New Dogs and Old Tricks

Posted: 15/02/2011 in General

There is a lot of conventional wisdom out there about how and when it is best to train dogs. Most of it has annoyed me for most of my life. A lot of it is counter-intuitive, which nags at me like a pebble in a shoe.

Self-confessed experts annoy me, particularly so when it is concerning a topic which I have to freely admit that I know absolutely nothing about, as in this case. To reiterate (or, technically, only iterate), I know so little about dogs compared to most people that I would readily defer to a two-year-old sucking on a plush Schnauzer.


I have made observations in reference to my dog (well, our family dog, but she has drawn the most blood from me since we’ve had her so I presuppose that this grants me supremacy in the matter) over the two years that we have had her which I cannot help let lead me to unpopular conclusions, guaranteed to get me ostracised by bona (ahaha) fido (ahaha) members of the fancy. Since I am always up for a good argument (no, no, you came here for an argument), I felt I should record my observations here for better or for worse and see if they struck a chord. And, whilst I should hesitate to do so, I will have to draw a conclusion from these observations. No doubt those that cannot conceive of deviation from the conventional wisdom on the subject will howl me down, and what subject would render itself more appropriate than the current one, certainly, still, I am inclined to maintain my position.

And so.

When we first got Millie (such is her name, a little Beagle-Cavalier cross called a ‘Beaglier’ – utterly delightful) she was about 6 weeks old. Utterly clueless but cuteness distilled, the first time she saw me she ran to me in a valiant attempt to lick me stupid, and in an hour she was happily dozing on my lap.
People were onto us straight away “Oh, you’ll have to get her to puppy pre-school and get her trained”. This was Conventional Wisdom. We had no genuine cause to disagree, although the old doubts were nagging at me as strongly as ever.

So, when she reached about 4 months of age (which some experts authoritatively told us was getting too old) we trotted off to Puppy Preschool, run by a self-proclaimed Dog-Whisperer. The woman looked disinclined to whisper anything, to my mind, but I kept my observation to myself. She demonstrated some very impressive feats of obedience with her own adult dog, at which point I couldn’t help feeling that people like her might just get what’s coming to them when the canine revolution finally comes2.
She then proceeded to try and teach us how to Whisper to/at our own dogs. A lot of the tips sounds like good sense, but she might as well have been giving me tips on quantity surveying in Sanskrit for all of the good it did. Millie was utterly disinclined to pay any attention. She was overexcited, highly distracted in the presence of the other dogs, and totally unruly. She was, in short, totally unmanageable. This persisted for the remainder of our sessions and any time I spent with her in between times. By the end of the class the dog whisperer was looking at me with thinly veiled disdain as if it couldn’t possibly be her methods that were failing.
Millie’s untrainability3 persisted until she was about 12 months old. After that her ridiculous excitability began to taper off slowly, and her attention span began to…..exist.

Lately, now that Mille has gotten a bit older, and progressively over the past 6 months, really, she has been more and more inclined to listen and to try to do what is asked of her. The other day I got her to lie down on a mat on the first attempt without having tried to train her to do it since the age of 6 months with an even 0% success rate. She is picking other things up readily as well, and obeys most commands unless she’s highly excited. I am confident that she could pick up almost anything I try to teach her now.

The inescapable conclusion I come to is in line with what I have always believed in my heart: that it is pointless to try and train dogs when they are too young to accept that training. I am sure this varies wildly between breeds and individual dogs, but as far as I am concerned, it is an immutable fact. To hell with those that preach a doctrine of The Earlier The Better. I can’t see any reason to support that point of view.

Don’t get me wrong. I would have loved to have Millie settled down and trained up as a young pup. But it truly was pointless trying. As a result we had a truly miserable Puppy Stage.

The biting irony, by the way, is that whenever she associates with other dogs, she picks up bad habits. This is bloody irritating. The Experts say that socilaising your dog is a must. But she always gets on just fine with other dogs, and whenever she spends any time around them she picks up bad habits. She learnt to bark at Puppy Preschool (the only bloody thing she DID learn there) and on another occasion she was with a friend’s dog pack once and when she came home she summarily started escaping. They talk. They do. The revolution is coming, I tells ya.

But anyway, now she’s a great young dog with the best nature you could ever hope for and she’s still great to look at4. And I wouldn’t trade her for anything.
Except for the barking. But that’s another story.

1 A better class of ‘But’. And presumably less smelly. But again, I would have to defer to a dog’s opinion on that, them seemingly being the expert in that area. I just hope they record their wisdom for posterity. Um.

2 At which point I should pause to make a note to take Millie home a T-Bone tonight.

3 Shutup spellchecker.

4 Not like some of them. Gods, I don’t know what possesses some people who have, well, dog-ugly dogs. I mean, these things are ugly even for dogs. A face only a mother could love? More like a face only a mother could look at long enough to hit with a lump of wood. My Gods.

  1. SirMixalot says:

    > However. (A better class of ‘But’. )

    well…it’s bigger, certainly.

    That no other brother will deny…

  2. Hmmm…

    Well, the problem is obviously you and what you really SHOULD do is….. not take this post seriously since the only thing certain here is what I *don’t* know about dog training would fill a library! 🙂

    What I *do* know is that I cannot have a dog at my place. Why? Because I am not the atypical “owner” in Brisbane who feels the need to go out and spent hundreds on a “pedigree” something-cross-something-else and then proceed to leave the poor mutt at home, all alone, each and every day. I am someone who brings that dog into the family and treats it with care and dignity. It is not a thing with which to pose to my friends on how much I can spend at a pet store or a breeder (AS-IF!! I *always* go to the pound to rescue a mutt who is no-less worthy of life as an inbred/pedigree anything).

    Buying a pack animal and then leaving it on it’s own for 10 hours a day and then a further 8 hours a night (while you sleep) and then there are other things that you do might be 3-4 hours…. Is that really quality time for an animal that NEEDS your attention? Not bloody likely. Does that offer enough time to teach the animal to do anything other than pee itself when you deign yourself to feed it and show it some affection?

    I know of some people who leave their dog at home all day – but that dog is as close to being a kid as I have ever seen. They even leave the house air-con going for it due to having lost 3 other dogs to the summer heat over the years (plenty of shade & water was available – absolutely NO mistreatment was involved).

    In fact, the only thing I do know about dogs is that they need to know how is boss – and that is me.

  3. rfc1394 says:

    I’m not a doggie person but I brook no nonsense when it comes to dogs. They do what I tell them – and they get praised – or they get their backside spanked. It seems to work for me, anyway.

    My sister has a dog named Scooby. She is a German shepherd and is somewhat unruly. We had our adopted grandmother, Mrs. P, visiting, and Scooby goes and sits next to her. Mrs. P was a frail 83-year old, who is (weakly) telling Scooby to “get away, get away” to get her to get off the couch. Nothing happens. My sister goes over and screams at Scooby (who weighs about 80 pounds) telling her to get down and off the couch. Nothing happens. I walk over to the couch, say nothing, glare at the dog, point at her, and point to the floor.

    It was at this point that Scooby decided to get up and get off the couch. Not before. Then I petted her for her courteous obedience. Because she knew what I’d done before when she didn’t obey me.

  4. Lucinda says:

    One time I dog-sat while my daughter and her hubby were on a road trip. Payment was to stay in their golf-course-community house and eat all their food. Taking the dog out for taking care of business was a real experience, a painful one.

    Pompie Magnus (even the name will rip your arm off) is a short-legged, long-eared, beagle with a bark that penetrates most sound-barrier muffs. My son-in-law loves to tease the dog, teach him foriegn languages, and rough house with him until the dog has no control over what he does to the floor.

    When company arrives, he gets excited and looses control.

    So, while I was in command, I took the dog out, across the street to the open field, or at least into the grass to do his busines. I did this frequently to avoid those puddles on the floor.

    One sunny morning, I decided to take Pompie for a little stroll. I needed the exercise, and I wanted to make up for the times I made the dog mind. I think I made him a little scared of me. (a female at that – I don’t scare many critters in my life).

    With great determination, leash around dog’s neck and in my hand, we went out the front door. (the leash was one of those retractable ones) Down the side walk we went. Uh, I was on the sidewalk. That crazy mutt went left until I yanked him back, right until I yank him back, until finally, one yank too many. I shortened that leash until he choked if he even wobbled. Then, I marched him back inside and made him get on his mat by the window while I sat in a chair glaring at him. His big sad eyes kept a close watch on my every move.

    Oh, the distance we walked on that beautiful sunny morning…measure the distance between one driveway in a neighborhood and the next and you have the idea.

    by the way…I never have liked that old expression about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks. We old curmudgeons can learn some pretty nifty tricks after half a century and blame it on our age.

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