teeth, taking care not to catch your toes, pull it off and present it to you in a sit position, ensuring she is within reach without you having to move. She will do this will either or both socks.

- "Gloves"
She will grab your glove with her teeth, taking care not to catch your fingers, pull it off and present it to you in a sit position, ensuring she is within reach without you having to move. She will do this will either or both gloves.

- "Fridge"
She will grab a strap attached to the fridge door and open it for you.

- "Shut the Door"
She will close any door that you point to. (Used a lot after the "fridge" command.)

- "Remote"
She will retrieve the television remote control and present it to you in a sit position, ensuring that you do not have to stretch forward to reach it.

- "Kiss"
She will lick your lips.

- "Hug"
She will jump into your arms from the ground.

- "Taxi"
When you bend over, she will jump up onto your back, lay down there, and use you like a "taxi" to be walked around.

- "Wash Your Hands"
Stand at the bathroom sink with the front paws hooked over into the bowl.

- "Fetch the Post"
When the post comes through the letterbox she will retrieve each envelope individually and present it you in a sit position, ensuring that you do not have to stretch to reach it.

- "Spin"
She will spin around.

- "In the Wash"
She will place items of clothing into the washing machine. This behaviour is not yet as reliable as it could be.

- "Cross" (Currently Being Trained)
The idea is to get her to cross her front paws over.

- "Limp" (Currently Being Trained)
The idea is to get her to limp with one of her front paws lifted. Because of her lack of confidence and her not liking people stand over her, this is going to be a slow one to teach, but we're at stage two. We'll get there!

Almost all training is done with a clicker and tennis ball. The tennis ball is Ellie's most valuable item.


Here is where I would write and tell you about all the problems that most Internet forums tell us comes from placing a Border Collie, particularly one that comes from two working parents, in a domestic environment.

The truth is, we genuinely don't have any problems. There's no excessive barking, no separation anxiety, no excessive chewing, no obsessive fixation on shadows, no leaping of garden fences, or any of the many issues that are said to result from keeping the Border Collie in the home. I suspect that it's our trade-off for not having a more courageous dog.

It may sound a little idyllic, maybe even conceited, but in terms of behaviour we have no right whatsoever to complain.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Two New Toys

What do you do when you have a smart Border Collie who needs to have her brain taxed, but the weather outside is dismal and you're running out of 'dog toys'?

You buy an exercise ball and a skateboard for the dog to learn, of course. Here is Ellie showing off her new toys. We've only had them two days so we're still in the experimental stages. She will happily lean on the ball, and she's sat on it a few times, and even free-rolled it with her front legs, but she's not quite confident yet. She will get there in her own time.

The skateboard, she jumps on it and pushes it (particularly on the dining room hardwood floor), but I'm not sure she realises that it is her propelling it forward yet. But the good news is that she's scared of neither. Her confidence really is getting boosted at the moment. We'll keep you posted on progress for both items.

Apologies for the poor image quality but they were taken indoors on a really miserable day so the light was very low.

Photos from Ancaster Valley...

Autum Ellie
We took Ellie to a place called Ancaster Valley yesterday. The sole aim of the visit was to do some video work to add to her '18 month video' on November 29, where we'll try to demonstrate what she's accomplished in the last eighteen months.

It's a great place to work a dog as you're lucky if you see more than one other dog there at any one time. It's a massive wild grassed valley and includes a nature reserve. It's only unsuitable for dogs for a few months of the year, when they add sheep to the area in order to help manage the growth of the scrub.

I won't go into detail of what we did while there as that could ruin the surprise of the video on 29 November. All I will say is that Ellie is not really as timid and as wussy as she used to be. Her confidence is rocketing at the moment. She's still a timid dog, and probably always will be, but she just seems a little more prepared to try new things at the moment. You might also be able to see from the photos that she's not quite the skinny dog that she once was either. She's filling out nicely now.

Here are some photos from the day....

Reach for the Sky
Adding Some Bark
The Beggar
Autumn at Ancaster Valley

Monday, November 17, 2008

Puppy Agility Video from Silvia Trkman

I don't personally get excited by canine agility but I know some clever work when I see it. Once again Silvia Trkman is behind it with her new puppy, Bi.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New Video from Silvia Trkman and Bi

I see that my training inspiration, Silvia Trkman, has a new video out, showing the work that she has done with her new puppy, Bi. As you're watching, try to remember that Bi is still only 4.5 months of age. Staggering...

Talking of videos, I'm in the process of putting together a new one ready for November 29, when Ellie will be 18 months of age. She's learned quite a few new things since our last video! Watch this space.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Book Review: 101 Dog Tricks by Kyra Sundance

Heavily influenced by the likes of Silvia Trkman and her wonderful dogs, and Barby and her talented beagle, Xsara, Ellie and I are addicted to our dog tricks. There isn't a day that goes by where we're not learning or practising one trick or another. For example, last week, I taught her to open the fridge door for me "Fridge" and then close it "Shut the Door" when I'm done using it.

But when the cold and wet weather sets in, the choice of tricks becomes more limited and you have to begin to stretch your imagination a little more. Mine needed a little help, and so I decided on yet another book: 101 Dog Tricks by Kyra Sundance.

Finding books that are dedicated to dog training is a relatively easy affair, but finding books dedicated to the often maligned pursuit of performing dog tricks is a little more tricky. Thankfully Kyra Sundance has done such a magnificent job in creating this book, the relative absence of other titles doesn't seem to matter as much. It's one of the best books that I've ever purchased. In fact, I'll go one step further. In terms of practical 'how-to' books, it is THE best that I have ever purchased.

As the title suggests, the book aims to teach 101 dog tricks. It does this through the use of some truly stunning photography by an award winning photographer and some of the clearest instructional text that I've ever had the pleasure of reading. The pages burst with vibrant colour and step-by-step instructions that are laid out so that even the more junior dog trick enthusiasts could follow them. Each trick is carefully broken down into its essential steps, and is accompanied by a "tip" section as well as a "troubleshooting" section.

The book doesn't pretend to be anything other than a book dedicated to teaching tricks to dogs. There are only four pages at the start which give a concise introduction to reward and motivation and then it's straight into the tricks. Lovely!

The tricks are graded according to their level of difficulty. 'Shake Hands', for example, is graded as easy. A 'leg-weave' is graded as intermediate, 'Turn off the Light' is graded as advanced, and a 'Limp' is graded as expert. There are some tricks that may not suit the smaller dog, such as turning off the light, as height is needed. Thankfully, there are very very few tricks that can't be accomplished by dogs of all heights. There are also some tricks that require props such as a hoop, a skipping rope, a Frisbee, a step-ladder, a basketball hoop and a drum, for example. The vast majority of tricks do not require props but I thought it worth mentioning that some do. Though, for the typical dog-trick enthusiast, props make up half of the fun anyway.

What shines through the entire book is the quality. It is plainly evident that a great deal of care and attention (and money I suspect) has been spent in ensuring this book delivers on what it promises. Easy to follow, clear instructions, beautiful to look at, and packed full of new trick ideas for inspiration. Some day all dog instructional books will be as good as this one. Until that day, this is the leader for me, by far. Worth every single penny.