Nemo and Flo, accompanied by their handlers Julia and Zena were amongst the attendees at the inaugural Summer School at Stellamaris Dog Training in Broadstairs, Kent. Owner Julia takes over the story…
Meet Nemo and Flo…
Nemo is 2-year-old male Flatcoated Retriever and Flo, five months his junior,
is a female Collie-Lurcher (possibly) cross. I have had them both since they
were puppies and I love them and despair of them both in equal measure.
They are both lovely, friendly, gentle dogs. They thrive on human company,
do cute and silly things that make me laugh and are (Flo, in particular)
desperate to please. They are the best of friends. They eat together, play
together, sleep side by side, wag their tails in synchronisation and follow each
other around. They also follow me – everywhere. I get up, they get up. I stroke
one, the other appears. Call one, call both. Nemo loves cuddles and Flo likes
sitting on your feet.
So, that’s why I love them.
Now to the despair. I don’t want you to think badly of them (or me), but boy,
can they be hard work. Flo, quite frankly, is just crazy. How the world can be
so permanently and overbearingly exciting is just beyond me. She lives her
life in a permanent state of OMG. She can’t even walk in a straight line
because her tail rotates so violently every time she moves it swings her hips
from side to side. As a result of such a disposition, keeping her attention for
just the smallest fraction of a moment gives me cause to rejoice. Trying to
hold her attention for the duration of a training session is a mission
impossible. Everything I ask of her somehow gets lost in translation: when I
say ‘down’, she hears ‘roll over and wave your feet about in the air’; when I
say ‘stand’, she hears ‘jump up and turn around in circles as fast as you can’;
when I say ‘Flo’, she hears… well, to be honest, I don’t know what she hears,
but whatever it is, it’s as if all her Christmases have come at once.
And Nemo… well, Nemo just loves to lick. And lick. And lick. And lick and lick
and lick. I think you get the picture. In fact, so keen is he to lick that as he
makes his approach towards you, with yards still to cover, his tongue is
already flapping, his ears bouncing in rhythm. As funny as this is to witness,
ultimately this is not good. It’s not good for him, it’s not good for me and it’s
made him less than popular with many of our house guests. Eau du Dog
Breath turns out not to be everyone’s fragrance of choice. He also has the
attention span of a knat and the staying power of a feather in the wind. He’ll
do anything you ask of him, as long as everything you ask of him involves the
So, you see, when we enrolled on the five day training course with CREDO in
Broadstairs this August, I was under no illusions that we had our work cut out.
I can only train one dog at a time, so my Mum very kindly volunteered to
handle Nemo. We didn’t realise it at the time, but it turns out she drew the
short straw, as he’s probably the more challenging of the two.
Just a click away…
Our trainer, Charlotte, explained to me that the key to getting a handle on Flo was to keep her attention by making myself more interesting than anything else in the vicinity. Flo’s obsession with Nemo meant I already had my work cut out, but on top of this, I was competing with another six interesting and
exciting dogs, their six interesting and exciting owners, bags full of treats,
clickers, toys, footballs, children, seagulls, new smells, new sounds… you
name it, it was all there and, let’s be honest, a darn sight more interesting
than me. For three hours I doggedly called her and distracted her and
surprised her and whistled to her and sang to her and moved around her…
getting her attention, losing it, gaining it, losing it, gaining it, losing it again.
Under Charlotte’s guidance, I taught her to ‘touch’, bringing her nose to my
hand, which proved a useful way of getting her attention for a while. Then I
taught her to give me her ‘paw’, starting with her bringing it to my hand (a trick
she already knew), then my foot, then a target stick (essentially a 1ft piece of
dowelling with a bit of tape wound around one end).
I discovered that Flo is an incredibly fast learner, only needing to complete a
task a handful of times before getting the hang of it and, as I had already
suspected, she is desperate to please, so, whilst treats, in tandem with a
clicker, were always well-received, a fuss or a kind word was just as rich a
reward in her eyes. Once I had her attention, it turned out she was a pleasure
to train. However, when she stopped concentrating or her interest waned, we
reverted back to step one and I had to begin the laborious process of being
‘interesting’ all over again. I don’t mind admitting that my frustration did boil
over at times!
Over the course of the week Charlotte and I concentrated on keeping Flo’s
focus, and on developing a quick-fire, constantly changing and challenging
approach to training that would not give her a chance to get bored. I focused
on the basic cues of ‘Sit’, ‘Down’, Stand’, ‘Touch’ and ‘Paw’, swapping
and changing amongst them in quick succession. I also worked hard on her
heel work, using her skills at the new ‘touch’ cue to bring her back to
me when her attention wavered and she began to head off-track.
By the end of the week, when we were ‘concentrating’, she was largely walking by my
side, all rapt attention, ears bobbing as she trotted along beside me.
Nemo in the meantime, was learning with my Mum to walk to heel – rather
than pull her along like a starving cart horse in search of fresh grass. He was
also learning how to carry out basic cues from a distance, with the aid
of a Cani-X lead and a target stick, so his tongue could be kept beyond licking
distance and the treats could be kept beyond his reach.
Nemo’s licking, Charlotte explained, is most likely the result of anxiety, which
has now become an obsessive behaviour. His lack of attentiveness, a possible sign of defeat. He’s so overshadowed by the Whirling Dervish he shares his life with that he’s given up. He doesn’t retrieve because Flo is faster, he doesn’t respond because Flo always gets there first. He licks for attention because he’s always had to complete with a green-eyed Collie cross, who muscles in at the first sign of a free cuddle.
So we learned how to play games with Nemo. How to stretch his mental capacity and give him something that he, and he alone, can focus on. It just so happens that his obsession with food makes him the perfect candidate for ‘Find It’ games and it wasn’t long before he was busy with his nose, hunting out treats from under blankets and flower pots, his tongue firmly in his mouth.
Climb Every Mountain
So here we are, a week or so after the training. We still have a mountain to climb, however, where before I was slumped at the bottom, staring forlornly at an empty rucksack, with Flo’s tail whipping one side of my face and Nemo’s tongue licking the other, I’m now on my feet with a rucksack packed with
useful training tools.
I have a clicker in one hand, a target stick in the other and a pocket full of treats. I have an armoury of positive training tips, ideas up both sleeves and a renewed will to succeed.
I’m still under no illusions. It’s a steep old mountain and we’re sure to stumble
as we climb, but climb it we will, and as we do we’ll share the vista along the
Julia Fuller, Nemo and Flo