Anchored beside us chewing a bone
Young working dog without a job.
I have just met Sam who is seven months of age. Sam is so very like my own Working Cocker Spaniel, Pickle.
I have had over five years with Pickle, learning how to give my alert and energetic working dog a sufficiently fulfilled life so that he’s not bored, naughty or too noisy without actually working him. Despite all my own training and practical experience, Pickle has been a challenge for me – and I adore him.
One thing is certain, the more stern people become with a dog like Pickle and Sam, the worse the dog will get. Admittedly, with sufficient force and punishment a more timid dog could be cowed into submission as demonstrated by Cesar Millan. A confident, ‘up-for-anything’ dog like Sam will surely eventually respond to ‘firm discipline’ with defiance.
That can only go one way – it’s the slippery slope towards frustration, anger and aggression. The man gets most of the defiance because he is more firm.
But how else other than through ‘discipline’ will they stop Sam leaping onto the table, stealing food from their hands while they eat, jumping up at small children, flying over the furniture, repeatedly barking for things he wants, tearing things up, raiding the fire grate, and so on?
Food and constant ‘payment’ and rewarding the dog for doing what you want him to do is the answer, and it’s best started as soon as a puppy is old enough to respond.
Are they the right home for a young working dog?
This is the question Sam’s owners are asking themselves. They would be heartbroken to lose him, but because they love him they want the best for him.
My reply is that few pet dogs are really fulfilling what they have been bred for and people are finding other ways. Sam’s situation is as good if not a not better than many. It would be hard to find somewhere ‘ideal’ as that would be a life of working either sniffing drugs or explosives or being trained to retrieve birds for a hunter. Few dogs today actually live these lives. Too many gun-dog trainers still use the kind of harsh training methods that other modern trainers would never inflict upon dogs today.
It’s important for me to add that Sam’s owners have never been harsh or unkind with him. They are simply normal, loving dog owners doing what they perceive to be the best in order to curb some of Sam’s ‘wildness’ and impose some rules.
There are ways of fulfilling the dog’s breed requirements.
My Pickle at the same age
There are also ways of teaching what we DO want without force.
‘Discipline’ implies being heavy-handed (something these people are not) but surely it really means having certain rules that are consistently adhered to. The method of applying these rules is to teach the dog using positively reinforcing methods just what we do want, as we would a young child.
Clever Sam was deliciously responsive to finding ways to please us for reward!
With a dog like Sam (and my Pickle) management is vital. He needs to be physically unable to do certain things. It’s pointless giving him access to the dining table, for example, just for him to keep jumping onto it when clearly telling him to get off or even pulling him off doesn’t teach him anything and just gets him and his humans increasingly cross.
I eventually put a harness on him to which I attached a longish lead and then hooked him onto the banister rail beside me with something to chew. Without this I could have spent the entire two-and-a-half hours working on his table-jumping, pen-stealing, counter-surfing tricks!
Using barriers, gates, anchor points and even attaching the lead to one’s waist as we walk about removes opportunities to do many of the undesired things.
We look at what the dog is bred for. With a Spaniel, scenting is a big part of it. Hunting and foraging games can help to offer him fulfillment. He can expend his daily bouts of manic energy onto a carton filled with junk rather than shredding important paperwork and eating socks.
Chewing is vital to help him to calm himself, so he can have bones, Kongs etc.
Over time he needs to learn to settle peacefully. He needs to learn to sit quietly behind a gate before it’s opened. He attends classes but what he learns there isn’t translating much to home life. With Sam, it works a lot better just to wait for the behaviour you want with no more than one gentle reminder rather than to bombard him with commands.
Every time Sam does something good like sitting and looking into their eyes, he gets a reward of some sort – attention or food – depending upon what is likely to be most valuable to him at that moment.
This way he uses his brain and while we are thinking ‘what a clever boy’, Sam is basking in approval.
When their dog is peaceful people tend to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and leave him be. It takes a lot of effort, but it’s better to teach him that being calm and quiet is what earns him attention and not unruly and demanding behaviour.
Looking for the good and rewarding calm and manners whilst preventing through management the ‘bad’ – or ignoring it where possible – is the way to go.
This is going to be hard work for Sam’s people, but oh so rewarding. He is a clever, affectionate and wonderful dog whose good points far outweigh any bad points.
Here is the story of a very similar Cocker Spaniel I went to eighteen months ago called Willow. On reading about Sam, his owner message me: Reminds me so much of Willow! I now know we go for ‘smells’ rather than ‘walks’! What I have discovered in the last two years, is what an amazingly intelligent and quick learner she is! She is still challenging sometimes, but we try to preempt her e.g. Making sure we don’t leave dining chairs pulled out otherwise she gets up on the dining table too! Willow and I are still ‘learning’ but it’s been so much fun!