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Why should you train your dog?

Like most trainers who find working with dogs ridiculously rewarding, I fit in a course with one of my own dogs as often as I can. The most recent adventure has been Bronze Level Scentwork with the fabulous Jordan Eley of Hounds and Hooves, based at Whitcombe near Dorchester. Not only do I love watching the sheer passion Lyric has for searching, I am learning so much about canine body language and engagement.

I’ve taken almost every dog I’ve ever owned to some sort of class and sought 1:2:1 support at times as well….becoming a trainer myself hasn’t made any difference to this, I want to carry on teaching and learning whenever possible.

So – why is this so important to me? Surely as a trainer and an experienced dog owner, I can train my own dogs? Didn’t people just get a dog and get on with it years ago, without all this need for training classes and 1:2:1s?

Well, probably, yes, to both! My grandparents, uncle and aunt always had dogs – which is probably where my love of all things canine stemmed from – and I’m pretty sure they never attended a class or sought the help of a trainer, if indeed such a thing existed back then.

Their dogs, often rescues, were all generally well-behaved and much-loved, fully involved in the life of the farm and the household. Although I imagine my grandpa and uncle would have given modern training methods short shrift, I never saw them being harsh or unkind to their dogs and they were universally adored by all canine members of the family.

Dogs have been developed over the years by selective breeding, many to carry out a particular job – herding, catching rodents, finding and retrieving game, for example – and my grandparents’ dogs frequently accompanied a member of the family out and about on the farm, hunting or just galloping around the fields. Yet how many of our pets today spend most of their time in a house, perhaps on their own while families work, with a short walk or two the only highlight of the day? And how many are blamed for unacceptable behaviour such as jumping up, pulling on the lead, refusing to come when called or chewing the skirting board?

If we try and put ourselves in the place of the family pet, perhaps we can start to see just how boring and frustrating life can be for a dog. There is a lot of literature around about walks not being as vital as previously thought, but one of the reasons I personally ensure that my dogs get to go out two or three times a day if possible is just this: imagine being stuck inside the same four walls day in day out! In fact, it’s quite easy for lots of us to imagine after 2020 and the Covid 19 lockdown – I don’t know about you, but the daily dog walk was an absolute lifesaver for me as I at least got to see somewhere else once a day.

So – walking being so important – one of the first reasons for training is to enable the walks to be enjoyable for you as well as the dog. Having your shoulder dislocated on a daily basis isn’t the most fun, so training your pup to walk nicely is a must. It’s also much better for their health; having had an Irish Setter who determinedly pulled on the lead for his whole life (quick disclaimer – I wasn’t a trainer then!) and then developed some pretty awful health conditions which were likely related to the regular pressure on his throat has made me very conscious of the need for this.

Loose-lead walking comes under general life skills in my opinion – and training your pup in these basic manners is vital if everyone is going to get along in the home and outside. Teaching your puppy how you would like them to behave can help avoid behavioural issues arising as he gets older and keep everyone safe, as the dog learns how to manage social situations with other people and dogs.

If you’re worried that training courses will be competition obedience standard and your pup will show you up – don’t be! Classes today are much more likely to be about general manners and trainers will expect lots of the pups to need some help with this. If the thought of harsh corrections puts you off, look carefully at the ethos of the trainer you’re considering – many of us use positive science-based methods and have no time for outdated dominance, alpha hierarchies, pack leader and punishment theories.

Training should also be fun, for both you and the dog. Let’s face it, we all learn more, and more quickly, if we’re enjoying what we’re doing. Think about the joy that small children find in learning something new – it’s the same for dogs! The mental enrichment involved makes their lives so much more fulfilling and enjoyable – and you know that you’re meeting their needs beyond the daily dog walk. Working with your pup to perfect a new trick also helps to build an ever-growing relationship between you as you become not only the human who dishes up dinner but also the human who makes fun happen and provides exciting treats!

Just watch a spaniel searching out treats in grass or finding and bringing you a ball to see how happy it makes them!

Training can help to replace that job that your dog was bred to do and now doesn’t have any opportunity to engage in. He’s going to burn off mental energy as well as physical, and avert boredom. It doesn’t have to be hugely time-consuming either – five minutes once or twice a day is better than an hour a week. It can be something simple that she has already mastered or a first attempt at a new trick; just remember to finish on a positive note – so if a new challenge is proving harder than you expected, ask for a couple of repetitions of an easy behaviour and end the session with success.

Practise loose lead walking and recall in the house and garden – it’s so much easier for your dog without the distractions of an outing and the more she gets it right, the more likely she is to get it right when you’re out. Get your visitors involved in your polite greeting training, preparing before they arrive and giving them a heads-up about how to react so that they don’t accidentally undo all your good work. Fit some puppy-press-ups in while you wait for the kettle to boil, rehearse spin or middle if you’re expecting a phone call. You might be surprised by how much fun you and your dog have!

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Puppy Checklist

What do you need to get ready before you bring your new puppy home?

If you’re organised and prepared before your new arrival is carried through the door, the first day and night will be so much easier. So – book a shopping trip, have a look online and make some decisions well in advance.

A lot of common problems experienced by new puppy guardians can be avoided or at least minimised by some careful forethought. Letting pup have the run of the house might seem a great idea and in the long run you may well be able to leave your older dog to go where they like – but new puppies are best confined to a fairly small area where they can do minimal damage. This might be the kitchen, utility room, hall or wherever works in your house. Remove anything that you really don’t want chewed and make sure the floor surface is easily cleaned.

You may want to invest in a crate – these are great as they give the puppy a safe place to go for peace and quiet as well as giving you somewhere to pop them if you can’t supervise them. This is not to say that any dog should be confined for long periods; but young puppies need constant supervision and there are going to be times when that’s not possible – we all have to answer the door, have a shower, and so on. Think about the size that your puppy is likely to grow to – ideally, buy one that will be a suitable size for the adult dog, and some large crates come with dividers if pup is a bit swamped to begin with.

Ideally, the crate should be somewhere not too far away from the family but quiet enough for the pup to be able to sleep undisturbed. Young puppies need a huge amount of sleep and should not constantly be woken up by children, visitors, other pets or loud noise. The crate needs to be a cosy, safe place for them to enjoy going to, so soft toys and comfortable bedding will help. However, there is no point buying lovely expensive padded dog beds at this point – save your money for when pup is older and buy cheaper crate pads or even look for well-washed second-hand blankets. Puppies do have a tendency to chew their bedding. You will also need at least two or three lots so that you can wash and dry beds.

If you decide against a crate, you could try a puppy pen – some people have one of these as well as a crate, in fact. These, or a stair gate, can restrict the puppy’s access to other parts of the room. These steps will also help you with one of the most important parts of training – toilet training. One of your first essential jobs, this needs lots of patience and vigilance on your part, and the determination to stand outside in the cold, dark or rain at times.

You will need two bowls – one for water and one for food. It’s probably worth buying small versions of these to start with then replacing them with larger versions when puppy has grown. Ideally, your puppy will come with a starter supply of the food that he has been fed, and it’s best to keep them on this for a while as there are enough changes going on for him already. When he’s been with you a while, you might be happy with it; if not, talk to local suppliers about options. A useful website to check nutritional values of different food and compare costs is allaboutdogfood.co.uk.

You will also need treats, but don’t worry too much to start with – unless you are raw feeding, you can use part of your puppy’s daily allowance of kibble to reward everything you want to encourage, such as toileting outside and sitting. As pup gets older, you may find that kibble just doesn’t cut it for some of the harder training; at this point you can start using more exciting treats and high-value human food. Check the ingredients of any treats and aim to keep them as natural as possible, and avoid anything made of rawhide.

Grooming equipment should also be on your list, as getting pup used to handling, brushing and trimming is important to avoid problems in the future. A soft brush will probably be enough to begin with, and nail clippers although most puppies’ nails can be trimmed with human nail clippers to start with.  

It’s also a good idea to buy a puppy collar, harness and lead quite early on; even though you won’t be taking your pup out for walks until they’re fully vaccinated, you will want to get them accustomed to wearing this equipment as soon as possible. A puppy-carrier or sling can also be helpful for taking pup out for early socialisation trips before they can be on the ground, but this is likely to depend on the size of your new arrival!

Toys are something else you will want to stock up on, not only because you want your puppy to have a great time playing but also because a bored puppy is a problem puppy! A tiny pup will enjoy stuffed toys, although it may not be long before they learn to shred them and pull out the stuffing; make sure they are supervised with this type of play so that they don’t swallow anything. Chews of varying texture are great for helping pups learn about the world and encourage chewing – an important part of development and natural behaviour. Just make sure that nothing they are given to chew is too hard for baby teeth. Toys can be used to distract pups from activities you don’t want to allow, such as chewing the furniture and you!

There are endless other items that you will probably end up spending money on as your puppy grows; it’s not necessary to spend a fortune in the first few weeks though. Just get the essentials in and enjoy spending time with your new member of the family!