Tilley training: a very accidental experience of harsh training methods.

First day at dog trainingA couple of updates to this post:

We’ve since heard from local people about several other incidents of harsh methods being used by this club, including a puppy being ‘pinned down’ during a class. Also, Peli reminded me that another attendee sitting next to her while Tilley was being subjected to the ‘corrections’ told her not to worry, that she regularly used the rattle bottle on her dog when he barked, and that now he’s really wary of the bottle – which the attendee said with a laugh.

Also, very sadly, we noticed this evening that Tilley freaked out when Peli swatted a mosquito with a tea towel. The sharp downwards ‘swat’ movement clearly reminded her of the rattle bottle and she shied away and needed much reassurance. Later, a rattle from her kibble in the plastic measuring cup also made her jolt. Needless to say, we now feel even more sad and angry and determined to follow this up.

End Update:

We tried to clue ourselves up as much as possible about how to train our dog, including reading blogs, forums and books, watching YouTube, DVDs and TV, there is only so much you can do by yourself. We needed to go to dog training classes at least to confirm that we were on the right track and also to socialise Tilley. She is a bit of a handful out on the lead when she meets other dogs, people or when the wind blows a leaf across our path.

At home without any distractions we have managed to get her nice and calmly out the door and out walking on a loose lead. But as soon as she sees anything new she is all over the place, so we haven’t managed to walk far from our front door. We have tried at least four anti-pull harnesses, which she has learnt to pull against. She goes into her “meerkat” impression when she very keen to get further than her lead. Along with the stopping trick or the turning around tricks when she pulls, we still haven’t gotten far, because when we get away from the back street it is a whole new and exciting world. Her best time to walk is her last walk of the day until we come across a person or a dog.

We have been using what is called “positive reinforcement” training, used by the likes of Victoria Stilwell, and yes we may have been a bit soft on the commands. But when she is concentrating she does her sit, stay and ah-ah – stop doing naughty things – even when said with a soft voice. Having guests over she is good as gold with a little bit of jumping up, but if our guest turns around and ignores Tilley she soon figures out that jumping is a no go, and sits neatly.

We were hoping that by getting her to doggy school, she could meet other people and dogs and hopefully would calm down and get used to new things without going bonkers.

I took her to the first class at Embsay Dog Training Club and she was a right old nightmare, didn’t know what to do with herself. She couldn’t contain herself and with 15 people and nine other dogs it was quite a lot to process in one go. Even with her favourite treat, liver cake, I couldn’t turn her head, and if I did there was just something new to explore.

I went away know that we had to be a bit more sterner with Tilley, but that is hard to be when she is as good as gold at home. The good news was that the day after her first day at school she slept more that usual. We just thought, “Oh, it’s her first time at a training class, and the trainers say they’re happy for a very reactive dog to attend, so I suppose it will get better.”

During that first class the trainers didn’t do anything to cause us concern about their methods, so we decided to return the following week.

On Tilley’s “second day at school” we had Peli as back-up, I clearly needed an extra hand to try to control her. Tilley was as crazy as the first time: all over the place and this time was called in before the previous class had left the hall. There were about nine other dogs in our class and about 15-17 people in the hall: quite a prospect for a keen, reactive pup.

While feeding her treats and telling her off with a sterner “shhhh” than before she calmed down enough to sit/lie down and watch the other dogs, as long as they stayed still too. As soon as they moved Tilley became anxious, whining, wiggling and panting.

We got called up to try the “walk out of the door” exercise, which we have almost perfected at home. While walking down the middle of the classroom Tilley completely lost it, throwing herself about and running like a crazy thing with her paws scratching and sliding across the floorboards. Coming back into the classroom she reacted to all the dogs and people again and went bonkers.

While I’d been up with Tilley, another trainer asked Peli, “Do you use any corrections on her?”. Peli replied that we’d tried different harnesses, but wasn’t sure what she meant by corrections? That trainer then spoke to another, who went into a back room and returned with a bottle with something in it. I had no idea what was going to happen next.

As I was trying to return Tilley to our seat, one of the three trainers came towards us and Tilley was keen to meet this new and exciting person. But the trainer, with no warning to me, then shook a plastic bottle full of dried chickpeas right next Tilley’s head with a loud “Bang”. It was such a loud noise that it shocked me, and I’m a big 6’4″ bloke. Even Peli across the classroom was shocked. I’d thought the trainer was going to take the lead from me, or show me how to hold it. I was totally unprepared.

So, you can imagine how Tilley reacted. She was to be found way behind me at the end of the lead with her tail between her legs, ears right back, hugging the ground while shaking in clear panic. The trainer told me to call her to me and praise her when she came to me. She gained some confidence and came to me, but tentatively, and not really sure what was going on. Heck, neither did I! Just as we had calmed down, a different dog trainer came up and Tilley – clearly still scared, but getting over it – walked very keenly towards the trainer to say hi, and got yet another loud bottle shake next to her head.

Tilley was now shaking badly, very freaked out and looking, panicked, around the classroom trying to figure out what was going on and where the next bang might come from. I’m talking about a very scared dog here, tail between legs, ears right back, curled up on the floor shaking and she wouldn’t even come to me. The more I called the more she backed away, even treats didn’t get her to move. She was so frightened she ended up wetting herself right there on the floor and onto herself.

The other dogs in the class didn’t look too happy at these huge noises either, or seeing a stressed-out dog wetting itself on the floor.

This is where I should have walked right out of the door, but both Peli and I were so shocked, we didn’t know how to react.

In the end, as Tilley refused to move towards any of us, the first trainer said, “This will unlock her” and put a trail of treats across the floor to bring her back to us. She very, very tentatively followed the food, but she was clearly traumatised. For the rest of the session she was hiding under my legs, clearly unhappy and wary of everyone.

But the corrective advice didn’t stop there: we were then told we should jab her with a finger on her hindquarters to get her into line when she got too giddy, and the trainers gave detailed directions about how to do this, and where exactly to jab her.

I’m not really sure about this method of training – corrective, or dominance-based, or alpha? I’m not sure how to label it but we’ve seen Cesar Millan using something similar on his programmes. It might work on an aggressive and really troublesome dog, but not on this sweet-natured, reactive, unsocialised pup who is keen on meeting new friends, overwhelmed by a room full of new people and dogs and – significantly, as a rescue dog, with an unknown background.

We finally got her home and digested the doggy class. We were confused and not able to process what we’d experienced. As very new dog owners (the last time I owned a pup was many years ago) the thought did cross our mind: is this the way dogs really should be trained?

But the next morning made it clear to us that it certainly isn’t. Tilley was not herself at all – very anxious, not sure what was going on, not our usual bright and sparky Tilley. Peli reported that she had been walking around with her tail between her legs, lacking her normal spring, head down and had been looking for me more than normal. She has always reminded Peli when it was her dinner time at four, but on that day at that time she just laid on Peli’s lap, looking sad. When fed with her Kong and toys she definitely wasn’t her playful self and it was a very subdued mealtime. And she even peed inside, even after she had just been taken outside to go potty.

I arrived home from work and she was happy to see me but lacked the same spring as normal. When coming up to her she always turns over to show her belly with an wagging tail. But tonight it was done in a much slower speed with a much less wagging tail and not with the same look. Looking at us with her head turned and out the corners of her eyes, not direct eye contact as before.

The way she looked at us was with much less joy, trust and a face that said “I’m not really sure if you are just going to pat me or make a big nasty noise”.

I’m all for a firm hand on some dog breeds and if the dog has behaviour problems but not scaring the bejeesus out of them so that their personality changes. And certainly not without clearly explaining and confirming with the dog owner before the change of training method.

It is clear to us that:
1. That training group should not accept highly-reactive dogs into a busy class. It’s not fair on anyone: the dog itself or the other class attendees. It should have been clear that our dog was not suited to classes, and this should have been pointed out to us.
2. If they plan to use such corrections, then the owners (and other class members) are warned and – importantly – have agreed in advance.
3. That they make clear when advertising their courses that they promote the use of such techniques.

Let’s just say that we are not going back to these dog training classes again, and we’ll be contacting our vet (who recommended them) to let them know about our experience.

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