Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks (Part 1)

Well, Shelagh’s not exactly old, she’s just 3. But as a puppy she never got properly socialised because I was then working up in the City and didn’t have much time before or after work…yes, guilty as charged. For the first year of her life, Shelagh had only the company of my other dog, Scruffy, when we were out of the house. Jack would often be the first home, as his school was just 5 minute’s cycle away. But he was just as clueless as me about training or socialising dogs.

We enjoyed Scruffy and Shelagh’s company alright. They are very much part of the family. Scruffy has his armchair and Shelagh has the chaise. Or, rather, Shelagh has which of the 2 she likes, and Scruffy takes what’s left over. The arrangement, however they’ve come around to it, works just fine.

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Scruffy, my older dog, has always been a social butterfly. From Day 1 he was making friends with everyone he encountered, tail busily wagging in the air as he sniffed and greeted other dogs while out of walks. Looking so darn cute helps! Since the day I rescued Scruffy from being abandoned at a horse fair in Ireland, he’s hardly left my side. In Ireland, we lived in the middle of nowhere, in an old renovated farmhouse on 3/4 acres of land, and Scruffy was allowed to range far and wide. I only had to whistle for him, and he’d be back at my doorstep within a minute. An amazing dog, really. My lovely little Lotsabitza.

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When we first moved to Australia, I’d take Scruffy out for a nice long walk in the evenings. This was how we’d do it – I’d be on my bicycle, and Scruffy would run alongside me, off the leash. He’d stray off to the sides here and then, or stop briefly to check and leave a pee-mail against a tree, but he never ran too far off, and he always came back if I so much as whispered his name. I didn’t teach him any of this, he just naturally did it by himself.

When Shelagh first came on the scene, Scruffy was her devoted nursemaid. He kept her quiet at night when the household was asleep. He played rough and tumble with her during the day. He snuggled up with her, he groomed her, he play-fought with her, they jaw-fenced together, chased each other around the garden, they really are the best of friends.

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When it came to walking Shelagh and Scruffy, I found that Shelagh had grown so big and strong, and she pulled so hard each time we went out that my hands were blistered from just holding on to the lead. She would get so excited at everything, lunging at passersby and barking in frustration at other dogs. I tried using a harness on her, but she quickly outgrew that (Scruffy uses that now). It got so that taking the dogs out for a walk became quite tortuous (and painful for my hands, arms and shoulders), and when the warm Summer months rolled round and Shelagh was able to have her beloved daily swims in our pool, we stopped altogether.

Recently I started a Diploma in Canine Paychology with the ISCP, and after perusing a number of books on dog training and canine behaviour, gave myself a virtual kick in the arse and told myself that I owed it to myself, and the dogs, to do something about this problem of walking Shelagh.

This time round I had my own car, so one day Jack and I put both dogs in the back of my car. I took them to City Farmers so Shelagh could try on some new harnesses and get socialised with strangers, a strange environment and strange dogs at the same time. I know, it was a bit of a push, but Shelagh came through admirably. I’d ideally wanted to try a Balance Harness, as that’s what the Refuge where I volunteer use for their more difficult dogs. But City Farmers had none. They didn’t have any Sporn Harnesses either.

I settled for a sturdy, step-in harness which was easy enough to clip on without stressing the dog too much. You put your left foot in, you put your right foot in, you pull the harness up and around and you clip it in, et voila! All done. No need to make a whole song and dance about it 😄😉.

I made the novice’s common mistake of taking the dogs to the dog beach, before any of us, apart from Scruffy, were really ready. There we were, on the beach, trying to enjoy a walk, on leash, on the sand…then suddenly 2 distant specks on the horizon turned into 2 labradors hurtling joyously towards us. I froze, Shelagh froze, Jack froze, Scruffy wagged his tail happily at the prospect of new playmates.

I realized that I did not know how Shelagh would react to those 2 strange dogs. Would she know the correct way to introduce herself? Or would she try to fight them instead? As for myself, I did not know what I should be doing. Should I just let Shelagh off the lead to go towards them on her own accord? Let the dogs sort it out themselves? What if she ran off in a different direction? What if I couldn’t recall her? What if she bit another dog, or a person?

All these thoughts whizzed through my head in about 3 seconds. I decided to practice avoidance, as I’d been taught at the Refuge.

But those 2 whirlwind labradors were almost upon us. I needed a distraction, and fast.

So I unclipped Scruffy from his lead and told him to “Go Play”, and as he merrily darted off to meet the labradors, Jack, Shelagh and I beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of my car. Once Shelagh was in, I was then able to call for Scruffy, and to my relief, he left the doggy party and came back to the car.

As we drove on, looking for a more secluded area or at least an area where all dogs had to be kept on lead, I kept thinking – what was it that allowed Scruffy to be friends with other dogs so easily, but that made Shelagh so frustrated? Why did I instinctively trust Scruffy to get along with strange humans and dogs alike, but not Shelagh? Why was I afraid to trust Shelagh? Was it because she looks like a Pit Bull terrier and people might automatically think she’s a dangerous, aggressive dog?

Why was I afraid to trust myself with Shelagh?

I knew then that I’d have to start Shelagh’s (and my own) education from scratch. I’d have to introduce her little by little to what a walk feels like, what she’s likely to see or encounter, different smells, sounds, textures etc. Practice and repetition was the key, I felt. I would need to get Shelagh so used to going out for walks with us that she no longer felt the need to pull so hard. I’d have to desensitize her to the presence of other dogs, children, people (she’s fine with vehicles and traffic). We’d have to practice building up our trust and faith in each other, until I feel comfortable letting Shelagh off the leash. Until I trusted that she would come back when called.

And I already had my secret weapon ready: Scruffy. He would be my Control Dog. If Shelagh wandered off too far on her own, or wouldn’t come back when called, I’d whistle and call for Scruffy instead. She always followed him wherever he went. So, the idea was that if Shelagh failed to heed my recall cue, she would still turn back and return to where I was, by following Scruffy.

In Part II of my post, you’ll see photos of how things went. These were taken over the space of about a month, or 8 outings.

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