I saw an advert on Facebook a while back for a dog training day in a town not too far from us. It advertised heel work and recall and agility. I glanced over at Bandy Bot. Fast asleep on his back, legs akimbo, ears splayed out, a slightly disturbing grimace on his little face.
Hmmmmmm. I thought.
And I thought.
And I thought some more.
Two minutes later I had signed up for the course. If you are a follower of Tosta Mista you will know that ever since we adopted Bandy, his willful ways have been some cause of frustration and anxiety for both myself and Mister Mista. Bot’s ability to walk to heel is virtually non-existent. His recall is sketchy at best. Sometimes he is as good as gold, sticking to his little pack of Sock and Doofs and returning of sorts when they do. Other times, like the other week, he disappeared for over an hour. Getting further and further away from me, deeper and deeper into the forest. The forests here are big. There are no nicely marked posts, different colours for different lengths of walks. There are no benches dotted around, or information boards saying ‘You are here!’. There isn’t a tea shop to return to with a gift shop to purchase a fridge magnet. These are proper forests. Grown up forests. Wild and wily, sharp and spiky. Criss crossed with tracks and paths that can take you god knows where. Filled with insects, snakes and wild boar. Most harmless but most best avoided, just in case.
Bot’s exploration of the forest was the last straw, ever mindful of Chub’s death, I did not want the frantic worry of a much loved dog running amok in a forest where boar traps are laid, disused wells lie deep and empty, hunters shoot anything and everything that moves and yes, where poison is laid to ward off wildlife from neighbouring quintas and small holdings.
And so four weeks later we turned up bright and breezy on a thankfully breezy but bright day in the municipal park. Along with several other anxious looking dog owners we stood in a quiet circle, our offending dogs all being surprisingly well behaved.
Our instructor handed out clickers to us all and with the simple instructions of action, click and treat we started with simple sits.
I was armed a plenty with doggy treats and Bandy behaved impeccably. He sits like a trooper anyway. I think all dogs do don’t they?
We moved quickly on, the instructor was knowledgeable and professional. She obviously had a great deal of experience with training humans and of dog behavior. For instance you should never teach a dog a word until they can do the action. So repeatedly saying ‘heel’ to a dog that is constantly pulling is as effective as a chocolate teapot. You are merely teaching your dog that the word ‘heel’ means to pull hard at the lead, then to be pulled back only to pull once again. So you teach the dog the action. Again and again and again. Each and every time the dog complies you click and you treat.
Such a simple manoeuvre. You would think. But the amount of times I treated then clicked. Or clicked by mistake. It was like I had clicker tourettes. Click! Click! Click! Bandy cottoned on to the click and treat idea almost immediately. So every time I clicked by mistake I had to treat him. He was getting treats for staring at birds, for eating his neighbouring dog’s treat that had been dropped by mistake, for sniffing a dog’s bum and on one occasion for sniffing a lady’s bum. He was loving it!
We were then told to think of it as if you were taking a photo. Capturing a moment in time. This sort of worked for me. Action, camera, treat. But then I started holding the clicker up in the air, awkwardly. Kind of if it was an actual camera.
Say cheese! Click!
Jeez. I am such a buffoon at times. Tell me to do something and it is like a switch goes off in my brain. I mean it literally switches off. I can feel myself doing it wrong, I am watching myself and saying, “No, Tosta, that’s wrong” but still I carry on doing it. Cack handed to the nth degree. That’s me.
But anyway, I persevered and Bot was enjoying his never ending supply of treats for doing all things normal. Finally it began to sink in and finally we were able to move on to heel work and recall.
Bandy kind of got it. There in the field, with lots of other dogs and people. He trotted along at my side, looking up at me with his little apple pip eyes. My already soft heart melted a little more. He is the cutest of creatures and when he finally started to walk to heel I could of jumped for joy.
Recall was not so promising, in an open park Bot was never going to have anymore freedom than the length of a long lead. He came back, of sorts, but was far to interested in the other people and dogs. But with my click and treat skills finally honed I was certainly more confident than I was four hours previously.
And so with the clickers as gifts, a training manual and a certificate for Bot ( I personally think it should have been for me) we went home both happy and reassured that we could both do this together.
The very next day we started our training. Out on the quiet road next to Custard House. Bot pulled me along as usual, so I gently led him backwards until he focused on me. Click and treat. Forwards. Pull. Backwards. Focus. Click and treat. Within ten minutes of this we were walking forwards. Bot at my side, trotting along with his little bandy legs, looking up now and then for a treat. It was wonderful! Our first walk where neither of us were stressed. Both enjoying the exercise and each others company.
The following day we did the same. Forwards, pull, backwards, focus, click and treat. Forwards. Pull. Backwards and so on. Except this time the forwards never progressed. There was always a pull. So we never got anywhere. Constantly one step forward, one step back. We did this for twenty minutes before our time was up. Forwards backwards, forwards backwards.
Frustrated but not beaten we tried again the next day. And the next. And the next. One step forwards, one step back and so on for twenty minutes before returning back up our drive a little more deflated with each passing day.
I was so engaged in trying to convince Bandy to walk at my heel I never even gave it a thought to my village neighbours around me.
Going on a gentle and serene walk with just Sock later that day, I met two of my elderly neighbours sat on the wall between their houses.
“Ah it is the woman who walks nowhere!” Said one. “Here and there. Here and there!”
“But nowhere.” said the other.
And then they both burst out laughing, guffawing and cackling like drains, pointing at me.
He who last laughs laughs last.
I muttered it was rude to point and shuffled on.
But they had a point.
The next day and with a more determined attitude we tried again. And got it! Forwards and forwards.
On our triumphant walk we met one of the old ladies who had laughed at me just the very day before…………..
(I’m not sure what it is about trying to speak a language you are not fluent in. For me anyway, unless I have planned out my words carefully and for several weeks beforehand I tend to resort to the over dramatic. I turn into quite the thespian. Loud but short declarations with over zealous hand movements.)
…………………and so, smiling broadly and gesturing flamboyantly at Bandy at my heel I said the only thing I could manage in Portugese without prior planning.
“Vimos! Vamos! Vimos vamos! Mas olha! Agora! Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!”
(We come! We go! We come we go! But look! Now! We go! We go! We go!)
And with a sweeping hand wave in front of me to signal we were going onwards and ever forwards Bandy and Me strode on.
Heads held high.