Making Maud top dog
PUBLISHED: 13:22 13 May 2014 | UPDATED: 13:22 13 May 2014
Jilly Hurley decides it’s time to go back to school with the family pet
It is said that the breed of dog you choose for a pet says a lot about who you are, and who you think you are.
Perhaps it does, but as I drive my cocker spaniel, Maud, to her first dog training class, I find myself worrying less that I’ll be judged by her breed than by her behaviour. Maud is 18 months old, and she is – there’s no way of dodging the fact – very naughty.
To be fair to Maud, she is also incredibly loving, as well as impossibly tolerant. With three young daughters determined to co-opt Maud into all their games, I could not ask for a pet with a more beautiful temperament. She’s housetrained too, and (mostly) comes back when called. But she won’t walk to heel, and – worse – we can’t leave any food within sniffing distance, or she’ll be up on the table to help herself.
Sophia Taylor, owner of On the Scent in Great Ashfield, reassures me that she can help. Sophia makes it clear from the outset that her system does not involve punishment. She uses games, she stimulates the dogs and treats are used for positive reinforcement.
In addition to the tricks and treats, however, I can immediately see that Maud is responding powerfully to Sophia herself, to her warm and intuitive way of handling her. Actually, Sophia is ‘handling’ both of us.
“To get the most out of each session,” Sophia explains, “I try to understand the owner and their relationship to the dog. It is also important to get a sense of the owner’s life and family.”
The approach is very gentle, then, and holistic. Addressing the problem of Maud yanking her lead, Sophia suggests I vary the routes and directions of her walks. Because if she knows precisely where she’s going, she is more likely to strain to get where she knows she’ll be let off the lead to run freely. Sophia also gives me helpful advice on how, and when to talk to Maud. Even in this short session, I feel more connected to Maud – I feel I better understand what I want from her, and how to make her understand that.
Next, tackling Maud’s dinner-table pilfering, Sophia teaches Maud to ‘leave it’. Two fists full of treats – one is presented to Maud, the other hidden behind Sophia’s back. Maud is encouraged to sniff the outstretched hand, but as soon as she stops, Sophia takes the first fist away and rewards Maud from the other hand. This exercise is repeated several times and then it is repeated again, but this time with Sophia saying ‘leave it’ at the point that Maud ceases to show interest. Eventually, Maud learns to recognise ‘leave it’ as the cue, the trigger, to stop sniffing.
I can’t quite believe it. I begin to think again about the possibility of a dog’s character and behaviour reflecting that of its owner. And as I take with me the wonderful lessons I’ve learnt from Sophia, I am determined, with Sophia’s help, to make me proud of Maud . . . and Maud proud of me.