July 31, 2011

Dog Obedience 3

This is the third in a series of articles written for the Malaysian Kennel Association, who asked for some comments on the principles of dog obedience training from a judge's perspective. Most of each article is directed at people who are simply interested in having a better behaved dog, but I hope there may also be something to interest the experienced handler and competitor.
"Why won't my dog heel properly?"
There is an old joke which goes "I called my dog Herpes because he never heels". Yes I know that's pretty corny, but teaching your dog to walk nicely on the lead seems to be something a great many owners have trouble with.
I don't know what the Dog Laws are like in Malaysia, but they are very strict in Australia, and there are depressingly few places where dogs are allowed to run freely. So most people have to walk their dogs on a lead, and everywhere you look there are owners being dragged along, even by very small dogs.
Not only must it be very tiring for the owner to walk like that, and uncomfortable for the dog, but it also means there is almost no control over what their dog does at the other end of the lead. It might suddenly lunge at another dog, or try to snatch a child's carelessly waved ice-cream or hamburger, or step suddenly onto the road, or walk right in front of a cyclist, or wrap the lead around a light pole, or someone else's legs, pram, or walking stick.
All of these possibilities detract greatly from the enjoyment of going out with your dog, and it is for this reason that it is so important to teach your dog the basics of heeling.
It is not the place of this article to tell you how to do that - there are many ways of doing so, and your local dog obedience club is probably the best place to start. Failing that, there are instructional videos on the internet, and countless books on the subject.

Walking "nicely" on the lead
There is a difference between this and the sort of "heeling" expected in Obedience activities. I think it is unrealistic to expect a dog to be working and concentrating every time you go out for a walk together, so even while you are training your dog, it is important to allow time for him to look around, sniff things, and walk along casually. This is something that all dog owners can achieve with just a little time and practice.
The key principle here is that the lead should be loose, even if the dog is walking a little ahead or behind or out to one side.
Consider it from the dog's viewpoint: A dog straining ahead on a tight lead cannot move any faster than one on a loose lead, so there is no advantage to the dog at all, and he can enjoy his outing even more when he is not continually being jerked here and there by an owner using the lead as a brake.
From the owner's point of view, his arm and hand do not get tired or sore, and he can relax, without constantly having to watch what his dog is doing way ahead at the end of the lead. He knows that his dog is walking close to him, and that any change in speed or direction will be noticed by the dog without the owner having to haul on the lead.
And for other people walking nearby (with or without dogs), there is the peace of mind that comes from seeing a dog properly under control, walking calmly along on a loose lead. A very reassuring sight, because they realise that the owner has put some effort into training the dog to behave well, and they are far less likely to have their own progress interrupted by a wayward dog.

Formal heel-work
By this I mean having the dog walking in the position considered optimal in Obedience work: with his shoulder about level with your left leg, close but not touching it, matching his pace to yours, and remaining in this position through turns in all directions. Needless to say, if he is on a lead, this must be completely loose and not used to keep the dog in that position or to "steer" him around corners!
Obviously, this requires considerably more training than the casual walking described above, and as I mentioned, it is impractical to require this sort of behaviour every time you go for a walk together. But well-trained dogs should be able to adopt this walking position whenever their owner chooses, such as when passing other people or dogs. It is also a primary component of Obedience work, as well as many other dog sports such as Heeling to Music, Jumping, and Agility.
Again, the best place for you and your dog to learn this skill is at a reputable Obedience Club, using positive training methods. The "old" method of constantly correcting the dog by sharp jerks on the lead, or through the use of "training collars", has been conclusively shown to be far less effective than positive methods like "clicker" or reward-based training. These methods teach the dog to enjoy doing the right thing, instead of fearing doing the wrong thing - a very important distinction which leads to a much better relationship between owner and dog.

So I encourage all dog owners to spend time teaching their dogs to at least walk nicely on the lead, even if you don't go on to do any more Obedience training. That simple skill (as well as the automatic sit covered in the previous article) will make walking together a pleasure for you both, and it will avoid detracting from the enjoyment of others. Happy Dog-walking!

July 19, 2011

Hacking hacks under attack

It is almost shamefully satisfying to watch the unravelling of a tabloid empire whose "journalists" and "news"papers have intruded so relentlessly into other people's lives. The fact that in many cases this intrusion was not only amoral but also (we now learn) completely illegal is more than justification for the finger-pointing and name-calling currently taking place around the world.

But the apparent involvement of top level Scotland Yard policemen and politicians is less risible and more depressing, because their job is to uphold the law and protect the rights of individuals, whereas we all accept (however reluctantly) that tabloid hacks are unscrupulous when it comes to getting a scoop. The flood of denials continues, even as those who stoutly reject the very idea of involvement one day are rushing to fall on their swords the next. It's become a ghoulish guessing game, wondering who'll be next.

Conspiracy theorists are having a field day, of course, especially with the as-yet unexplained death of one of the first whistleblowers. Even without the sensationalist conjecture, what faith can we place in an investigation by a police service whose own reputation has been severely tarnished by the revelations which he set in motion?

Let us sincerely hope that when the dust finally settles, all those who should be brought to account have been exposed and suitably dealt with. It would also be satisfying if all those whose tragedies were made worse by the actions of the greedy and unprincipled receive something a little more tangible than a PR-spun apology from one of the world's richest men.
If not, I think many of us will be seriously hacked off!


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