Treat and Train as an Individual
In Educating Alice, I made quite clear the folly of taking on two puppies at the same time. It is difficult enough educating a single puppy, giving it the correct amount of control training and even more importantly, giving them the requisite life experiences to equip them for a happy, content lifetime with your family. The pleasure of building a relationship with just one dog is one of life’s great experiences and getting a second dog always changes your relationship with your dog and your dog’s relationship with you. Taking on a second dog always brings change, some for better, some not…but be in no doubt change happens.
My advice has always been if you want more than one dog then educate your first dog to a level where you are confident that he is most likely to be a positive role model to a new pup. If he’s not a good role model, expect similar behaviour to develop in your new pup. This may be due to your older dog’s influence, but it will also be due to you making the mistakes that led to your first dog’s naughty behaviour with your new pup.
When Alice gave birth to a massive litter of pups last year it was not my intention to keep a puppy myself. But two factors persuaded me to reconsider: the first being the obvious quality of the litter. There wasn’t another litter bred in the UK in 2019 with both parents holding such high working qualifications, and seeing the pups develop I knew the characteristics and potential of the whole litter. Secondly, the litter was so large that I made an early decision not to breed from Alice again, 15 pups were quite enough, and experience has taught me that second litters are usually bigger than the first litter.
The decision was made to keep a female pup with a view to qualifying her to TD Ex / PD Ex in Working Trials and to qualify her as an Expert Tracking Dog in the UK Tracking Dog Association.
I had my eye on a puppy from early on and as each prospective owner came and made their selection the pup who was to become Jellybean was overlooked each time. From the time the pups were about 5 weeks old, I noted that one of the litter had a small defect with her left eye. The vet didn’t seem to think it was a problem, but I wasn’t happily selling her until I was able to have a full assessment of the problem, to date this still hasn’t happened due to the Covid 19 outbreak with many vets being closed for all but emergencies. So that’s how Peanut came to stay. The temporary delay in finding her a home was soon abandoned as I quickly fell in love with her.
So, my “never have two pups” rule was broken. My never, ever, have two littermates were broken. And my never, ever, ever, under any circumstances have two female littermates were broken.
In all honesty, having the two pups has been a mixed blessing but has been a mostly positive experience. They are good pals, and whilst they have the occasional disagreement, they are great playmates and keep each other company. Jellybean is more independent of her sister, whilst Peanut is…well, I’m not sure that she misses her sister when I’m training her, or whether she just has a fear of missing out, because when the roles are reversed and I am walking or working Peanut alone, she never appears to give her sister a second thought. Both pups are developing well, and both have different qualities in varying quantities. Jellybean is more serious and business-like, whilst Peanut loves to play the clown. Both pups are progressing beautifully in regard to their life skills; being confident and social around adults, children, dogs, cats, chickens, horses, alpacas and being environmentally sound.
I now understand that I have made errors in is how each dog perceives reinforcement and this has come to the fore in the last week during tracking training. Both pups were trained to perform a passive indication on articles found during tracking by lying flat and pointing to the article with their nose, without touching it. The tracking and the article indication have been trained separately and both pups have performed well, being calm and accurate when indicating.
When tracking both dogs work accurately and at a steady pace. For several months Jellybean has been the more driven on the track, whilst Peanut, slower and more methodical, but determined to stay on the scent and far quicker and more confident when locating a lost track. My confidence in both has grown steadily…until a couple of weeks ago.
Peanut adapted to the passive indication when on a track like a natural. She takes after her mum and almost grounds herself before sliding towards the article on her tummy and holds still to await her kibble as reinforcement.
Jellybean on the other hand has struggled to combine her excellent passive article indication when not tracking with doing so during the track. She has taken to giving the smallest of indications on the article before continuing onwards.
At first, she was happy to be held back and given an instruction to “down” and when down she was content to indicate the article accurately whilst enjoying her kibble. Then about a week ago she became increasingly reluctant to “down” on command and any attempt to encourage or coerce her was treated with reluctance.
It became increasingly apparent that she regards having to down and indicate as being aversive, to the extent that she became difficult to re-start on the track after locating an article. This has gradually developed into a reluctance to track after making a good confident start. It’s as though she sets off enthusiastically and then it dawns on her that soon she is going to locate and article and have a less than happy experience. The reluctance to track on become apparent progressively earlier in the exercise from a reluctance to restart after the first article, to a reluctance to negotiate the first turn, to a reluctance to track fifty paces up the first leg.
The problem is that I have treated her the same as Peanut, but whereas Peanut finds locating the article a pleasurable experience due to the reinforcement applied, Jellybean doesn’t. The decline in her tracking performance coincided with the introduction of the down into a passive indication rather than allowing her to self-reward by picking up the article and being permitted to play with it. When she’s tracking a food reward simply doesn’t appear to be sufficient compensation for not being allowed to play.
Today, was the first try out of a return to fun. Jellybean was encouraged to fetch and play with an identical article on a different field. Then she was allowed to see the first article being laid about 50 yards down the first leg. The outcome was a hard, but accurate drive out along the first leg and as she approached the first article, she accelerated towards it and was permitted to pick it up. She handed the article over and it was thrown for her to pounce on and retrieve.
After a good two or three minutes of play, she was encouraged to “track on”. There was a slight hesitance, which gave me some concern, but within a second or two she drove on to the second article, which resulted in the same self-reward and plays. This tracking routine was repeated several times throughout the day with similar results.
Time will tell if I’ve got it right, and no doubt there will be more tweaking required before her next crack at her level 1 award. But the problem has highlighted the importance of treating each pup as an individual, with different likes and dislikes and different ways of doing things. It’s made me consider all the other exercises the pups are being trained to perform and how I can best tailor each pup’s training taking their individuality into account – ensuring I give 100% to their different needs rather than a compromise in which neither dog gets exactly the right thing.
Whilst this article has focused on the needs of Jellybean, rather than Peanut, I’m now considering whether I’ve treated Peanut a little too carefully and gently. Even though my training methods with her have proven to be successful I’m not entirely convinced she is having fun; and to me, that’s the whole point of it.
There’s no point having a certificate on the wall if the dog hasn’t enjoyed earning it, although I know a few experts who would have bare walls if they followed this Cosford Dog Training philosophy. (Many have bare walls anyway!) I need to enjoy working my dogs and I can’t do that if my dogs aren’t getting the same pleasure.
So, for now it’s back to basics, back to play and back to having a lot more fun because no certificate is worth an unhappy dog.