Learning with Arnie

Before the beginning

If there were two things Rowland loved more than anything else in the world (even more than a pint of Harveys!) they were his Jack Russell terrier, Jo and his Cob x Shire horse Cobby.  Jo had been with him from when he was seven weeks old and accompanied him through many changes in his car dealership business until retiring from it. He was with Rowland when he set up his Paddock Management business as a way to stave off the possible boredom of retirement and changed readily from being an office dog to a cab dog.  He was equally happy in the van or tractor.

Jo led a charmed life finding himself, as little more than a puppy, holding up the traffic by sitting in the middle of the busy main road in front of the car showrooms and being picked up on more than one occasion by the dog warden. But he and Rowland were inseparable – where you found one you would certainly find the other.  Luck however has a way of running out and after about four years in his farming life, Jo, now so used to tractors and farm equipment suddenly ran under the topper. Rowland was devastated by the loss and blamed himself – it is impossible to describe the depth of his grief.  Week after week it sucked him further in, until it seemed that he could not survive his pain.

At this point friends stepped in, taking him to Raystede, where they had recently found an adorable little Jack Russell, Dolly.  Rowland was really in no state to choose a dog and when he was shown two, he didn’t seem to care one way or another, but was persuaded to have a little Beagle type (probably a Harrier) of about nine months, who seemed very gentle and friendly and came complete with the name Arnie.

It was not until some time later we were to realize it was not just coincidence that he shared his name with the Terminator!

Beginners

It has to be said, Arnie was a handful when we got him.  Cheeky and beguiling, but very much his own man – or perhaps I should say his own dog…  Indoors he was still at the stage of chewing everything he could find whilst outdoors he was demonstrating strong evidence of his past as a stray.  Reluctant to come when called and determined not to be caught, he spent much of his time on a long lead, of which he took maximum advantage, invariably straining against its utmost limits.

Before we could start his training programme he had managed, Houdini-like, to effect a dramatic escape, the result of which was two badly broken legs.  However, due to our Heathfield Veterinary Practice and a brilliant canine orthopaedic surgeon at Worthing, they have healed perfectly.  A lasting benefit is that he will no longer go near the main road, which is a great blessing having regard to his continuing yearning for freedom.

Following his recovery he immediately started going everywhere with Rowland, although he was rather gangly for a cab dog and lacked the innate balance of a Jack Russell.  Also Rowland was so used to Jo’s tendency to stay close by he often let Arnie out without a lead and became angry when work was held up by Arnie failing to return until he was good and ready.

In the hope of getting a better level of understanding between them I suggested it might be useful for them to go to a training class together.  Rowland’s response was that he had taken a dog for training in the past and after a few weeks of abject failure to make progress the trainer’s comment had been that she would be able to train the dog, but not the owner!  So for the moment that door was closed.

We used at that time to go quite regularly to our local pub, where the Landlord and his wife welcomed dogs.  They encouraged us to take Arnie with us, saying the only way for him to learn to behave in public was to take him out.  Soon he was sitting quietly by the bar when we had a drink, or under the table as we ate.  Val had trained a number of dogs to a competitive level of obedience. Mainly, I believe Collies, but also – and more importantly – Beagles.  It was she who eventually persuaded Rowland to try taking Arnie to training and put us in contact with Pam, one of the leading lights in the local dog club, who turned out to be a near neighbour of ours.

Our local Dog Training Club is a great organisation.  All the trainers are part of the Club and give their training free of charge, with members of the club paying only a small annual membership together with session fees, which equate to a share of the cost of using the hall.

When Arnie joined the club some six years ago enrolment was for initial training in what was known as ‘The Course’. To become a Club member, this was repeated until the required standard had been reached.  However, due to a huge increase in the Club’s popularity over the intervening years, there is now a waiting list for The Course, with no automatic progression into the Club.

Those with some experience of dog training, who were often existing club members bringing along additional dogs, were already familiar with the routine.  Typically therefore, they had their dogs ready to progress after about half a course, whilst complete beginners may have had to undertake it twice to achieve the required level.  Arnie did it FOUR times – three of which he failed heroicallyin epic proportions!

Arnie started attending the course with Rowland, but circumstances resulted in me taking over as Arnie’s main handler.  In class I was absolutely clueless as to what I should be doing and would undoubtedly have benefited from doing the course without a dog, just to get to know the commands.  With the disadvanage of his wayward  spirit, combined with an inexperienced handler, what hope was there for the poor dog?

At this stage, about to blossom into doggie adolescence, Arnie was an absolute hooligan.  He ran round the hall as if it were a ‘Wall of Death’ and a member of the club had to stand guard by the door to eliminate any opportunity for escape.  He would round up the other dogs, inciting them to participate in his mischief and in the event he felt they were ignoring him, he had a bark that would raise the dead.  However, despite his bad behaviour his angelic face endeared him to everyone and he soon developed another bad habit.  Being pretty bright, it took him no time at all to learn that he could wheedle treats out of even the most hardhearted person.  There is no way to describe this ‘talent’ other than to say that he told lies.  Quite simply, he would sit in front of people and his little face would say as clearly as anything “Could you spare a treat? – No-one has fed me today … just a taste? – I am truly starving…” – and as sure as night follows day, titbits of chicken, liver or anything else available would flow in his direction.  I could swear on such occasions he gloatingly shrugged off a smug smile at me….

But back to business …on the forth occasion I really did think we had acquitted ourselves quite well.  Results were announced and I thought we had a real hope of being 4th and therefore qualifying for one of the much coveted rosettes, awarded only to those appearing in the top four places.  Arnie had ‘walked close’ ‘sat’, ‘waited’, ‘stayed’ and ‘recalled’ up and down our lane day after day – to the undoubted amazement of the neighbours.  So you may imagine my disappointment when we didn’t come in 4th … but perhaps 3rd?  No – well I knew we were not that good so as 2nd and 1st places were announced and my heart plummeting right down to my muddy boots and I was no longer listening.  But then, suddenly I became aware I was being urgently prodded in the ribs by a friend, saying in a stage whisper “Go on … its you and Arnie!”

A First Class Dog

It is beyond me to describe how extraordinarily proud I was of Arnie when he came top at the end of the course, but better still, he was now able to join The Club and go into the first class where there was a lot more to learn.  On the course he had walked to heal (or ‘close’) on the lead, done a recall and a one minute stay. To this he now had to add walking ‘close’ off the lead, doing a one minute ‘sit stay’, a two minute ‘down stay’ to say nothing of getting to grips with the new concept of retrieving!  But suddenly it all seemed easy to him and at the Club’s AGM that December he was presented with the Most Improved Dog Award.  Rowland and I were bursting with pride!

It is impossible to over emphasise the importance of getting these early exercises correct, as good control over your dog is essential if you want to take it out and, in training terms, it provides an excellent foundation for all the later work. ‘Retrieve’ provided us with something of a challenge, as Arnie struggled with the idea of holding something in his mouth without chewing it.  Although he was quick to run after a toy and bring it back, he would then refuse to give it up, preferring to turn every retrieve into a spirited game of tug-of-war!  After trying a variety of objects to get Arnie to ‘hold’ I found he responded best to a hide roll.  I am sure this would not normally be recommended as it could encourage chewing, but whereas Arnie had chewed his dumbbell to pieces and refused to give it up, this piece of hide seemed to just suit him.  Not only did he quickly learn to hold it, but also he would let me take it from him as soon as I asked him to ‘give’.  Once I had established a good ‘hold’ it was just a case of working through a range of chunky, roughly bone-shaped toys, until eventually he would do it with a dumbbell.  There was an ongoing need to compromise, as for years he chewed wooden ones, so he does still use a rather girlie florescent pink plastic one!  

Our next hard won success was ‘wait.’  Every time I gave Arnie his dinner, I would ask him to sit and wait before he started eating.  At first this was a few seconds, building up to a minute.  While he was doing his ‘wait’ I would potter around doing bits and pieces towards preparing dinner for Rowland and me.  We usually ate after feeding Arnie and on one occasion having been eating for five or ten minutes I heard a bark from the kitchen.  “What does that dog want now? – I suppose he needs to go in the garden.” I wondered.  I went out to find him still sitting in front of his FULL dinner bowl, waiting to be told he could eat!

Club isn’t all about work however and there are a number of social events.  The first we participated in was the Christmas Party.  It was such fun – in a light hearted dog centred way, with the dogs playing games such as ‘musical chairs’ which involved sitting on sheets of newspaper (as substitute chairs) when the music stopped, until only one was left.  To my surprise, considering his food obsession, Arnie’s greatest success was bringing back a whole Bonio in the ‘Bonio retrieve.’  January brought the annual Club dinner – the only event to exclude our dogs and in July there was what, to my mind, was the highlight of the Club’s year – ‘Superdogs.’  Like the Christmas party and Club dinner, this is an annual event.  It combines obedience and agility competitions in the morning with more light-hearted activities in the afternoon.  Having engendered much team spirit, combined with a healthy amount of good-natured competitiveness,  all are ready to enjoy a jolly good, well earned, lunchtime barbeque.  All in all, weather permitting, a really good day.  For us, the biggest problem was that being outdoors Arnie had to be kept on his lead.   Obedience was not quite such an issue, as there was little time to think of escape, but agility was another matter altogether, so it took place with me attached to him throughout!

More to follow …

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