Sunday, 31 July 2011

....for you can't see the 'woof's' for the trees...

A painter sits in a forest in springtime surrounded by hundreds of green leafed oak trees, all sprung from acorns, all rich in mutual colour, and all part of the same family of tree. Yet to the trained eye of the painter, each oak tree is an individual entity.
As a young man he learnt which brush to use for differing levels of detail leaf to trunk, what colours compliment the oak season by season, and those combinations that would turn the sweetest painting sour. Despite having sketched thousands of these rich, strong trees, from the moment the painter puts brush tip to paper, he sees only the oak in front of him….

So how does art relate to dog training? Well admittedly not a great deal. 

Yet in the same way that a painter begins each new painting with a blank canvas and freshly washed brushes, a trainer must view each new dog with an open mind. It’s very tempting for trainers at times to attempt to diagnose a dog before even having met it, and it’s due to this impulsive eagerness to prove ones expertise that mistakes are made; at the peril of the dog.

Client : ‘Dog growls when people enter my home’
Trainer : ‘Oh your dog is obviously showing protective aggression.’

Client : ‘My dog jumps all over other dogs in play and is a real handful’
Trainer : ‘Your dog is dominant with other dogs, trying to be the boss’

Has this trainer in any way helped owner or dog? What if the growler is not attempting to protect his owner but is in fact nervous of visitors himself? Perhaps the over zealous dog doesn’t give two figs about status, and just has poor social skills!

Certain trainers have equations that seem to go:

Any behavioural problem whatsoever = the dog is dominant.

These are the trainers whose books I burn, and TV shows I take almost sadistic pleasure in pressing ‘standby’ at.
Canines are complex creatures, and whilst they have their similarities in terms of survival needs, will work for a high enough motivator etc, in essence each dog is unique.

You may be working with 10 dogs who are frequently mouthing those around them. You could attempt to tar all with the same brush of ‘lack of bite inhibition, poor puppy socialisation, biting in play etc.’ What if one of the dogs is mouthing as a stress reliever due to feelings of anxiety? Perhaps one mouths solely because he is bored all day and gets a lot of attention when he puts teeth to skin?

A well-known trainer I recently spoke to, explained his frustration at some trainers almost habitual categorization of dog behaviours into set boxes e.g. predatory aggression, dominance aggression, nervous aggression. His point was ‘can someone not feel fear and anger at the same time?’ This statement from him made me think, and my answer is a resounding yes. If someone were to attack me in my local cafe, whilst terrified, I’d also feel fury that they dare single me out, I may also experience sadness and worry, and relief that it’s me they’ve targeted and not my mother, or the child in the high chair on the next table.

So if I as an animal can experience conflicting emotions at once, surely our canine counterparts can also.

The dog that wants to say hi, but seems nervous, becomes frustrated at dogs around it, seems jealous of attention other dogs are receiving, suddenly becomes very confident, then suddenly shy, overexcited, then heartbreakingly fearful….sound familiar?

Well, it’s certainly plausible.

So fellow trainers/owners/painters who were fooled by the intro into reading this blog…. whilst a dog is a dog, with shades of grey in their complex minds and patchy pigments in their behaviour that couldn’t be further from black and white; through my eyes each couldn’t be closer to perfection. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

...for the love of a dog

'He is loyalty iself' quotes Gene Hill about his faithful little dog. The words loyalty and dog are never far from one another in a sentence, and for good reason. In fact it is this deep unshakeable loyalty possessed by our 4 legged friends that has inspired me to pursue a career in canine behaviour; perhaps to give something back to the species that has given me so much.

3 years ago things were very different, I was a total dog-phobic, severe enough to cross the street if i heard the pitter patters of paws, however tiny, approaching me. Volunteering as a dog walker in my local rescue centre, Bath Cats and Dogs Home, soon changed my perception of dogs, and as it happens, my life.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of befriending a dog, that wonderful moment where you've gained their trust and a bond starts to develop between the two of you. You become close through walks, those precious quiet moments where it's just the two of you exploring unknown fields and pathways, sharing sandwiches and affection, and receiving so much more than you give without intention.

Dogs give all without asking for anything, love with their entire beings all the way from their licky mouths to their waggy tails; perhaps most overlooked is their ability to tell us the truth without malice or tact. Dogs do not act out of vengence or spite, they don't feel guilt or empathy in the way we assume they do, but this does not make them inferior to us because they don't see the world in shades of grey. It is this blunt, selfish innocence that makes our 4 legged furry friends far morally superior to their analytical 2 legged counterparts.

My love of dogs has so far cost me thousands of pounds in behaviour courses, nights full of tears when a beloved friend is euthanised or loathing kennel life, more versions of the common cold than I knew existed from walking rescue dogs in the Winter, and I will never need blusher again thanks to the sunburn I have constantly subjected myself to from paddock playtimes in the blistering heat....however please do not assume I am moaning as I have adored every single moment. No matter how dismal life can at times seem, one look in the soulful eyes of a dog and the world seems beautiful for me.

If there is ever a day when I question my purpose in life, the answer is always there clear and will always be worth living if you have earnt the love of a dog. Or many dogs, as I hope has and will be the case!