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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


Dog agility – more jumping exercises

Recently I have felt that I’ve been lacking in inspiration for Rusty’s agility training, so it sort of ground to a bit of a halt for a while. We were working on improving her technique with the weave poles and tunnel, however she is an intelligent dog and as a result quickly becomes bored with simple repetitions of an obstacle. I can add in other things and create sequences but due to her inexperience with the weaves in particular I have to ensure that her approach to the weave poles is straight and easy for her to see – unfortunately this does limit what we can do, especially with our few pieces of equipment.


Over the past couple of days I set up the weaves and some jumps with the intention of just having a play to keep her feeling enthusiastic about her training.

It’s actually quite amazing how versatile a set of three jumps can be: there is a huge number of different arrangements of varying difficulties that can be set out, and even when I think I have exhausted all of the standard sequences, there really is no harm in just making something up and then figuring out how to handle it.


The diagram below shows one of the exercises we practised. The red route drawn on is the easier of the two options I have shown – although this did still require skills which take time to learn. These include 180 degree turns and rear crosses (both of which I have written about previously).

Agility layout for blog

The first jump is very simple: I can just direct Rusty to it – however then I have to curve my body away a bit and head along the line of jumps to encourage her to turn and come back across the second jump. For the third jump, things become even more complicated as I have to ask Rusty for another 180 degree turn, but I am on the wrong side of the jumps and on the wrong side of Rusty to be able to ask properly. Needless to say, we’ve been struggling a bit with this!

So far, the best I have managed to do is to perform a rear cross (where I cross Rusty’s path behind her as she runs) and then ask her to swing back to the third jump. As you will be able to see from the video at the end of this post, this isn’t particularly smooth but I feel that with practice it may become easier.

The blue route is even trickier… I ask Rusty to jump the first hurdle, then wrap round the jump and jump the second in the same direction. This is then repeated for the third jump. Again, I can’t seem to handle this in a way that makes it a smooth sequence. I have a feeling that this may be because Rusty is constantly looking at me for instruction at the moment, and I really need her to look at where she is going more.

In fact, the other day she was so fixated on me that she walked into a chair! I use a combination of treats and toys as rewards for agility, and I am wondering whether me carrying the tennis ball more frequently is the reason for her increased attention. Although I have been doing this for a while with no problems, I may experiment with using a different reward to see if that helps her – I really do need her to watch her step on the course as it could potentially be dangerous if she doesn’t.


The video below shows our training recently – there are some other clips in there of the weaves and some other simple jumping exercises as well.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call, stay tuned for more!


A long walk with Max

On Monday I took Max for our last walk together before I headed home for Easter. The weather was incredible and we had a fantastic time, so much so that I just had to write about it!


As Max now knows me better and is starting to take confidence from me, I decided that we would leave the park and venture out to a new place. However, this plan of mine involved crossing and walking along a couple of really busy roads, so I was a little worried that we might encounter some problems.

I meet Max’s owner near the park, so to begin with we just walked back through past the lake and along the quieter roads: due to the sunshine there were quite a lot of people around but Max was on his best behaviour, which made me feel more confident when we stepped out onto Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe!).


At the traffic lights Max showed some signs of being anxious – he cowered away from people walking past and initially did not want to cross between the buses and cars that were waiting, however with a little encouragement he then leapt forward and proceeded to drag me until we had reached a quieter area again.

To be honest I was incredibly relieved that that was the worst he did – I had been wondering whether he might revert to his old trick of leaping up and twisting away from me (it is difficult to hold onto the lead when he does that). I do think however that he used to do that because he was afraid to be close to me, whereas now he comes bounding up to me when I collect him, and is happy for me to fuss him.

Once we were off the roads altogether, I let him have a bit more freedom on the lead and he really settled down. The path we were on is popular with cyclists, so I did have to keep bringing him back to me to get out of their way, but he was well behaved and didn’t do anything silly.

We were out walking for a couple of hours, and unfortunately on the way back we got caught up with a load of parents picking their children up from school.

As I walked past a particular group of people, I called out to let them know I was behind them. One woman turned around and instantly jumped away from Max; I could see that she was quite afraid of him. This really made me realise how much he feeds off the people that are around him – he in turn flinched away from her and began to really pull and lean on the lead again.


On our way back, I decided to stop by at my flat to drop my coat off (I hadn’t really needed it in the first place so had carried it for most of the walk). I’m not technically supposed to take animals into halls, but there weren’t any people around who would have reported me so I snuck him in…

Max had also become quite warm, so sitting him in the kitchen for a few minutes allowed him to cool down.

A couple of my flatmates came in while I was there and they immediately came over to see Max, stretching their hands out to touch him. At first he flinched and tried to back away, but it only took him a couple of minutes and then he was fine – he actually ended up really enjoying all of the fuss he got!


This was amazing to watch, as when I first met him in November he wouldn’t come near for me ages, and our first walks together were really stressful because he didn’t want to be near me or any other people that we passed. I couldn’t even walk in parts of the park that were close to the road without him becoming anxious.

It is true what people say, building a bond with a rescue dog is incredibly rewarding.


Introducing Max

I really miss spending time with Rusty when I am in Manchester but I can’t keep my own dog here, so a couple of months ago I decided to look for an alternative. There is a website called ‘BorrowMyDoggy’, which is a great way for busy dog owners to meet people who would like a dog, but aren’t able to have one.

I joined, and after browsing through many potential canine friends I contacted the owner of a young Siberian husky. So… let me introduce Max!


He is about a year and half old, and is a rescue dog – as a result of this he can be quite nervous of people (the first time I met him he wouldn’t let me touch him for the first half hour) so his owner would like him to have more time socialising with different humans.

I realised when I began walking him on my own that he was going to be a challenge to handle at times, but I am becoming increasingly interested in the behaviour and training of animals so this is a fantastic opportunity for me to get hands on!

Our first few walks were pretty difficult and a couple of times it crossed my mind that I may have bitten off more than I could chew, as he was basically just dragging me around the park and not showing any signs of responding to what I was saying. He is on an extendable lead as his recall isn’t that great, but if I had to bring him closer to me when passing other people and dogs he would leap and twist away. I went home with aching arms! (He is on a harness to spare his neck).


Upon arriving back in Manchester after the Christmas break, I decided to buy a few dog treats and took a small number in my pocket on our walk. When I first presented one to him he showed no interest whatsoever, however with a bit of patience he eventually tried it and discovered that he actually quite enjoyed it.

This was a bit of a turning point for me. Whilst I didn’t want to completely rely on treats, it really helped me that he knew I had them – amazingly the next time I called him he came running! The video below shows me repeating this (this was taken on my phone, hopefully soon I’ll have some better footage). As you can see, he was still slightly wary of me touching him.

His owner usually leaves him with me for a couple of hours at a time, so I have begun to spend some of it trying to use up his energy before attempting to gain his attention. With a bit of encouragement I found I could actually get him to run circles around me – this was much better as it avoided him launching himself against the lead and wrenching my arms. After a considerable amount of time he really showed signs of calming down and this proved to be the best time for me to attempt to interact with him.


However, after seeing a few tasty treats appearing from my pockets, Max’s behaviour changed slightly and he started to pester me, even leaping on me at one point… He is not an aggressive dog in any way, but I think that he was testing me to see if I would tolerate him invading my personal space like that!

All it took to deter him was for me to be little bit more assertive: I stood up tall, looked at him and told him no. He tried this trick a few times but soon realised that it wasn’t going to have any effect.

This really highlighted the importance of only giving treats when they are deserved – Max always has to do something good to earn one.


I haven’t walked Max for a little while now as his owner and I have been a bit too busy to find a time that suits both of us, but hopefully I will see him tomorrow afternoon. If everything goes according to plan, I should have some more videos to share; these will be uploaded to my YouTube channel, the link to which can be found using the menu at the top of the page.


‘Dangerous’ dogs – the problem with dog stereotypes

Recently in Manchester there was an incident with a Staffordshire bull terrier attacking a puppy in a park. Sadly the puppy died at the scene.

I was in the park when this happened, but I wasn’t actually aware of what was going on – some other dog owners informed me afterwards.

The likely outcome of this is that the staffy will be put down.

I am a strong believer that a dog’s breed should not be used to determine its temperament and I am all for trying to break the staffy stereotype, but it is this kind of incident that reinforces people’s fear of particular dog breeds and it only takes one experience of this kind to completely destroy confidence around our canine friends.


Unfortunately the staffy is caught up in what is known as the ‘staffy status cycle’: following an incident involving a staffy, the media publicise it and this generates fear. Some people then buy staffies for the status – unfortunately in many cases this results in poor training, which leads to the dogs ending up in rescue centres due to them being abandoned, or it leads to serious incidents occurring (which then reinforce the status).

Other potential dog owners then overlook the breed because they believe it to be dangerous, or because they do not want to be associated with the stereotypical staffy owners.


To break this cycle, we need more responsible owners to adopt staffies from rescue centres, or even to buy staffy puppies (although the latter also fuels the excessive breeding of these dogs, which is another contributing factor to the huge number of unwanted dogs).


However even with sensible owners and good training, there are some people who still believe that the Staffordshire bull terrier is a dangerous dog. The truth is that more people go to hospital each year in the UK with labrador bites than any other dog breed – the reason that staffies make it into the papers is because they tend to bite the upper parts of the body – particularly the face – and hold on, causing more injuries that are more severe.

The staffy isn’t the first dog to have gone through this process and have developed a bad name – rottweilers, dobermans and German shepherds have all fallen victim to it in the past. Whilst people are still wary of these dogs, their place in the status cycle has now been filled by the staffy.

(As you might be able to tell I don’t actually have any photographs of staffies, however I do have one of me having a cuddle with a very soft rottweiler! She is a perfect example of why you should never judge a dog’s character based on its breed.)


We have had a couple of incidents where dogs have gone for Rusty, and neither of them involved breeds which are generally considered to be ‘dangerous’…

The first was when I was only about fourteen; there was a labradoodle in our village that had been poorly trained and had no respect for his owner. Gradually over several weeks the situation between him and Rusty escalated – it began with him following us on our walks and then lead onto him becoming quite dominant, which was followed by him leaping up and biting Rusty.

I say ‘leaping up’, because I had made a bit of a mistake… in seeing this dog heading towards us, I had lifted Rusty up into my arms. It didn’t take me long to realise why that was not such a good idea!

Luckily he didn’t seem to be too intent in his attack and Rusty walked away unharmed. Unfortunately however his behaviour did worsen and he badly injured my friend’s whippet a few weeks later.


The second time Rusty was attacked was by a small Patterdale terrier which was also out of control – this time things became a little bit more vicious. I managed to separate the dogs using my foot and when the owner finally appeared to help (kicking the terrier in the ribs as punishment!) we walked away a little shaken but uninjured.

Neither of these incidents was due to the breed of dog – both were results of poor training and the owners not bothering to put their dogs on leads. The point I am trying to make here is that staffies, rottweilers, and other dogs marked with the ‘dangerous’ label are no more of a risk than any other breed – it is all about how disciplined they are.


I hope that one day I can work with rescue dogs to provide more evidence for this – there are so many staffies in rescue centres; they deserve more of a chance!


Winter agility training

Over the Christmas break, Rusty and I had a few agility training sessions in the garden. She hadn’t practised in about six weeks but still amazed me with how much she could remember!

I thought that I would set up a few different types of jumps for a bit of fun – normally we just have straight jumps as these are quick and easy to set up, however in competitions a variety of obstacles can be found so it only makes sense to incorporate them. (I had to improvise a bit when building these jumps as we are quite limited with equipment!)


Straight jumps – these are the most common found on an agility course and are often placed in sequences with tight angles and complex manoeuvres. They can have wings or may be without – both options can present problems to the handler.


With wingless jumps it is very easy for the dog to ‘half jump’ it, where they sort of hop over the very edge and leave the handler wondering whether that counted or if they should be taken back to do it again! In particular this occurs when the dog has come into the jump on a tight turn, or can see that they will be expected to make one after landing.

In a competition there are three other types of jumps that are usually found just once in a course; these add a bit more interest to jumping as they require the dog to think a little more about how they are tackling the obstacles (instead of just treating each one as the same).

Spread jumps are the same height as straights, but have an added factor of length as well – this means that the dog has to make quite a big leap in order to clear the jump. A straight approach is favourable with this jump as coming into it on too much of an angle could result in the highest pole being caught by their back legs.


Long jumps are low to the ground but have a much greater length than any other jumps in the course (the clue is in the name!). When training this jump it is advisable to begin with a short distance and gradually extend it so that the dog learns not to put any paws down in the middle. Normally this type of jump would consist of wooden or plastic planks lined up next to each other, but I had to make do with what you can see in the pictures below…

The final jump type is the tyre jump – this is quite a fun one although it is common place for run-outs. (Tyre jumps found in competitions are raised quite high off the ground which allows room for the dog to run underneath – Rusty was guilty of this when we used to go to agility classes!)


Another exercise we had a play around with was the pinwheel. This is sometimes seen on competition courses, but is also a useful activity for general training: I have worked on this multiple times with Rusty before and have seen noticeable improvements in her ability to find and ‘lock onto’ her next jump, as well as her trusting that she can run further from my side but still understand where she is going.

On top of that, she seems to find the whole thing quite exciting so it definitely brings a lot to our training sessions (not that I need Rusty to have any more energy than she already does!)

Unfortunately the videos I have of this were taken in the afternoon when it was getting dark, so the stills were just a blur, however there is a video at the bottom of this post showing the exercise. The diagram below shows an example of a pinwheel with four jumps – this can vary but the handler should bear in mind that fewer jumps will increase the angle between each one, which will make it more challenging for the dog.


The best place for the handler to be is in the middle of the wheel, as it keeps the dog turning on the circle. If the handler were to attempt this by running around the outside of the pinwheel, they would not be able to keep up with their dog and this would lead to mistakes being made (it is common for other jumps to be placed near a pinwheel so as to confuse the dog).

The video below shows some short clips from our most recent training sessions – this includes a clip with a set of weave poles and the tunnel. I thought I would include this because it shows how much Rusty’s understanding of the weaves has improved – she almost skipped the final pole but when I paused her she took a few steps back and corrected it – such a clever little dog!



Agility training after a long break

Due to my A-level exams, I had to give up agility for a couple of months as there wasn’t enough time to fit it in. During that time I popped Rusty over a couple of jumps but we didn’t do much else, so today I began to re-familiarise her with the training we had done before.


Rusty 3

To get her listening to me and paying attention (her little head seemed to be into everything except my voice!) we went back to basics and practised sit, lie down, stay and come. Then we did a bit of heeling through changes of speed – her usual reaction to me speeding up is to blast ahead of me so I was pleasantly surprised when she managed to contain her energy.

Rusty 4

The next stage in our session was to set up a small jump and warm her up over it a few times.

Rusty 5

I then asked her for a slightly more challenging manoeuvre where I wanted her to wrap the jump and then re-jump it (almost creating a figure of eight shape).


I also practised handling her from a greater distance and she still flew over the jump as if we had never had a break!

The final thing with the single jump was to remind her that she must have confidence to move ahead of me, so I stood back from the jump and sent her over it from behind.

Rusty 10

After this I added another jump and we worked through some 90º, 180º and 270º turns – to be entirely honest this was more beneficial to my handling skills than to her, as she seemed to remember everything I had previously taught her!

Rusty 13

Rusty 15

Lastly, we worked through some easy weave poles – this is still our weakest area so it gives us something to focus on through the summer.



The video below shows some short clips from our training session.