Harnesses and hotdogs

Being sent away with what felt like a whole term’s worth of homework was a little bit daunting, but I absolutely trusted what Penel and Laura had told us so there was nothing to be done but crack on and execute the plan to the best of my ability.

First things first.. shopping… frankly an area that I undoubtedly excelled at (and proudly still do)!

Although rather different to my usual purchases of clothes and shoes, I set about procuring the items that Milly and I were going to need.

1. Harness
I was already walking Milly on a harness rather than clipping the lead on to her collar for fear of her completely choking herself, but it turns out there are harnesses and there are harnesses. Milly needed the other kind. A harness designed to help reduce pulling and rebalance pulling dogs, with special positioning of the O-rings – one on the front (chest) and one on the top (back). Machine washable to tick the “practical” box. Fleece lined and fully adjustable for comfort. Very important because her and I were going to be doing A LOT of miles in this thing. On recommendation we went with the Xtra Dog Fleece Walking Harness, in black. I ended up buying a second one years later, so we could have one for training and one for “best”, and I have to say they were two of the best pieces of kit I’ve ever bought. They withstood a huge amount of tugging and wear, and although looking a bit faded from the washing machine, they are still in great condition and we were using them up to the very last day. Highly recommended.

2. Double-ended training lead
Sturdy clips at each end for use with the above two-point harness and extra O-rings positioned at different points on the lead so the length could be adjusted. Double stitched webbing for strength and fleece-lined to protect my delicate hands – again absolutely necessary given that I was going to be doing the equal number of miles to Milly on the other end. I got a pretty nasty rope burn from a different lead once when Milly got over-zealous doing laps of the field. Again the new lead came from Xtra Dog, and of course in black to match the harness

3. Clicker
Best friend of dog trainers the world over. Totally have no expert credentials here but one of the stated basic concepts of dog training is “instant” reward.. like within seconds of displaying the desired behaviour the reward needs to occur, in order for your dog to associate the reward with the behaviour and know that she has done the right thing. Obviously, initially at least, a click on it’s own isn’t much of a reward to a lot of dogs, and it wasn’t to Milly. So the click is to be quickly followed by a treat. Usually, assuming your dog is food-oriented, the treat is food!
Click ‘n treat became a mantra.

4. Treats
When dealing with very extreme behaviour you need high-value treats. ” Rewarding” Milly for being calm with a dry old bit of biscuit was never going to work. Similar to the practice when we were kids of rewarding bravery at the dentist with a lolly (I know. The irony!) but had mum said “if you’re a good girl you can have an apple” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been on my best behaviour. That said I can’t imagine I was every very good at the dentist, lolly or not, because I’m a really scaredy and a bit of a pain-phobe. Last time I went to the dentist for a teeny-tiny filling my dad came with me. I was 28.

I realise dishing out sweet treats as rewards is probably now totally frowned upon by the “snack police” (and by dentists!?) but it never did me any harm. And I’ve still got 13 filling-free teeth.

A high value treat for a dog isn’t a Haribo of course. But the canine equivalent would be something like cheese, chicken, sausages, peanut butter, spam (yep you can still buy spam, and Fray Bentos pies – which I have never eaten but am really really curious to investigate just to see how the how “pastry in tin” works). Our treat of choice for Milly was tinned hotdogs. Bought by the tray-load, I always felt I had to justify the sideways glance I got from the cashiers at Tesco as they scanned 12 tins of super-sized All-Star American ‘dogs every week… “training treats for the dog” I’d say…
Chopped into little slivers, these became another thing I never left home without.

5. Treat bag
Now this should be easy… shouldn’t it. All pet shops and online pet stores sell treat bags. In the basket, click to pay, job done. Alas like many things you order online you can’t tell the actual size of a treat bag until it turns up. When it arrived and I opened it I literally burst out laughing. I thought it was miniature. A miniature bag, for miniature treats, for people with miniature hands. It had to go back, as did all of the other ones I ordered. Apparently these were actually fairly standard-sized for treat bags.

I feel totally qualified from my hours and hours of click and treat training to pass judgement on treat bags, but not without reason or explanation.
Have you ever tried to get a sliver of hotdog out of a something the size and rigidity of a pop sock, with your frozen fingertips, whilst still clutching a clicker in your palm, in the dark, and with 20kg of “you’ve got seconds to give me my reward before I forget I’m supposed to be good” attached to your other arm? I have. It does not work well.

I pride myself on being a bit of a problem solver, and I think this stems in part from my extremely good grounding as a Girl Guide. I achieved badges for the classics: first aid (goodness knows how with my delicate disposition), cake decorating, arts & crafts, orienteering, stalking (meant to be used for wildlife watching, not the illegal kind). I was also pretty pro at making fires, camping, and various other practical things. In real life, I don’t do a lot of fire making anymore, but I still deploy my practical skills a lot, and quite often to think “outside the box” and come up with a creative solution for a problem faced.

Small, floppy, impractical treat bag was the problem…

Large, solid rimmed CHALK BAG was the solution! Designed for climbers to reach into behind their backs and get a fistful of chalk dust whilst clinging on to a ledge with the other hand for dear life (literally) I thought this was a genius answer. Lined with perfectedly sized bit of tupperware, I was onto a total winner. Had them customise it for me with an embroidered paw print as well!

6. Dicky bag
Say what?!
Dog in one hand.
Clicker and primed to delve in to grab hotdogs with the other….
What is missing?
Why – of course! – how am I to cheerily swing a poop bag?

The less glamorous side of dog-ownership is poo picking. I imagine it has been used on many occasions as the ultimate deterrent when a child is begging for a dog and promising to love it and feed it and play with it… throw in the trump card.. you have to pick up the poop. With your hand. In a bag. <silence>

It’s actually not as offensive as it sounds. My only recommendation is to invest in good quality bags. My mum used to order is the premium range from Mutts Butts… I actually have a brand new box of 500+ in the cupboard.

If, like me, you don’t have a third hand and aren’t blessed with a poo bin every 100 yards (there is actually only 1 I can think of within 2 miles of the house now) then I can highly recommend a Dicky Bag. There are various designs and styles of poop canisters, but I particularly liked the Dicky Bag because it was made of soft neoprene (wetsuit material) and so when loaded, wasn’t going to bounce around and give you bruises. In addition to being soft and washable, it also came in a variety of designs. If I’m going to carry poo in a bag then I may as well do it stylishly!

Very funny story that I’m sure he won’t mind me telling but one evening years ago when Rob was over Sophie sent me a quick photo on imessage of Rob “modelling” what Sophie had told him was Milly’s treat bag. He was totes chuffed that it matched the pocket detailing on his T-shirt…

I could barely stop laughing enough to pause and shout out from my bedroom that it was her poop bag. So so funny.  Just as funny now when I remember it!

7. Utility belt
Like a bum bag, only better.
You get the picture that I was leaving the house with more equipment than Bear Grylls on a survival expedition. There are no human clothes with pockets big enough or accessible enough to carry the gadgetry required for serious dog training.
So it was a DOOG (Dog Owners Outdoor Gear) utility belt for me.

Fully stocked and weighty treat bag clipped on the right with a carabiner, Dicky bag zipped and secure on the left, phone in the pocket, keys on the hook, spare poop bags neatly folded in the dispenser. Check, check, check and check.

With her smart harness and secure lead Milly was all set, and always eager to go out.With my instant access toolkit hanging round my waist, so was I.

That favourite phrase “all the gear and no idea” springs to mind, even if just for comedy value. In reality however, I did have a bit of an idea. I had my instructions from Penel and Laura, so I knew the theory at least…

Looking back I realise that I had previously been of understanding that “all dogs” need a lot of exercise. So long walks and, for on-lead dogs, long lead runs in the field – both of which result in a lot of stimulation.

Well – surprise surprise – I was totally wrong. Whilst it may be true that many dogs need a lot of exercise, Milly wasn’t in that category and certainly did not need and could not cope with the stimulation at that time.

Take a dog who is already wired, already stressed just to be out of the house, already hyper-vigilant and on the look-out for other dogs… She was coiled like a spring. It’s no wonder that if we saw a dog whilst out the walk had to be aborted. All that stimulation just built up and built up and the spotted dog caused her to boil over. It was just too much.

So the goal was to reduce Milly’s stress levels out of the house.
We knew that she knew what calm behaviour was.. as I’ve described before, her behaviour in the house was completely calm and relaxed.

So we just had to help her “learn” to be calm outside… it sounds so easy! And when you break it down, it’s not rocket surgery and the theory makes complete sense. Without boring you more senseless with the details, in the most simplified terms, it was rewarding calm behaviour that was achieved through a number of things:
> Short walks
> Avoiding excessive stimuli
> Rewarding being able to get her “attention”, even if for a nanosecond, with a “Milly Look” command (also reinforced with practice in the house)
> Acknowledging that this simple “training” – for her – was draining in itself
> Accepting that some days she just couldn’t do it
> Realising that – for me – it was going to feel repetitive and at times unrewarding and tedious. Not saying training was tedious – I was wholeheartedly invested in it and determined to see it through as I’ve said before. But to add context to that, many of our low stimulation short walks were had a few hundred yards from the house, on the A217 opposite the Black Horse pub. A quiet stretch of pavement, leading from nowhere to nowhere. Slightly setback from the carriageway. Fields behind, pub opposite – so no houses and no dogs. We walked up and down. A lot. It was good for Milly, and over time we were able to extend the distance that we were walking back and forth. But initially it was literally 30 seconds in one direction, rewarding “calm” and “attention”, and 30 seconds in the other doing the same thing. Do that enough times, in the cold and the dark and you literally have no clue if you’ve been out there for 2 mins, 2 hours, 2 days. I used to come back with her genuinely having no concept of how long I’d been gone, although it was probably usually 20mins max. I usually felt really spaced out from the repetition and lack of stimuli… I realise now that if it was having that effect on me then the idea was it would be having that same effect on Milly. The additional upside for her was hotdogs, whereas I was just getting really, really cold hands.

As with almost everything in life, it took practice. And sometimes it felt like two steps forward and three steps back. But we carried on and on, for weeks and weeks and weeks. I’d love to share the happy ending right here… that I took the instructions and the tools and we cracked it… but that would be too easy, and would be the end of my blog!

I managed to dial her down from being a 10 100% of the time, to sometimes a 10, sometimes a 9, sometimes an 8. It was inconsistent – she was inconsistent – but it all counted as progress in my book.

It was hard on her, it was hard on my cold slightly gnawed fingers, but together we were doing what we both knew we needed to do.  Our bond continued to grow even though we were often completely exhausted.

because Milly…