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Clever Dog

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As you’ll already know if you’ve been reading this zine for any length of time, what I tend to write about here reflects the dog-related stuff I deal with on a day to day basis.

While I was away recently, I read a newspaper article in which it was reported that scientists have finally proved that dogs can count and can remember the number of objects they looked at. (The next day the paper carried a lovely cartoon depicting a man just home from the pub looking a little the worse for wear with his dog on the lead sitting behind him. His wife asks if he’s been drinking, and he replies that he only had two. The dog, sitting behind the husband’s back, is shaking its head and holding up seven fingers!!)

It didn’t take a bunch of scientists to tell me that dogs can count. Nor does any working gundog owner need ‘official’ proof. Most experienced gundogs are perfectly capable of ‘marking’ birds they see fall and remembering how many are down. Any mediocre gundog will easily mark and remember two, while many more experienced dogs will mark four or even more birds.

Although we’ve all heard of working gundogs, there are some other pretty unique jobs that dogs are trained to do. Here are a couple of more unusual ones I’ve read about recently that you might not have heard about before.

Cassie is a labrador trained by Canine Assistants, Rehabilitation, Education and Services, or CARES, of Concordia, where dogs are trained for various service duties. Cassie has been trained to smell the shift of chemicals that preclude epileptic seizures. Because she can detect it up to 8 hours in advance of an attack, it helps her 18-year-old epileptic owner prepare for the onset of one of her frequent seizures.

I think that’s inspirational.

And another I read in the Seattle Times tells of a 6-year-old Belgian Shepherd called Mike who’s been trained to sniff out counterfeit dollar bills. So far, he’s sniffed out more than $10 million in bogus accounts.

So what’s my point in relating these stories?

To illustrate the fact that dogs can be trained to do some pretty amazing things. They are intelligent animals, and they love to be given something constructive to do. Most will respond exceptionally well to careful training and can be taken to a too high level if you will take the trouble to do a few simple things.

#1
Build up a happy, loving relationship with your dog

#2
Express what you want the dog to do unambiguously, so the dog clearly understands what’s being asked of it.

#3
Take things one step at a time. Even the most complicated of tasks get taught in the same fundamental way – break the exercise down into a series of small steps, and take one action at a time.

#4
Make it fun, and be unstinting with your praise.

Dogs can be taught to lead blind people and inform deaf people. They can sniff out truffles, bombs, drugs, and counterfeit money. They can herd animals and retrieve shot game. They learn ‘games’ like agility and flyball with ease. They can even be choreographed to learn complex dance routines (if you’ve never seen it before watch out for it on next year’s TV coverage of Crufts – it’s fantastic!)

It makes you realize the sort of things most of _us_ want from our dogs are pretty mundane by comparison. It is coming when called, walking to heel, sitting, or lying in one position without moving.

To your average dog, all that sort of stuff is an absolute doddle. Honestly. Most dogs are capable of doing all those things standing on their head blindfold. (Well, you know what I mean.)

So why is it that so many people make such a total and utter hash of training the family dog? Why do you see so many dogs that never do what they’re told?

Easy. It’s only because your average Joe doesn’t have a clue how to go about teaching the dog in the first place. It never ceases to amaze me how many people assume that an eight-week-old puppy will automatically understand what ‘come here’ or ‘sit’ mean.

No dog can be expected to understand automatically. They have to be taught.

You didn’t just pick up a book for the very first time as a child and start reading it. You had to be taught what sound each letter makes.

Then you had to be taught how to put the sounds together to create words. And you didn’t launch straight into stories like ‘unambiguous’ or ‘superlative.’ You started with words like ‘in’ and ‘to.’

In other words, your teacher broke the process of reading down into lots of tiny little steps. And only when you’d mastered the basics were you able to progress and develop your skills. But even then, it still took you several years before you became an accomplished reader. It did _not_ happen overnight.

Try and remember that as you train your dog. It takes time. It takes patience. It’s a whole series of little steps.

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