Animal training – knowing when to take a step back

There are some days when I set out to work with one of the animals, and from the start I can just tell it isn’t going to work. It could be that they aren’t listening, they’re tired or just simply not in the mood for training – for example some days when I go into the aviary, Beaky (my cockatiel) will come over to say hello and will be very cooperative… whereas sometimes I simply get hissed at as he retreats into a corner. Recognising the signs and being able to take a step back for a little while is essential to successful training: to continue to push and ask the animal will only result in frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of enthusiasm in the next session.

I would like to think that I am respectful of my animals’ feelings, and Rusty’s agility training is always centred around her having a good time. If I introduce a new challenge, I alternate between that and something that she finds fun and easy. If she starts to get tired, I get her to lie down and have a breather. We don’t train for hours on end: I always stop before she loses interest, to keep her keen for the next session.

Recently however we had one training session that really didn’t work out, and I thought that I would share the experience (and my mistakes).

Due to me being so busy, Rusty and I hadn’t practised agility for some time. This had been a recurring theme over the summer, and every time I had brought out the obstacles she had flown around them as if she’d never had a break.

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With this in mind, I set up a new challenge that would really require Rusty to concentrate and listen to me. I wanted (and still want to) teach her to differentiate between obstacles as she is running, so I placed a tunnel and jump side by side so that I could start teaching her to take the one I gave the command for.

Rusty was very excited to see the agility obstacles out again, and I noticed that once I brought a toy into the situation (as I always do – she picks up speed when I have it) she became very wound up, leaping up at me to grab it and not bringing it back straight away after it had been thrown.

To begin with I warmed her up with each obstacle and she did them perfectly. Then I took her through the weaves and then chose either the jump or the tunnel – making sure I was handling her from the side that the selected obstacle was on so that she took the correct one.

The next step was to stand in between the obstacles and call her to one of them (I chose the tunnel more often because she prefers the jump and will always take it if given a choice).

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Until this point things were working well, but it was at this point that I should have recognised that she had already been stretched mentally and would either need a break or something easier to do. Instead, I carried on and began to move further from the obstacles whilst giving the same commands. 

Rusty became very confused and after me asking her a few times she started to become a little demotivated. She was still very focused at this point, watching me carefully to try to figure out what I wanted – but she was still hyper from the excitement of it all.

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I returned to standing in between the obstacles but she was very worked up and would no longer run through the tunnel, instead flinging herself over the jump a couple of times each way!

Again, I should have given her some release here, but I continued to ask and this resulted in Rusty trying to jump over the tunnel, causing her to stumble over. I felt awful about this, but she was up on her feet again and coming back to me as if nothing had happened before I even had chance to do anything.

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I slowed down and asked for her to go through the tunnel one more time (with more of a run up and handling her from the other side to remove the confusion) and she went, earning lots of praise and treats from me.

I then lowered the jump and calmly walked her round an easy route through the obstacles, before calling it a day and taking her for a relaxing walk instead.

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Rusty and I have had some fun with the agility obstacles since this incident and it’s safe to say that she has not lost her enthusiasm for it. When I feel that she is ready, I will reintroduce the concept of differentiating between obstacles and will write about it here! 

This experience definitely taught me a lot – it’s not something that I ever want to repeat but I hope that sharing my mistakes will help other people in their training. Always listen to your animals and don’t go into training sessions with huge expectations – take each achievement as it comes.

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Wildlife Wednesday – Roydon Common fungi

A couple of weeks ago I hopped on my bike and cycled out to Roydon Common – this is a renowned wildlife hotspot that is just a short distance from where I live.

We’ve taken Rusty there a few times, but have always stuck to the same path: this time I headed off on a different route and ended up making quite an adventure out of it! 

Having crossed a few fields, I emerged onto a sandy track and saw the following view…

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At this point I was a bit confused as to where I had ended up and was slightly worried that I was on private land, especially when a land rover came around the corner. Luckily it was just a couple of dog walkers who kindly informed me that I wasn’t trespassing. 

The scenery on the common was quite incredible: everything is covered with a carpet of heather and the land suddenly starts to undulate, creating lots of interesting features. There is also an old watch tower from the war still standing on the common – it was a little eerie in the mist, but definitely helped me keep my bearings as I explored.

I’ve already seen some pretty incredible wildlife whilst walking on Roydon Common, but one particularly fascinating feature is the abundance of fungi. Having photographed each of the different species that I saw, I decided to expand my knowledge and attempt to identify them.

I use the word ‘attempt’ here, because it turned out that it was easier said than done! If anyone sees any mistakes or can identify some of the ones with missing names, I would be really grateful if they would comment below…

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Amanita muscaria – fly agaric

The fly agaric mushroom is highly poisonous and is a hallucinogen. Its name arose as a result of a European tradition where the mushroom was mixed with milk and used to attract and kill flies.

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Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushroom
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Phallus impudicus – common stinkhorn

The common stinkhorn has an incredibly distinctive scent (when I walking on the common I smelt this mushroom long before I spotted it). This attracts insects which then spread the spores of the fungi via their feet.

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Stropharia hornemannii – conifer roundhead mushroom

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Flammulina velutipes – velvet shank

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call – stay tuned for more! In the meantime you can find me on YouTube using the link in the menu above, and on Instagram (@ wildcallblog).

Rusty’s collar

Rusty has worn a collar for most of her life. We first introduced her to one when she was a puppy and it has rarely been removed, except for when we have been grooming her. 

Recently, she went to the groomer’s to have her fur stripped (this is done about twice a year; when the fur is ready it is very easy to pull out without causing discomfort for the dog). Shortly after she returned, a piece snapped on her collar and we began to talk about buying a new one. However, once we took her old collar off and saw how she looked without it, we began to discuss whether she actually needed it at all.

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A lot has changed since Rusty first joined our family: we now have a fully-fenced garden so that Rusty can be free range without us having to worry about her straying onto the road or disappearing after cats. She is also now walked on a harness as this is much better for her neck.

At this point we decided to try removing her collar and see if it was really necessary for her day-to-day life and safety. Everything seemed to carry on as normal and at that point I assumed that it was the end of Rusty’s days with a collar.

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Around that time, I noticed that Rusty suddenly became very clingy towards me; she was constantly pestering me for fuss and attention, and while she would normally have a few cuddles and then race off to grab a toy for me, instead she was quite happy to sit for lengthy periods of time while I fussed her.

A couple of days down the line, my parents woke up to find Rusty in their room in the middle of the night! Rusty has never been allowed upstairs and this is not a rule she has ever broken. (There have been a couple of occasions when she has climbed halfway up during thunderstorms, but she always stopped and waited for us on the landing where the stairs chance direction).

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Mum sent her back down, but this was repeated several times over the next few nights. One morning I got up at about four to get some water and found her outside my door. It was very bizarre behaviour and we were struggling to understand it. She didn’t seem distressed and there was nothing that could have frightened her. 

This did seem to coincide with Rusty’s collar having been removed, so mum did some research and came across a thread on a dog forum in which people were discussing their dog’s responses to having their collars removed.

There were a variety of different opinions, but a couple of people suggested that the collar may be like a ‘security blanket’ for the dog (especially if it is used to wearing it all of the time).

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Rusty is quite a timid dog, so she have been experiencing quite a bit of stress due to having her collar removed. Long term stress has several detrimental effects on the dog as it causes the digestive, immune and growth systems to shut down: in a fight or flight situation this allows more energy to be directed into the response, but the dog should not be exposed to it on a regular basis as the its body will never fully recover.

After reading this, mum decided that we should put Rusty’s collar back on and see how she reacted.

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Over the nights that have followed, Rusty has tried to come upstairs once. We think that this particular occasion was due to the strong wind outside making quite a bit of noise. Rusty also came up to my room the other day when there was a shooting party close to our house: she does get frightened by this and it is normal for her to seek our company if she hears gunshots.

Apart from these occasions, she has settled back into sleeping in her bed without trying to find us – so we can only surmise that this issue was as a result of her collar being removed. There is very little available information about this, but it could prove to be an exciting prospect for further research.

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We will be buying a new collar for Rusty soon, but it has lead me to reconsider how I will use collars on any dogs I own in the future.