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You Train it Best, When You Train Nothing At All

With apologies to Alison Krauss / Ronan Keating and writers Paul Overstreet and DonSchlitz for paraphrasing  their song lyrics, but this weekend I had first hand experience of training without training.

Many of my regular clients have met my lurcher, the lovely and ever-so-handsome Cooper, and many more of you will have seen photos or read about him on here, on the Facebook page or in the book No Walks? No Worries! I frequently refer to him as The Idiot, he answers to the name ‘Doofus’ and when asked I will generally say he knows nothing, and (like the cobbler’s children) he suffers from the downside of having a trainer for an owner.

Last Sunday Cooper and I joined in with the Field Control workshop here at Developing Dogs, with clicker trainer and gundog expert Helen Phillips. All breeds are welcome in our gundog classes, as exemplified by the St Bernard, the lurcher and the poodle in the group, along with the spaniels, the retrievers and the HPRs. I was in the class, alongside many people who train with me regularly, and hoping that Cooper and I would at least be able to make some progress with the exercises, and that everyone else would be too busy with their own dogs to notice what I assumed would be Cooper and I starting from scratch with what we needed to know. After all, as I tell people, he knows nothing and I don’t train him.

The foundation for Field Control (and any training / relationship with your dog) is focus and connection. So, starting the first exercise designed to get us all relaxed, engaged and developing connection, I set off in trepidation as to how Cooper and I would get on, surrounded by his favourite things (people, other dogs, his hay bales, his field). To my surprise and delight, he was with me every step of the way. Switched on, able to divide his attention between the surroundings and me without getting distracted, working when needed and resting when not. He was truly Super Cooper and it was all I could do to stop myself telling him just how much I love him every time we took a break.

Super Cooper Settle

Super Cooper Settle

Reflecting on the morning I realised that I have been living what I always urge other dog owners to do – educating not training. I rarely sit down for specific training sessions with Cooper – occasionally we do some shaping via clicker training, or play with specific pieces of equipment – but every day, every interaction with him he has learned what I want and need him to know, and I continue to reinforce, strengthen and develop those skills and behaviours at every opportunity. I had a subconscious checklist of things to reinforce, things to manage so they don’t become issues and things to introduce to help him out and have worked on it without realising.

We had a little bit of a head start – I met Cooper when I was working on a research project at his branch of Jerry Green Dog Rescue and the first thing I taught him was to make eye contact, repeatedly, for multiple minutes so paying attention to me had a history of being reinforced. From day one I have built on that – eye contact gets me to open a door for him, or to give him the treat in my hand, or whatever else he might want at the time. Being calm gets me to put his harness or lead on – a massive predictor of good times for him and something which resulted in him demonstrating his formidable jumping abilities at first. I have rewarded him for staying calm and relaxed while I’m doing something else, and for settling at the edge of a training class while others are working and I am teaching. He knows that checking in with me when outside is worth it – I pay him handsomely in sausages for making eye contact, for staying close or catching up with me when he’s off lead – and I have been known to produce a tin of sardines at random times.

Every day in every way he’s learning, without me doing any ‘training’ at all. This way of interacting with my dogs has become second nature and makes life straightforward for them and me. We all know what’s expected of us. Cooper may not have many behaviours ‘on cue’ – if I’m totally honest he doesn’t even lie down on a verbal cue – but he can connect with me, choose me over other distractions, observe the world going past without commentating (a massive improvement from the dog who barked or howled at the slightest disturbance at first), settle in strange environments, approach new places with caution but increased confidence from when we started, and 101 other things that are default behaviours in his daily life. He embodies what I believe dogs should be – our companions first and foremost, and a delight to own. And all this without any training.

If you’d like to know more about how to create your own version of Super Cooper, suited to your family and your needs, then take a look at our Developing Puppies Life Skills or Developing Beginner Life Skills classes, based on the philosophy of Life Skills for Puppies.

Sian Ryan

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