Those of you who follow us on Instagram (@winston.woof) will know that we train Winston a lot. And many ask us – why? We thought we did everything right when Winston was a pup. We took him out in a sling before he had his injections, we went to meet everyone, we went to puppy classes, we socialised him with other dogs. So what happened?
Lets Start at the beginning.
We’re not too sure what happened, however we do think he was attacked (or at least similar) by another dog (we suspect a Husky) whilst at his day care as his behaviour changed overnight. Hindsight is a brilliant thing and it should have been at this point I intervened. But we were new to being a dog owner and I didn’t know any better.
Winston gradually got worse. He would now react to most things, bark and lunge at dogs, wouldn’t listen, his recall went, everything we had ever taught him felt like it had disappeared. All through this, he was still going to day care. I cringe whilst I write this because I look back and think, no wonder he kept getting worse. But, I’ll stay real with you all because we all make mistakes, we didn’t know any better and hopefully we can either stop someone else making the same mistakes or if you are like me, learn to forgive ourselves.
We then did, what I have now learnt as probably our biggest mistake……we got Winston neutered. Now this may not sound like a big mistake, but having since learned that Winston’s behaviour was fear based, us removing his testosterone, literally meant he’d lost any balls he had. (Sorry for the bad pun!)
After we had him neutered, we ended up not putting him back in day care. This was mainly because he was actually happier at home (well of course he was!). Winston just got worse over a period of about 12 months. We would now react (bark and lunge) at EVERY DOG didn’t matter how far away. He would go crazy at just the scent of any animal. I got to the point that I hated walking him. If I’m totally honest, I hated him. And that’s tough to say given how much love I have for Winston. But those that have been in these types of situation have probably felt like this at some point. It then became a complete spiral. I hated walking him, so I didn’t, so he got bored and became more of an issue. After one last bad walk with my partner, we decided we definitely needed professional help.
Getting Professional Help
I asked everyone and anyone for help. I reached out to all local dog trainers, I was given many recommendations of trainers. We were booked in for gundog training, not necessarily for him to become a gundog as such, but we were sold on this as ‘he is a gundog breed’. I put this on Instagram and thankfully someone messaged me (who happened to be a dog trainer) and spoke to me about how gundog training may not be the best for Winston. We had a long conversation about how Winston was likely to be fear based reactivity and that traditional gundog training wasn’t always reward based which could have a further negative impact on my sweet loveable Winston.
I had been back and forth with the gundog trainer but the moment I asked what training methods they used, they no stopped replying. This gave me all sorts of red flags and we never went.
I was then given another trainer to try. All looked good, brilliant reviews online so I emailed them. The response I received was incredibly blunt and asked me to purchase a slip lead. It wasn’t the welcoming email I wanted. Again, red flags started popping up for me. I then discovered through the power of social media that this ‘dog trainer’ did not have recommendations at all. The entire bank of online reviews were fake and had actually caused more harm to the dogs that had used him.
By this point I felt completely useless. I couldn’t even find someone that was able to help me! I started to do more research and more and more came up about Balanced and Reward Based training. More of which I’ll go into later.
I eventually found someone local who was purely reward based and took the time to assess Winston and felt like I had actually found someone I could work with. We booked into a 6 week course and unfortunately this person just wasn’t reliable. Sessions would get cancelled about an hour before it was due to start. The sessions we did where based in an sterile environment like a school hall. This wasn’t where my issues were. My issues were real life. Seeing dogs in the street, the scent of animals.
Thankfully someone took over these sessions, but it was right at the end and although we had a fabulous one to one session in a real life walk, I didn’t carry these on. I don’t really have a reason for this, I think life just got in the way and I didn’t do anymore with it.
I remember feeling completely useless as a dog owner by this point. I couldn’t even find a trainer that worked for us. I wanted to cry, I couldn’t do this, this wasn’t the life I imagined for me and my dog. If anyone is at this point my advice would be to keep going, because once you find a trainer you click with, its the best thing ever.
Back in March 2020, me and Winston were invited to Crufts. I didn’t know what to do, I knew Winston wasn’t ready for something like that. I felt a lot of pressure (not from the company) but from social media, from people wanting to meet Winston. Which I get, he’s cute, fluffy and loves a cuddle. I left it right until the last minute and decided not to take him. And I am so glad I made that decision. It was absolutely 100% the right decision to make.
This is where I met Fran and Lawl from pawsitive pursuit. Lawl brought the banter pretty much immediately and I knew these were my kind of people. I think its safe to say, from this moment on, I became their stalker. Due to covid I wasn’t able to book in as quickly as I would have liked to (because I would have taken the next day if I could!) and we got a session booked in for September 2020. Check out our blog we did on this here.
Where we are now
It’s been a good 8 months since we had our face to face training with Fran and Lawl but I’ve also been part of their online training and planning on seeing them again very soon. I record our training and progress, edit the videos and send them to over, generally asking for help on either what I should have done in particular situations or more often, asking for the next progression because Winston has nailed it.
Winston still has triggers, Huskies and Husky looking dogs (Samyoed, Alsations etc) and ‘starey’ dogs such a stalking collies but I feel much more confident in how to handle these situations. Although Winston isn’t ‘comfortable’ yet in certain situations, he’s no longer barking and lunging. I’m his advocate and will protect him as much as I can.
We can now settle outside happily in restaurants and pubs with no other dogs present. Other dogs still present some distraction but this can depend on the situation itself. We’re not quite there on settling inside these locations but something we are gradually working on. Reactivity to dogs is pretty much non existent. I have to assess the situation, how Winston’s feeling. Could I walk past on the same pavement as another strange dog, no, but thanks to Covid, this has made it much easier to train! But can I walk in the middle of the road whilst the other dog is on the pavement, yes. Was this possible 8 months ago. Absolutely not.
Now that I feel much more confident on Winston’s dog reactivity, we’ve moved onto recall. He’s got an incredibly high prey drive and a nose that can literally sniff out my keys and phone (our little party trick which has definitely come in handy in the past!). Fran and Lawl have given me my training plan and we are working hard on it. Within 2 weeks I have seen the biggest improvement. We went for a walk on the weekend and with the exception of a sheep field and an occasion where I saw his nose clock onto something (although he recalled, I felt I didn’t have the trust in him) the long line was dropped for the entire 3 hour walk. He recalled on every occasion, a couple of times he needed a bit more encouragement. Our next step is to introduce a stop whistle as he does have a habit of not checking in and would walk miles in front without even checking I was there!
Can dog training lead you to do the weirdest things. Yes. Absolutely. But I’m quite a confident person and no longer care about people’s comments. My neighbours say ‘I’ve normalised sitting on a towel on my driveway.’ I’m constantly sat with the lead around my waist and my training treat belt. I’m now also sat with the whistle around my neck and treats in every room for our recall training.
Car parks have been our best friend and the joy I feel when I find a new empty car park is something I never thought I would feel. Having a few months of hard work and concentrating on training has made all of our adventures possible.
If you’re in this position, keep going. The light is there and small wins turn into big ones.
Winston is intelligent, there’s no doubt about it. He’s cocky, he’s loveable and with his expressionist face, you know what he’s saying to you. I love trick training, I love getting him to do new things, he loves it and to be honest, it’s incredibly handy for taking photos! Aside from this, it’s actually helpful for health reasons (for example something stuck in the paw) or going to the vets.
Dogs do however, struggle to understand trick training in new places. For example, if you’ve always taught your dog to sit on a wooden floor and now you want him to sit on a carpet, you need to go back to square one. My advice for building trick training is to start in a sterile environment like your house. Once it’s solid, move to the garden, then your driveway, and slowly start building the distraction. I mean this actually goes for any form of training.
I couldn’t expect Winston to do some of his more difficult tricks in the middle of a woods with all those lovely smells to distract him! I’ll get a sit but the duration will be much shorter.
Trick training (and again any form of training) is great for a dogs mental stimulation. Winston hates walking in the rain so we may not go for a walk on that day, but with all his training, he’s just as tired.
Balanced and Reward Based
There’s much to be said on both sides here and this isn’t what I want I want this blog to be about but I also can’t ignore it. We have chosen to train Winston purely reward based. This is because he is an anxious, fearful dog and also incredibly sweet and loving. He’s such a happy dog and we have an incredible bond and I’ve found that reward based training has only enhanced our relationship.
I am fascinated by reading Winston’s (and others) body language. Understanding their emotional state has really helped me guide Winston in the right direction for his training. He’s now trusting me a lot more – for example, he would stay in a down close to another dog, because I’ve asked him to. I can see him looking at me asking for reassurance. And although I would never put him into a situation he wasn’t happy with and to be quite frank, nor would Winston let me, he’s learning that I wouldn’t put him in any situation that would cause any harm. He lets me know when he’s not happy or unsure, and I intervene.
Any type of training takes SO MUCH patience and consistency. You need to get on well with your trainer and be happy with how you are training.
I’ve felt so frustrated at times with Winston during training. Either I don’t know the right thing to do, did I reward at the wrong time, did I push him too far? I remember when we were trying to leave the Travelodge the first time with Fran and Lawl and Winston was so excited and frustrated that the noise from him was stressing me out. I felt so embarrassed and they stepped in because I wasn’t able to carry on. That’s the type of relationship you need with your trainer.
My final thing on this is to make you sure your using a trainer that is qualified and/or accredited. Do some research, where/how did they study and be prepared for any training to take time. You get as much back as you put in.
If you’re not careful, quite simply, you’ll end up with a fat dog. We’ve struggled with Winston’s weight since neutering and it’s something we have to keep an eye on. At his heaviest he was 13.6kg. He now hovers around 13kg but he could do with loosing a teeny bit more to be able to clearly see that waist.
Dog food is no different to human food. If they eat more calories than they burn, then they’ll end up putting on weight. And this can be difficult when some of your training means just watching dogs from a car and being fed treats without actually moving.
The size of treat is also incredibly important. Winston’s small, therefore the size of his treat is small. Tiny actually. I’m not sure Winston even tastes it as he inhales them so quickly but it does the job! So it may seem that I give Winston an awful lot of treats, but actually the size of them means it’s still hardly anything.
Work out the amount of calories your dog needs, work out what’s in the treats you are using and their food and stick to it. If your dog is toy motivated, you can also use this for training. If you need more help on this, I would highly recommend speaking to Lawl @thepetnutritionist
For training treats, we have to rotate (because King Winston gets bored if we stay on one thing), here’s a selection that we use;
- Tribal Sausage
- JR Pet Product Pate (link includes 10% discount on your first order) *affiliate link
- Natures Menu Superfood Bars
- Human food such as chicken, cheese, hot dog sausages etc.
Work out what is ‘high value’ for your dog and you’re onto a winner. Line them all up, let you dog go and see what order they eat them in!
Dog training is hard. We all expect it to be linear and for some reason it still surprises us that it isn’t. We have come so far and when you hear comments such as ‘you would have never known he was reactive,’ and ‘look how happy and well behaved your dog is’ honestly fills me with pride. I now enjoy my walks with Winston, I enjoy our training and most of all, I enjoy watching him be happy.
Without training, your dog will never change, you get as much back as you put in. I genuinely can’t thank Fran and Lawl enough, it sounds cheesy and those who know me well, know that I am no cheesefest. BUT they’ve literally changed mine and Winston’s life. Whether they like it or not, I will continue to stalk them throughout Winston’s life and any other future dogs because happy dogs and a happy life is all I want.
Find a trainer you work well with, who pass no judgement on the past and are there for you on the high’s and low’s of dog training.
I hope to do another blog in 12 months stating how well Winston is off lead, which right now seems impossible but it’s definitely something to look forward too. I hope this blog has given you some comfort if you’re still in that difficult stage of training and that you can relate. Let me know your thoughts.