SMOKE: How To Train A Puppy

Originally published: 4 April 2005

I hadn't always wanted a dog - as a kid I was terrified of them. Our family had one or two uselessly inoffensive mutts who would rather die than say Boo! to a goose, but they were so bad I couldn't call them dogs and keep a straight face.

As I got older - and my fear of dogs dissipated - I started wanting one of my own.

I made my wishes known and swore that one day I'd get a beast, but on one night in August of 1999 - my birthday, in fact - Tashi arrived home with one arm behind her back and a whole lot of fussin'.

She asked which hand, I chose correctly and suddenly - there before my eyes - was the smallest dog I had ever seen, staring up at me with the biggest eyes I'd ever seen. I wondered where the rest of the dog was - it appeared to be one huge set of eyes only.

It fitted perfectly into the palm of one hand and stared up at me with a mixture of fear, apprehension, instant trust and understanding - I know this sounds bizarre but I could see in that dog's eyes that she knew she belonged to me.

Maybe not in as many words, but she certainly seemed to know that I was the oke to speak to when she wanted something. Since then she's done a lot of talking.

She was petrified at first - cowering in my hand with her tiny stump of a tail wedged firmly beneath her legs. But I cradled her and wouldn't put her down for hours, and I even played her the new album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication - until she calmed down and nodded off in my hand.

Loves her Peppers, does that bloody dog (TBD).

As soon as she was released she went sniffing into every nook and cranny, sussing the place out, and it wasn't long before she learned how to piss me off while appearing innocent to others. I decided she needed to be trained.

It turned out to be one of the smarter ideas I've ever had, because Jack Russells have a mind of their own, I'm afraid. Not training one leads to inevitable disaster, and sensing this (and upon receiving good advice from Those Who Knew) I enrolled Mischka Tagg at the Western Province something-or-other, which held mass training sessions on Saturday at some primary school in Pinelands.

Yup - that Pinelands.

You've never seen anything like it - two or three rugby fields just full of dogs of all shapes and sizes, sniffing and straining and playing and fighting and barking and running and generally behaving like the bunch of twatties dogs actually are.

We had to stand for 10 minutes when we first arrived just to take it all in, and to control our laughter - when you take time to observe dogs at work and play they are highly, highly amusing.

We were in the junior class for beginners - your dog had to be six months old or less to qualify for that class and Mischka was only three months at the time.

It was the only class that was held in an enclosure and with good reason - all those little buggers wanted to do was run off and play.

I was horrified when I arrived at the enclosure for the first time and saw at least 20 dogs in it of all shapes and sizes, running around unbridled. I know trouble when I see it, and I was staring it straight in the face.

Naturally TBD was going berserk trying to get to them - straining like a mad hound that has been chained up for too long. Once I let her off the lead she disappeared at breakneck speed into the throng and the next time I saw her she was swinging from the rather sizeable ear of the biggest dog there - a Great Dane puppy - while he gallumphed his way around the paddock.

You've never seen anything as funny in your life - trust me. I've had my fill of Monty Python; I've done my Eddie Izzard; and I don't mind my bit of Denis Leary from across the pond.

None of them even begin to stack up to the legacy left by that image. The smallest dog there was swinging wildly from the ear of the biggest dog and both were being pursued by a pack of ravening hounds who also wanted to be part of the action, snapping at the swinging dog as she swung past.

The pair became biggest pals from the get-go, although later games were never as appealing for TBD - the Great Dane soon realised that his size gave him a distinct advantage over the young whippersnapper and all he would do was simply place one great paw firmly in the square of her back, flattening her like a pancake, with legs splayed.

She would stare up in adulation. That was about it as far as that game went.

That very first playtime set the tone for the rest of the time we went to training - here was clearly a troublemaker of note, and the training staff kept a very firm if faintly disapproving eye on her at all times.

A number of scuffles broke out in the days and weeks we went there and at the bottom of the pile you would always be guaranteed of finding one small, dishevelled but thoroughly happy Jack Russell.

Aged 3 months and a bit. Four months, if you believed her lies.

At that first training session my heart sank, because I saw no way I would ever be able to tame the monster I had inherited. But I was just naive, is all - I'd never had a dog of my own before and thus didn't yet realise that all dogs - without exception - are slaves to a tasty treat, and we'd been instructed to bring a bag of treats with us.

I'd gone the whole hog - we bought some precooked roasted chicken from Pick n Pay, and before we went I shredded it into bite-size chunks. I got snobby looks from other parents when I hauled that chicken out - their dogs mostly got dry Husky pellets.

The first thing we learned was how to get the dog to sit. Easy. Everything is done with treats, and all we really needed to know was that very first lesson - offer a dog a nice-tasting treat, and they'll sell their soul for you. Whatever you want, Dad - anything you say.

We were taught to take out a treat and keep your fist wrapped around it. You then call your dog over and push your fist into her nose so that she can smell the treat. Once she smells it she's hooked, and all interest in games and other dogs just vanishes like magic. You have her full attention.

But you don't give her the treat - you let her sniff around your fingers, trying to get it out, and then you do two things simultaneously - you say the dog's name followed the command you want her to follow ("Mischka - sit"), and at the same time you firmly push her bottom down until it touches the ground.

As soon as her bottom touches the ground you open your hand and let her take the treat, and you can congratulate her effusively while she's eating it.

Once you've done that three or four times you don't need to push her bottom down anymore - the dog has learned that as soon as her bottom touches the ground she gets a delicious treat, and thus she sits immediately upon hearing the command.

Simple, and bloody effective. The beauty is that it applies to pretty much everything in those initial phases of training - you give the command, show the dog what you want her to do, and give her a reward when she does it.

After just a session or two TBD was sitting and walking and coming when called and lying down - without treats. Once the dogs learn to focus and be present when you ask them to be, they learn that they must give you their full attention when you're giving them commands.

Treats are thus no longer necessary and you can train them without treats at all.

We didn't continue TBD's training beyond the toddler phase - once she'd accepted me as her master and commander I knew I'd be able to control her in future.

I was told by the trainer that Jack Russells are particularly hard to train since they have such short attention spans, and she added that we would always have to keep on top of her, because JRs lose their training real quickly if it isn't enforced.

But I'm a genuine enforcer when it comes to discipline and the dog treads a very fine line with me - always pushing the edge of my limits. She listens when I talk to her and always obeys everything I tell her, but she'll always push it as far as she can without being banned to the shower.

What I learned most of all in that training was that dogs love to be busy - training that young pup was an incredibly rewarding experience, because it was obvious that she took such delight in it.

She would concentrate like mad - even if dog fights were happen just a few feet away - and her delight at getting things right and pleasing me was what really bonded us together.

Not that we're bonded, of course - I hate that bloody dog. Don't get any ideas here - there's no love in this relationship at all.


All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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