Skip to content

Learning something new

November 24, 2015

A Joy or a chore? 

That rather depends on how steep that mountain is perceived to be eh?

I was blessed for a while to be able to live and work in the most astonishing place – up on the Brecon Beacons. Several times a year we gathered great flocks of sheep off the hills, and just for fun instead of work, we trained for search and rescue on the same hills.

photo Jeremy Bolwell

These hills were curved, pudding shaped, what you thought was the top often deceived you as you approached the false summit to realise you had only survived the first 25%. The rest of the hill was out of sight.

Hay Bluff, Black Mountain and The Offa's Dyke path from Capel-y-ffin

Hay Bluff, Black Mountain and The Offa’s Dyke path from Capel-y-ffin. Photo: Martin Mackey (3)

At times we traveled to North Wales and, for fun remember, stomped up and down the sides of Snowdon. Scared the crap out me – the top was always on view (weather permitting), hostile and far too far away.

Quite oddly the Snowdon guys used to feel most uncomfortable on the grass slopes of the Brecons – aka The Ankle breakers!

Learning something new can present us with motivating challenges or hostile threats. The threats can be felt because we are presented with an overwhelming amount of stuff. The peak of Snowdon for the lone traveler, unfamiliar with the territory or the easier routes, can resist the experience. But accompanied by regular climbers the journey can be mutually enjoyed and achievement shared.

One day trip to Snowdon we were faced with a quite evil route dropping off steeply on both sides. This did not fill me with confidence since I was under tow of an enthusiastic Gordon and I spent most of my time with my head focused on the next stone in front of me. But when one of my companions started to point out the small vegetation, microscopically hiding for self preservation, the journey started to change. We did make the summit, slept over night with Gordon firmly tied to me and enjoyed a dawn of all dawns, then the clag came down and we descended in cloud for the next 5 hours!

Depending on our comfort zones – somewhere between pure academia or pure practical we find ourselves learning something new. An academic can explain in language we do not understand (for me that hostile Snowdon landscape) but find a common interest that brings the journey alive. The practitioner full of skills and experience can see more than ankle breaking grass slopes and teach those easy step techniques that hill shepherds have learned over hundreds of miles.

All our teachers need to remember to turn around and enjoy the views – point out the achievements, see the geography, explain the geology and try to understand the behaviour of sheep!

Whichever hill or mountain you decided to climb, keep your feet in touch with the point of the journey. It is not about getting to the top – that may be a bonus, but keeping yourself mentally fit, taking a side track to look at a waterfall, feel the Roman paved road under your feet and learn something you did not think you would learn.

Come learn with us:

January Training  Thoughtfully: Jesus, Alex and I will begin with a topic, but most likely it will side track to a waterfall. We will all stand around, take pictures, ask questions, taste the water, sit under the Mountain Ash tree, have a sandwich and tea from a flask. Learning will happen.

Often it takes one small nugget of information that can shift the bedrock of your training and everything takes on a slightly different perspective. New thoughts come into view, the horizons comes a bit closer, and underneath that pebble that you have just knocked is a micro-fern.

More details on the topics:

January also begins the two-year online course. This may be your Snowdon, but the journey will be traveled with wonderful companions.

One of this year’s students sums it up:

I had a long drive today and was thinking about how much I am enjoying this course.( I started by really puzzling and struggling to think of a better way to teach poorly paw) I am enjoying how much it is pushing me to think through the topics at hand. Think and re-think, take in and ponder all of the generous comments and videos. It is not easy, but so different and so much more fulfilling than classes that teach a formula, or “how to”.  It feels so luxurious to have the time to thoughtfully experiment. I feel like I am slowly building a scaffolding of understanding which underpins all of my training.

I am rather amazed that this all has taken place in this “Moodle world”.  Although it would be most wonderful to be able to meet in person…when I see each of your names and posts I do feel that I have come to know you and your terrific dogs

Enrollment and more info on the online course. Christmas Gifts can arrive as learning packages – education is never wasted!

If you are attracted to learning-mountains take a good map along with you. Research your possible routes and options, meet fellow travelers and make sure they want to share the journey at your speed and will enjoy stopping and looking at the view. I do not remember any pleasure from the days of climbing hills with the super fit speed merchants that only wanted to get to the top first.

The type of mountain you take on is your choice, be comfortable with the learning style, walking or climbing or a mixture of both, a sense of achievement should be guaranteed.

Still laughing

April 5, 2015


Dreaming of new dramas?

Dreaming of new dramas?

Just a year since M arrived with us. I recall that first week of her innocently sleeping besides my bed in her puppy crate. I have fond memories of wondering how life will pan out over the next few years …

”On my toes” is the answer.

Yes, indeed Madam.

We can all have plans as to how we would secure certain behaviours, and then along comes a learner who throws out the book. She likes to learn her own way. She certainly ensures I go with the grain not against it.

After sharing videos of her tutoring, my learning, I think more folk at the Spring Conferences – ORCA, Expo, are “wise” about Gordon Setters. I now have my licence for surviving teenagers.

I took her along to a breed championship show in January. The entry fee is modest when considering how much learning and experience we gain. She gets to see an enormous collection of different breeds, some close up and some at far distance. All were viewed with fascination of course. To reach the Gordon ring we need to pass the Irish Setters.

Dogs at breeds show are shown in the morning, bitches in the afternoon; you can show a bitch in season, hence the second billing. Many of the dogs waiting for the Irish ring were young male boys in full Spring vigour. She thought heaven had arrived. Folk are standing around catching up after the Christmas break and certainly not paying attention to this Fit n Fertile Thing selling her wares by a mere raise of eyebrow. She handed out her FB details to everything she saw flashing her single status.

It took some nifty wrapping to make a string basket out of my 6 foot lead to manipulate her past and thankfully I found another way to escape the building.

One of the difficulties that youngsters experience when growing up is the ability to manage energy. This does not only mean understanding how to stop to avoid crashing into things, but also when to reserve energy for a later needs and adventures.

She can now, with the help of dark Winter mornings, start the day with a short garden challenge spotting every essence of the overnight visitors, and then come inside to settle down whilst I breakfast. This was not the case 6 months ago, when we needed at least an hour of adventure before we could settle. This involved a visit to the chickens ensuring the eggs were of respectable quality, apple tossing as we went around the orchard, chases with the nannies, first breakfast and supervising my turd-collection skills. A cold, frosty lawn assisted in shortening the outsides needs.

Frosty morning in the orchard

Frosty morning in the orchard

Through the day I mix short bursts of play and energy expenditure and schedule rest times directly afterwards. Six months ago evenings were often high energy opportunities to fly around the back of the sofa and fling toys.

Nature’s sedative, dinner, is at 4pm during the Winter, as soon as it becomes dark she does settle quickly for the evening and then is completely gone for the rest of the night. Nothing sleeps quite as deeply as a Gordon. The only evenings she stayed alert was to watch Crufts on the TV. Dinner will slide on now the clock’s have move forward so that her feed time is about 1 hour before dark to ensure I have some peace for part of the day.

As much as possible I avoid extremes highs of excitement and extremes of energy needs – such as long distance exercise. I also avoid long periods of enforced rest. Even when I am in the Barn for workshops she usually has access to the garden, unless extremely cold or wet, and the company of her nannies, Flink and Time.

Time overseeing his charge


She will travel with me on errands with occasional outings around car parks, or our local villages and garden centres. But most errands are 40-50 minutes of resting in her crate in the van. I like to think variation and the avoidance of extremes builds her flexibility of tolerating these energy changes. Adults have learned when to value sleep, rest up for later energy needs and enjoy naps when the sun is shinning. I wish we could “pre-sleep”, that would be more than useful.

It has certainly be an exciting year and also very, very precious. She is a wonderful companion and teacher, full of the minute-to-minute happiness and makes me laugh every day.

Her bedtime ritual is a drama of her own making. She has of course, a luxury Orvis bed that was tailor made for her body and it is her preferred choice for the night. But we begin with the stage being set as I potter around the nightly rituals. She rests on my bed waiting for me to dive in. Well, not so much dive these days as shuffle down.

As my feet explore under the cover they creep up onto her waiting place of leisure. Surprise washes over her body, not only ONE burrowing beastie, but TWO sneak up on her. We then have a passionate story unfold of stalking, hunting, pouncing and defeating the under-sheet army.

Every night. Really …… ?

Fortunately after her final curtain call she retires to Orvis and lets the “defeated” army rest for another night.

To drive or not to drive?

December 18, 2014


Drive is one of those words with multiple meanings, different understanding and one thousands uses and misuses. I may be perceived as getting a little too fussy over the words we use. I do not desire to be a grammar queen but will suck teeth when told “I do clicking”, or that I am a “clickerer”. Misuse that affects what we are doing or what we believe we are doing does not move our training forward. Misunderstanding of a word or protocol can shut out many beneficial options and misuse can lead to a confused learner and a disappointed trainer.

Drive flips between its use in respect of people and in respect of dogs and they can have similar or quite different meanings. We may be driven to work excessively hard, by our own ambitions or by others, or be driven to a state of despair. We can use it in sport: golf-balls can be hit by a driver, birds can be driven from cover. We can drive a hard bargain, drive home a key point.

Add our activities with transport and I count no less than 21 different definitions in a standard dictionary.

The ones of relevance in this case are the nouns: “energy, ambition or initiative”, and “a motive or interest, such as sex or ambition”. These have morphed to our field of training into a descriptive blend of the two for dogs that are “high drive” in their behaviours such as running in agility, heelwork or playing with toys. It also leaps into the field of aggression associated with high prey drive, neither of which should be assumed to have any connection.

On several occasions I have been asked to assist with increasing a dog’s “drive” for a particular behaviour or in general relation to training. This is similar as being asked to teaching a dog to “be nice”, or “be friendly”. The unspecific nature of such terms cannot provide us with a clear intention of what to train, what to mark, or click, and what to reinforce.

We may reduce our language necessities by using this short hand term when considering the dog or the behaviour globally but it serves us poorly as trainers when precision is essential to find successful solutions.

In the anatomical sense a dog with “good drive” is a motion that is powered from the action of the rear end. The dog appears to be moving with ease and lightness at the front and can carry themselves in balance because of the highly desired “good drive”. A dog lacking this structure will appear to pull itself forward from the front end, particularly in the faster gaits, often dropping their head to do so. It can indicate poor structure or a discomfort in using the power from the rear assembly. To describe this action in detail may be tedious by measuring the length of bone, angulation of specific joints, alignment of the hips and pelvis. But if we were attempting to resolve why drive is lacking we need to know exactly what angle is lacking, or why a dog is struggling to use the apparent structure with strength.

To explore drive and lack of it in training we need to find precision in our terms and description to allow us to focus on the necessary training.

I would prefer the use of several terms:

 1. Confidence

The dog has confidence in:

a) The Cue. When they hear this cue they are confident that they can remember it and respond without hesitation. This comes from extensive practice of comparison to allow ease of discrimination and keep the memory of the cue association fresh.

b) Knowing what to do. How to carry out the behaviour(s). This is based on careful construction of the learning and the components of the behaviour. When given the cue is should act as a release to begin the behaviour and the dog will set about the task with confidence knowing exactly what is required with no uncertainty. Teaching this confidence is based on a programme that suits this specific learner and the way they can learn without any stress.

c) Always being right. Knowing that when they respond there will no stress, uncertainty, anxiety or confusion. No punishment for getting it wrong, or being too slow, or going slightly off track by adding a bark, or paw lift or other behaviour.

d) Their effort will be appreciated. It will always receive reinforcement in one form or another. There is no fear that punishment plays any part of the effort. No “Yes you are right but …”

e) The environment. That if they respond to the cue the environment will not contradict the behaviour. If the dog is heeling with their eyes on the trainer they can trust they will not be walked into an obstacle. If the dog walks with you pass another dog they will not receive hostile advances or unwanted petting from people.

We are also part of the environmental support and cannot become a rule changer because of where we are, who is watching, our own nerves or inattention. We should be trusted not to become another person because of perceived embarrassment.

2. Preparation

a) They have had the physical preparation. They are on top form for the tasks and behaviours. Muscle development is thoughtfully constructed, fluent and easily achieved behaviours, stamina is achieved and there are no underlying injuries.

b) They have been mentally prepared. Training has included focus, mental stamina to reject unwanted stimuli, control of arousal and energy channelled at the right time towards the right goal. Excess energy is not wasted. The dog can discriminate between intense focus and relaxed focus.

c) Training above and beyond. The training plan has given the dog experience to a level well beyond that expected in performance or successful completion of the tasks. The training has included sufficient mental stimulation to keep the dog engaged and mentally active.

3. Foundations

These are the underpinning physical and mental skills necessary for the final tasks.

For a dog expected to perform they need experience of multi-environments that give stability in cues, reinforcement and chance of performance success. Reliable equipment that will not fail the dog when engaging, surfaces that do not present a hazard. The dog will build a trust in the environment and have generalised their skills.

A layered learning pathway that has built up component behaviours on a clear understanding. When expecting performance in the final behaviours which may be short and intense or maintaining a lower intensity for longer periods, any gaps in the underpinning learning will be exposed.

Experience that gives the dog many, many different and varied memories of success to call upon when challenged. Flexibility in training building strength, not uncertainty.


I have been told on more than one occasion that I am lucky to have such drivey dogs. [Teeth sucked, nostrils flared]. These dogs did not just land on my door step or drop from the sky in a drivey state.

Yes, they are easy to arouse to specific stimuli. This can be either and advantage or a disadvantage. I spend most of my training time channelling their arousal to a mutually beneficial output. Which means arousal can explode once they have run into the field but not before they have been released.

Yes, they are intensely driven to succeed at what they are learning. This is the blessing of training in the World of Always Reinforcing. Always. They cannot be wrong. In one way or another all learning, all effort, all discoveries are reinforced. This gives them lots of personal confidence to strive, explore, remember and listen to their learning.

Yes, they are always eager to train. This is partly the benefit of being naturally competitive with their house mates and because they enjoy their individual time with me that is the special sauce when training. Learning to be training mates has been part of our every day getting to know each other, becoming friends, finding what they like and what they don’t like.

I do not over train, 2-3 formal sessions a week with spontaneous moments of play and actions. Sessions are short and very sweet and at the pace of the individual. I do not compare the dogs or expect them to train to a specific time frame or agenda. I may be motivated by a point in the calendar but the dogs are only motivated by the immediate moment.

Yes, they trust their environment. I would not ask them to carry out a behaviour that had risk of discomfort or without being fully prepared. If I inverted my brain and took them to a school for a petting fest then they would be given plenty of preparation.

Yes, they look fit, fluent and balanced. I will invest my time and experience in building their fitness, no short cuts or rushed expectations. No unnatural movements and they are deliberately developed in what they are good at, not what they would struggle to achieve.

Given these ingredients and a good dollop to time drive will emerge naturally.

The dogs that I train now are lucky to ride on the shoulders of all my dogs that I have trained in the past. The dogs that I expected too much of in conditions for which I lacked giving the proper preparation. The dogs that carried me over my shortcomings of which I am now aware of and appreciative. The dogs that needed me to be consistent in all environments and trained me to manage my own emotional responses.

There is no short cut to building amazing dogs that can share a performance, a task or every day jobs with us. Confidence in each other is a two-way channel and a direct result of the time invested in training and learning with each other. There is a unique feeling of partnership with a dog, whether it is on a mountain side with snow looming over your shoulder, in front of an audience of 300 or making a video locked forever in time.

Forced, or pseudo, training for “drive” may result in paper-thin arousal combined with stress which is not comfortable to watch or ask in performance.

Train for supreme confidence, with comprehensive preparation based on good foundations.

Let confidence, time and experience rise the dog’s natural skills and abilities to the surface. They will not fail you in this.



The Age of Objection

August 14, 2014

We are now rising 6 months and there are signs that all the carefully, thoughtfully taught behaviours are falling apart. Despite maintaining and increasing the reinforcement “mass”, the behaviours such as:

speed control: “Merrick” = run towards me and plan to stop
responding to cues: “off to bed”= in your crate
separation: “you stay there” = as I walkout through the gate

are deteriorating.

As to be expected. We are growing up. This is the onset of becoming aware of “cost” to responding.

Cues are opportunities for reinforcement. Recognition and compliance is desired, but she is now able to make a choice between compliance: which may result in a loss or a cost to her, and non-compliance. Decision making is an essential part of growing up. It is a skill that needs regular practice, lots of extensive opportunities to explore the results of her decisions.

She can run towards me and stop, she has done this 500 times. Now she runs towards me with building enthusiasm and skills for a powerful launch. The disruption and response that follows is, to her, greater than the previously established controlled affection. Yesterday when I returned from a morning in the Barn I waited 12 minutes for her greeting enthusiasm to reduce to a level that allowed me to walk towards the house I was were effectively “pinned-by-enthusiasm” to the gate. Fortunately it wasn’t raining.

Me ... digging?

Me … digging?

I notice this launch mostly happens when I am not fully prepared. I am sending out different cues to the “I am prepared for launch” when I look rather like a goalie in a hockey game. I absolutely have to have both hands free and full concentration.

When I work at the kitchen table I make habit of “sitting up” to clearly give the cues that I am busy and this is a time for you to do your own stuff. For the last 3 months when I am preparing to be busy I empty her toy box to the floor to facilitate “doing you own stuff”. The opportunity to play with Toy Box B (we have 3, each containing about 15-18 toys & Items of Interest, aka rubbish) is usually sufficient to divert her away from seeking interaction. What I now get is punch with toy “Hey …Play?”

My left thigh is covered in bruises as this is the only point of access. I have upped the do-stuff opportunities with more interactive toys.

There are several times a day where she cannot accompany me. I may be taking the collies out for a run, which is too fast and furious for young Gordon legs. I may be taking the very elderly Gordon, Tessie for an orchard potter and she does not appreciate the fly pasts from Merrick. I may be cutting grass. I may even be leaving home. In anticipation of these occasions she has been accustomed to good bones to chew, scattered food on the floor to search for or a food ball to roll around. In addition I have worked carefully on the process of going through a door-gate without doing battle around my legs. All quite successful.

The change is occurring as her needs change. As a 12 week old pup the food occasions were Seriously Important. As her priorities change, coming out with the group is rising up her list of importance. What was once an acceptable substitute is no longer sufficient. Food is gobbled in preparation of Serious Objection.

There is a fine line in the process where serious objection converts to serious distress. My plan is to shorten the periods she is left, but increase the frequency. With Flink timing her season as well, she is able to have company rather than isolation as they are both left behind. I would like to think Flink is modelling good behaviour. (Hopeful thinking?)

The strategy of diversion from the process of abandonment is running out. Abandon will have more impact on her as her need to be included in group activities increases – more than a need, her pleasure. Exclusion is as difficult for a dog as it is for a child.

The reality is that life has to continue at times without her. I would be seriously upset if separation did not bother her at all. We choose to bring dogs into our lives, not cats, because they enjoy our company and resist separation. This separation needs to be handled extremely carefully and empathically. The fallout is a lifetime of distress for the dog.

I would suggest the stronger the connection the harder the separation. When I travel I have “distractions” to bypass the feelings of separation. I would hate to be left in my home and have all the dogs go away for several hours without knowing when they would return.

Trust is part of being left – the pups must trust you to return. Even if they cannot understand it. She has learned there are different types of separation. If I go upstairs I tend to return quite quickly, there is no escape from an upstairs window. If I go out the front gate, it may sometime before I return. She is learning to discriminate between the two “left behinds”.

Separation can also be received as punitive, a rejection from the group. Second hand dogs may carry trauma from separation for the rest of their lives.

The strategies include:

  • As much as possible I arrange for alternative entertainment that is of value to her. This may be a special large bone to enjoy that I have saved for the worst occasions, when the other dogs go out for a run.
  • I try to vary the other dogs that stay with her. She finds different companionship in different dogs. But I appreciate that these adult Merrick-sitters are subject to some fairly tough treatment when they are the sole target of her “affection”. This is normally a shared activity.
  • Good stuff will happen in a moment. This is the group learning where a treat or dinner will be delivered to each dog one at a time. I use the Your Name protocol for the recipient. This teaches the other dogs, for whom it is not their name, to wait for their turn. This happens at least 5 times a day for dinner, treats, bedtime biscuits, coming through a gate, coming out of the van. It is an understanding that she is part of a group that is not centric to her. A key element to transitioning to an adult.
  • Many more short absences from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. I may need to pop upstairs to collect a pair of glasses. Carry a plant pot to the other room. Previously I would have included these activities as part of her learning curriculum to follow me, learning climbing stairs and engage in novel outings. I would have taken the time to see this as an investment in training, associating many words with the behaviours. Now her learning is about waiting quietly, I will be back shortly and learning to trust that exclusion is not personal, not a punishment, not time out, but simply a “you-will-be-OK-here” moment. I did consider beginning with this separation protocol, but I viewed the exclusion, as a 8-18 week old puppy, would have been considerably more stressful than as the adolescent puppy. As an adolescent she is very obviously choosing to spend time away from me – hanging out in the garden with the other dogs. This choice and confidence was not present until about 16 weeks.
  • Super training. This is an increase in her activity level within her developing physique. No heavy tugging, bouncing, fast running or excessive repetition. Walking along planks and having to turn around or sit, searching for treats on the staircase and in the garden, running towards a target mat and stopping with both feet on it. Outings to busy high streets negotiating many novel stimulus. Learning is very physically based, not focussed on remembering cues or puzzle solving. Her body is changing fast and activities that she handled 8 weeks ago are now not the same. Legs are longer and take more folding. Bodies take more turning around. Running through doorways has got more complicated.

I am building a relationship, not a piece of furniture. At the same time these stresses are being loaded by the kilo I increase the connection opportunities exponentially. This is often the missing component. “You are still loved, but your enthusiasm for life has to undergo changes, but you are still loved”.

No, that cannot happen: running into the house, leaping onto the sofa with a shovel full of wet mud and grass. But I still love you.

No, that cannot happen: running around hanging on the washing flapping on the rotary line. Why don’t you play with this instead.

No, that cannot happen: herding the collie that she loves so much he can hardly move with her hanging off his neck, tail, coat, ears. Being such a gentle lad with no effective way of communicating “give me a break” he needs protection. But we can play together in this game.

“When she is 3 years old you will love her again”.

I remember this advice when reading our Gordoner newsletter. I understand the changing physique and maturing brain will impact on her behaviour, her capacities and motivations.

This is the age, 6-16 months, that most people will begin to despair. The age when dogs are relinquished to shelters. The age that most people have serious doubts about their training competence, their decision to have a puppy in the first place and how they are going to survive. Despite investing 3-4 months of positive reinforcement into their puppy it can all evaporate in one teenage week.

This is the age when people need support groups, carefully structured physical activities (that do not include letting an adolescent dog run free across the landscape), determination to see puberty as “normal” and not a failure, bad dog, or loss of respect. If you work with the growing youngster during this period you will both survive with a strong relationship and the sort of connection that will last a lifetime.

Parenting this adolescent is a learning process to be regarded as a gift. It is the time you will learn more than you could imagine about rearing dogs. It is the hardest time, the testing time but a privilege to share the journey of an emerging personality.


We now have a workshop for adolescents:

Support and tea in great quantities.

What’s in a name?

June 12, 2014
tags: ,
Sunshine first

Sunshine first

Puppies study their environment with high level scrutiny, they are like mini-video cameras – they see everything. When I pick up the kettle I will walk to the sink. When the alarm goes off I will begin to stir. When the garden door opens birds will lift from the feeders.

Along with their observation skills I add “labels” to all activities, as if I was teaching a child our language. John Pilley in “Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words” carefully explains teaching Chaser from 8 weeks old the names of her toys and the activity she was doing, as she does it. Outstanding results. Although half my heart belongs to collies, I have no doubt many other types of dogs also learn our language – given the opportunity to do so.

Chaser’s proven results means we need to be thoughtful about how many words we use, and when we use them.

  • Food on the floor

This took 7 meals to learn.As with any associative sounds it needs to be regularly topped up to elicit the response. I reserve this only for the conditions “food on the floor – hurry, hurry, it’s going fast”.

As a gang racing to the front gate to greet the deliveries I can “cuckoo-whistle” several times and drop food on the kitchen floor. It is not dependant on behaviour, but the last one there gets the least amount of food.

For many people this is the start of their recall cue. It should elicit a run towards you. Because I begin this with my own pups at about 4 weeks, there is a very strong response to find what is on offer. This is respondent conditioning. It is not dependant on the behaviour of the pup for food to be put to the floor. As I scatter raw mince on the floor, the pups begin to search around. I make my “cuckoo” whistle, over and over again. At 6 weeks my pups can go into the garden and roam around to explore because I have a secure “collect the litter” call. Merrick arrived without this response, hence a necessity for a Flexi to go in the garden. But with four meals a day, often split into 6, I had many opportunities to introduce the sound as food was put to the floor. She recognised my routine of food preparation within 2 meals, and I could begin the sound whenever she was aware that food was about to go to the floor. With a multi dog household, food was always fed in her pen/crate to prevent the other dogs having a taste. The “cuckoo-whistle” would then send her off to the crate in anticipation of the food.

Heaven - sunshine AND turf

Heaven – sunshine AND turf

  • Upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside


Every route we take has a name. To begin with this occurs because the pup wants to follow you, or avoid being left behind. As you demonstrate your intent, you will see the pup anticipate your route and go ahead of you. If you approach your garden door you are most likely to open it and go out, not just dust the back of the door. As the pup goes ahead you can associate the name of the route. Useful when you need to pup to go downstairs ahead of you to avoid congestion. Useful because the pup can begin to learn words and sounds.

  • What you are doing

If we program our thinking to understanding the meaning of what we want, not what we don’t want, this begins our path to co-operative living, rather than restrictive living. I have a particular dislike of the term “leave” in a positive training environment. We may just as well teach “stop pulling”. It may be what we want, but it leaves the dog in a vacuum as to what to do. Are we walking towards B or going away from A? If we label it “go away from A” the dog may never arrive at B.Control your thinking into clear action – walk towards B – not open ended vacuums.I now can associate a cue “I’m busy”, when the toys are attractive and engaging for self-employment, and not me. This is not “settle down”. That would be a very specific way of lying down, or a specific location – in the crate. The only recommendation is that when you are “busy” you keep one ear open for ominous silence …. it usually means something undesirable is being extracted from the kitchen cupboard!


Most pups need a top up of “are we OK?” every 10 minutes, when they ask this question, respond, give them 10 seconds of Okay-ness and then turn away back to “I’m busy”. (I think a great cue for this would be “go do stuff”)

At the other end of the spectrum, I want to be able to work, eat, watch TV, and have the pup nearby but not interactive. I am busy. This is definitely a “go away from A” and you can please yourself what you do. I begin this when she is engaged with her toys, or playing with Nanny-dog, and I will be in the same room, but engaged in a non-pup activity. I differentiate between: sitting up at the table (eating, typing) and sitting back from the table (open to a pup conversation).

Not “leave” but “walk on by”, “look at me”, “walk this way” ……

This is labelled at every opportunity, what you should not be doing is never labelled. As I leave the kitchen and wish the pup to stay there, with the help of the puppy gate, I give the label “you wait there”. The same for the front gate when I go to feed the chickens. Going into her crate as I close the door, in the van crate. This will develop to a wait on the grooming table, as I turn to collect a different brush. It directly translates as “short term separation, you do not need to follow”.

At 15 weeks she has a building vocabulary:

Hurry-ups          go pee, I am following you with the umbrella and in my slippers, so HURRY ……This is the classic association-by-doing cue, and is useful over the dog’s life 1000 times.

That’ll do            end of game time, toys are going to bed.

Chase!                Run after the thrown toy.

Ready?                I’m about the throw the toy.

Tug-tug               Let’s skin this rabbit, pull, share, tug.

Go find               look for treats on the floor

Each toy is being named: dong-dong, chicken, bunny, rat, mouse, tom-tom, cucumber, banana, etc etc (I shop at IKEA children’s section). Make a note of the toy’s names – or as John Pilley recommends write the name of the toy on the toy in an indelible marker.

Destinations: off to bed (upstairs to her bedtime crate), in the car, kitchen, inside, outside.

My older dogs watching the kettle protocol: she make hot stuff, pick up and turn right, we’re staying in the kitchen, turn left and she’s going through to the lounge. As soon as I make the left turn they will have headed off to the lounge.

Actions: settle down (she is very readable when tired that she is looking for a place to flop, this will be: first choice: patch of sunshine, second choice: by my feet, third choice: her own bed.)

Walk on: when we are out and about and she is trotting along focussed on where we are going. This takes familiarity as at the moment “walk on” is about 2 metres before we respond to wildlife marketing.

Positions can be labelled: sitting, drop, standing

Am I teaching her a heel position or how to stand in a bowl? Absolutely not. Our most important learning is communication, language, relationship.

Labels to emotional states

Absolutely. I can see her getting tired, being full of joy, affectionate, alert, excited. I look for opportunities to associate my future reinforcers. When she charges towards me with her toy for a play time I clap. Feeding her treats I add a “yummy”, I use a whistle sound for celebration.

Love Person!!

Love Person!!

Long before any scientist studied learning theory, the traditional naming of behaviours was by telling the animal what it was doing as it was being done. I have eighteenth and nineteenth century books on “dogge breaking”, and “sheepe dogs of the north” and this was the successful protocol. All writers understood that a stimulus must be effective to trigger the behaviour before a label could be associated. Move the sheep in such a way that the collie needs to move to their left to prevent escape = “come bye”, walk up onto the scent of a bird hidden in the grass = “steady-up”

For any action that continues over and over again you can repeat the label/cue, as the action is repeating. It takes an impressive short amount of time before the label can be used to begin the action.

Probably the one label that deserves the most thought is her name. The choosing of a name is worthy of several hours of consideration. It needs testing before the pup has any idea of its significance, it needs to be shouted in public. You think it to yourself as you are with this new soul and feel the “click” when you know this is who they are.

Child was “Merrell” for a couple of weeks, and one evening when she was sitting on my lap I discovered it was Merrick. A quick trundle around Google found “The Merrick”

“The Merrick is the highest summit in Southern Scotland and lies at the heart of the Galloway ranges. …..Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly”

Yep, that sounds about right! Scottish breed, knowledge, experience and skill to use correctly.

I have seen the recommended protocol of “say the pup’s name and give it a piece of food” become no more than association of food. Pup hears the name, stands passively and licks their lips. Huh?

I have no ambitions on becoming a food dispenser in my pup’s eyes.

I associate her name when: she is running towards me with all the joy and love a pup can have for “Person!!! Love ya!!”

When she is sitting on my lap having an affectionate cuddle.

When we re-unite after separation – our greeting sessions where we exchange promises of all good things.

When she hears me call her name I want an emotional response that encompasses connection and joy, not “got chicken huh”?

Merrick: Learning Happens Every Second

June 10, 2014

15 weeksNature has designed young animals to learn at an astonishing rate. They are sifting through all the information presented to them every second and filing away what is relevant, what may be relevant and what proves to be most definitely not. On top of this process relevancy changes from one week to the next.

The information is coming into their filing system through:

What they see and watch ~ many hours of studying people’s patterns, room layouts, garden birds

What they feel ~ through contact of their feet, their fur, how the air moves, sunshine and rain on their fur

What they hear ~ from kettles switching off, TVs, dogs barking, helicopters

What they scent ~ every item has a smell to assess, explore and memorise

What they put in their mouth ~ from toys to turds, it’s all about reading new experiences

At 12 weeks Merrick enjoys sitting in the garden observe life passing by. She used to only do this when I was in the garden, but her confidence and security has developed sufficiently to be able choose to leave me in the kitchen and take up her observation post. The luxury of a British June – doors open all day long. This is the same as every Gordon that has lived in this garden – the highest point with the best view, rich, passing air and sunshine of course. She regularly comes back to check where I am, usually bringing me trophies.

From her observation post she has learned where the Blackbirds are nesting, pigeons have sex at every opportunity (it is Spring) and the dining habits of all wildlife.

She potters around exploring the output from all the fine dining at my feeders, every turd is “smelled”. She has graduated from reading her own output, I can only surmise that there is relevant information stored there. Turds are no longer part of the trophy hoard, but we have yet to venture into the woods and sheep grazed orchard.

Trophies were acquired within a couple of hours of hitting the ground. This began with the bark mulch off the flower beds. Although fenced off for their own protection a small head was able to shop. Not a suitable source of nutrition for a 7 week old child. On the first occasion I swopped this for a tastier item – cooked chicken. On the 43rd occasion she had learned to bring me bark and on the question “swop?” she would go straight to the fridge for her chicken piece. Learning happens every second. That routine took 3 days.

We have matured from bark, to toying with gravel that tosses around the kitchen with great aerodynamics, doesn’t float in water (I even found a piece of gravel in the toilet bowl) and this week’s trophy is turf. Freshly lifted turf.

My available choices varied from punishing the behavior to reinforcing the behaviour and the rainbow in between. There are risks and advantages across the spectrum.

My developing relationship with is my greatest priority – far greater than any trophy, unless the trophy presented a serious health hazard. Punishment was not an option; I really could not care about a kitchen covered in bark mulch, a sofa littered in pebbles and shoes filled with turf. Punishment may also develop secretive trophy hunting where I would not know what she was testing.

Swopping the trophies for chicken increased the behaviour of her bringing me the trophies, but possibly not the behaviour of trophy hunting in the first place. I suspect that is reinforcing by itself, a part of learning. Novel items need to be explored for future usefulness and functionality. This is a developing creativity. Could punishing that inquisitiveness have long reaching effect on her desire to learn? Does the child that continually asks “Why?” questions become disinterested with “just because” non-answers.

By building up this aspect of her naturally curiosity and making sure I become an integral part of that behaviour can be developed in so many different ways in the future. We have an excellent carry back to me, with anything, her thought when she acquires q “new book” is to share it with me. Not her playmate/nanny, me.

I am pushing myself to consider that every action, experience, event, response has a purpose that can be of future use. I may not see it on first occurrence but I am learning to open my mind to the belief that every lesson is there for a reason.

Trophy hunting is about exploration in her environment. In later life we may put this under the label of “environmental enrichment”. At the moment I call it developmental enrichment. Along with her innate curiosity I supply at least 10 new “books” every day.

What does she learning from the activity:

Look at every object for possibilities: can it be eaten? Does it feel good on these sore gums (teeth start changing next week), can I build a nest with it? Does it fly? Does it squeak?

Strawberries are today's new story.

Strawberries are today’s new story.

Pouncing on it with her feet is a future kill-skill. Tossing it into the air is also a kill-skill – for particularly prey that can bite back – rodents. Biting it with different part of her teeth, at different angles are all part of the eating process. Bones just don’t slide down the throat unless rolled around the mouth in a particular way. Exploring new smells and recognising familiar smells. Bark mulch is no longer of much interest, gravel stones seem to be fading. I add to the smell-taste experience with foods. Strawberries and tomatoes are definitely pounce and fling items. Celery is a roll upside down and play with your feet. Crunchy plastic boxes and water bottles. Empty cardboard cartons. Rolls of paper towels, 6 new rolls of paper towels. (Shut the pantry door, was the human-learning here). Orange peel. Cutlery in the dishwasher. (Put the knives in top-down)

These activities are laying down a learning system that begins with observe, explore, scent, taste, carry, chew. Memories and reference points are a key part of life – so we do not keep making the same mistakes and we can learn what is successful. What is fun and what is boring?

At the same time I am part of this learning process, either as a consequence effect or as the originator. Do I have to teach her how to sit? Absolutely not. Am I facilitating her learning? Absolutely.

This IS nature’s classroom. A protected trial and error process that expands all her neural pathways for future learning. Protected from danger and trauma by supervision and safety processes.

Perfect childhood.

But as usual with perfect childhood, lots of cleaning for the grown-ups!


Exciting times – you have new puppy!

January 10, 2014


Better than all your birthdays put together. A complete package of such cuteness that your insides turn to warm caramel. A huggable, wriggly, kissing snuggler. Gaze affectionately at your deep sleeping pal and watch them dream of adventures in grassy fields, snuffling under leaves and sighing contentedly at your feet.

In anticipation of this living pleasure you blew your credit card to the enthusiastic pet store. A crate for safe sleeping lined with soft, cosy bedding. Expensive puppy toys scientifically manufactured to provide the perfect psychological enrichment. Food that would shame Harrod’s Food Hall with exclusive ingredients. Designer bowls that are just the right shade of colour and pattern to match the bedding, crate, cover and coat. A full wardrobe of miniature lead and collar, harnesses, jackets, brushes, combs and shampoos. Puppy pads for  accidents, extra fencing for the garden, a picker-up of poo and a lifetime supply of bags.
To follow the enthusiasm of your pet store you will be welcomed with professional enthusiasm by your local veterinary practice as they introduce you to the reality of private medicine. The gloom of future bills will be brightened by an insurance policy that will equal the equivalent of a small people carrier.

Three weeks of sleeping on the sofa should be anticipated to ensure you do not enter the nightmare of hostile neighbours. Puppies can scream for several hours, break your heart and kill any chance of your enjoyment of the following day companionship as they sleep soundly.


Six weeks of uninvited strangers fondling the cute package craddled in your arms. Your diligence at providing the perfect socialisation will introduce you to canine versions of paedophiles. Entire, large, mature male dogs seeking hormonal relief, with equally passionate owners full of absurdly mythical advice.

Nine weeks of boisterous playtime that you embark upon in the hopes of some quiet time when you may wish to go out for dinner.

Twelve weeks of life-by-chewing. Every surface that can be contained within the expanding mouth will be tested for taste, resistance to needle sharp pressure, nibbled for relief of boredom. That which is not fixed to the house will be researched for mobility and digestibility in both small and large chunks which may or may not arrive out the other end. Experienced friends will boast that lack of appropriate production will result in a four figure private medicine bill for the extraction surgery and after-care.

At this point in time the object of your emotional investment, increasing debt and loss of  social life will be planning their career path to Be More Dog than you would care to share your life with.

The illusion of pleasant walks will turn into a contest of wills, wrestling with ridiculous pieces of equipment designed to keep your arm joints in working order and a dog that embarrasses you at every opportunity. People that were previously gravitated to your package of cuteness now cross the road to avoid the pavement swimming, hoarse breathing, rasping, lunging, swearing alien.

A beautiful day at the park represents a frequent view of their anus and the finger-up tail as they disappear to spend three hours of cruising the local gangs and wildlife. A walk together is dismissed in seconds as their rising instincts sends them on a mission to seek sex, kill critters and eat rubbish in any order, or even all at the same time.

pups1Visitors find excuses not to come to your house. Dinner invitations have dried up. Weekends away have completely evaporated. Sales reps, delivery guys and your local postie have warning graffiti on your gatepost.

This bag of hormones will hump anything that can serve the function and respond to urinary messaging at every opportunity.

Playtime has matured to serious combat sport that requires dedicated clothing.

You are now ready to consider swapping this mistake for a loaf of bread. All the ungratefulness and lack of appreciation will dispel the fondest memories. You begin to take detours pass the local rescue centres. Can you stand the embarrassment of seeking help?


Taking on any young animal is a long term responsibility which will demand more time than you imagine, more expense that you could consider and a serious change in your lifestyle. That is the reality. Impulse buying the wrong sofa can be rectified if you swallow the expense. Impulse buying a puppy can result in personal grief for you and your family and quite possibly result in a very unhappy future or end the life of that puppy.

But, if a puppy is your life-goal then plan it well, consider the 15 year costs and benefits. Do the research. Visit dog training classes, talk to their clients, talk to the teachers. Feel the sharp end and volunteer at the local rescue centre. See the type of gambling you are toying with. This type of gambling is not just losing what you can afford, but destroying the well-being of another animal.

Research the inherited functionality of a breed, do not choose on kerb appeal or to compliment your ego. Reality is that collies can chase moving objects: every single car, bike, bus, lorry, bird, child, low flying jet. Reality is that gundogs want to hunt 12 hours a day though mud, pond, bramble and forest. Reality is that terriers can chase for England and kill ten Guinea Pigs in sixty seconds.

If you want a double-coated breed that is designed for living outdoors then seek a career with a vacuum cleaning company. You will learn more about the inner workings of all types of cleaning equipment and develop a seriously good tool kit for extracting the coat-wedges deep in the pipes. The insulating hair will coat every part of your house and have a particular fondness for all fabric parts inside your car.

Go to a breed show and talk to the specialists that have met the reality of their passion head on and still maintain that passion. These are the people whose love of their dogs is strong enough and big enough to see them through the tough times. The tough times are unavoidable, but with support, the inexperienced can survive. When they are three years old you will find you love them again.

Having done your research take a hard and realistic look at your life style and ask the brutal questions. Are you going to give up luxury furnishings, a pretty garden and change your social life? Have you neighbours that will ignore day-long howling whilst you work on your career? Will you be able to maintain the self-discipline to be up and out at 6am on a dark, wet, winter morning? Will you be able to give up the holidays, spontaneous weekends away and evenings out?

Will your love and responsibility be up to the high demands of parenting a young animal?

It takes an hour to acquire a puppy.

It may take many, many months before you realise that this was a really serious mistake. You may be able to walk away from your error, but will the pup?

Heaven is happiness in mud

Heaven is happiness in mud

The Cognitive Canine

Innovative reward-based dog training.

Gordon Setter Expert

We are dedicated to building a knowledge base and a sharing site for those who are involved in all of the various aspects of competition with Gordon Setters, competitions that showcase the Gordon Setter’s Beauty, Brains and Bird-Sense.

equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people


the science, art and magic of horse training

Mo Costandi

Neuroscience writer


What my dogs teach me.