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Dogs As Teachers

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I was recently reading an article in the newspaper about an animal behaviourist who uses her four-year-old dog to teach clients’ aggressive dogs to become more pleasant and less aggressive.

It’s an excellent idea as dogs, just like people, learn by example. Puppies learn from their dams incredibly quickly. If you ever breed from a bitch of your own and keep back a pup, you will soon be aware of it happening. But they will also learn from other dogs they are not related to.

My first dog never barked before the age of 2. At that age, I had to put him in boarding kennels for the first time. If you’ve had cause to visit such establishments, you’ll know they tend to be boisterous places, with lots of barking.

When I went to collect my dog after his ten-day ‘holiday,’ I was astonished to see him barking – I’d never seen him do it before. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Being surrounded by other barking dogs, it was almost inevitable that he would pick up the habit.

Have you ever wondered why packs of beagles and foxhounds are counted in ‘couples’?

It’s because it used to be commonplace for puppies to be attached to an older, experienced hound when they first joined the pack and were learning the ropes. They would both wear a leather collar, and the two collars would be joined together through a rigid leather and metal bridge about twelve inches long. Hence they were ‘coupled’ together.

The experienced hound would, in effect, drag the puppy along with it, thereby teaching the puppy what all the various commands meant.

Years ago, I remembered reading about a man who had a pack of springer spaniels used as sniffer dogs for either drugs or explosives (I can’t remember which). He had initially been started with a bitch which he’d trained ‘conventionally.’ But from that point on, all of his additional dogs were home bred and taught entirely by the dam and other members of the pack. At the time I read about him, he had about 13 in the group, all of which were trained to a very high standard, yet he hadn’t taught any of them himself for years!

It stands to reason if you think about it – dogs are far better at communicating with other dogs than we are, which makes them ideally placed to do an excellent job of teaching other dogs.

If you only ever have one dog at a time, then obviously this will all be entirely irrelevant for you. But if you are going to be bringing a new puppy into a home where you already have a dog or dogs (or of course if you are going to breed a litter of your own to keep back a pup) you will find that the puppy will learn a great deal from its canine companions.

Just beware, however, that the pup will learn both good and bad habits! It has no way of knowing that specific peer group behaviour is OK to mimic, while another type of behaviour is unacceptable. So make sure that your old dog/s already behave precisely as you want them to. In other words, you need to have done a first-class job of training them to the desired standard. That way, you can be sure that only good manners will rub off onto the pup.

If your older dogs are not impeccably behaved, I can virtually guarantee that the new pup will pick up the undesirable behaviour, too, so you could just be perpetuating it unless you work very hard on that particular aspect of training.

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