It’s been a year and 7 months since HumAnima CIC was officially formed. It’s been a journey and a half and it can and I imagine it will be comparable to an oceangoing voyage across calm and stormy seas. I am, Chris Columbus, discovering new lands and peoples, expanding my perceptions and knowledge and seeing what I can bring to others. An adventurer I guess. The ship needs to be well maintained, cared for, ship-shape and tip top and so far since her launch we are getting a feel for the waters and charting our route.

Last weekend, I had a fantastic time with Flossie on the Society For Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) newly set up Practical Therapy Dog Training. The training took place at the Dog’s Trust in Uxbridge and admittedly getting there was the first challenge of the weekend. We arrived at Denham late Saturday afternoon and our first trial involved finding our way to the B&B. Because of where the training was we had to stay overnight. We stayed at a wonderful B&B called Tilehouse Lodge. Flossie and I had a lovely 2 mile walk to the B&B along country roads and next to a small air field and next to a small caravan club. It was a beautiful day and we were very lucky to have beautiful weather and quiet conditions during our stroll. Flossie was packed with her little pannier and I with my trusty rucksack, we were like Dick Whittington and his cat (I don’t think Floss would approve of that comparison…).

We arrived at the Lodge gone 6pm and were welcomed by our hostess who welcomed us warmly and took us to a quaint little room with a single bed and all the amenities we needed for the night. The tv was a bonus 🙂 At this point both Flossie and I were in dire need of a rest and welcomed the bed with open arms! It was a relaxing evening with Flossie collapsed on the floor fast asleep and me chilled on the bed getting as much rest as possible before the training day ahead.

Having been an assistant dog trainer for the best part of  7 years I had an inkling as to how engaging the next day might be. We had already had some preliminary work to prepare us for the training covering the basics on AAT, training and dog body language. It was good material that gave us an adequate precursor to prepare for the days activities. Some of the material included some fascinating videos with dog body language that gave you an idea what different postures and behaviours and expressions meant in dog language. It reminded me of a WONDERFUL book that I once read, that really did have a crucial impact on my ability to understand and interact with dogs positively: Turid Rugaas’s book “Calming Signals” gives a valuable insight and helps us to communicate better with dogs. As a dog trainer I have found this priceless and I would even go so far as to say that it has probably saved me from being bitten on a few occasions. A massive problem I often see when working at puppy class, are mis-communications between owner and dog or rather the owners inability to understand when, for example, their dog has had enough and actually isn’t playing but giving a warning to back off. Too often I have to step in and stop situations from escalating because owners are misunderstanding certain behaviours and postures – ears up, tail stiff, shoulders stiff…. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve their relationship with their own or other dogs!

The morning greeted us with exquisitely sunny weather and despite a rather difficult night (some neighbours of the B&B had decided to hold a very late night and loud party…) we felt quite chirpy and were ready to meet what the day brought us. Upon arrival most humans had their eyes downcast whilst supervising our canine companions as they went through the ritualistic meet and greet that some furry four leggeds were familiar with and others less so… No bloody was shed but the dogs pretty quickly established who liked whom and who was a no-go. To be fair, there weren’t any outcasts and even Flossie (who sometimes prefers to avoid doggie greets!) behaved quite impeccably. I was impressed with the little lady that she is (but yes I know I’m biased!) and secretly relieved and overjoyed.

Nina Bondarenko, our trainer, otherwise known as the “Dog Guru from Oz” pretty rapidly got down to business. She has a very no nonsense approach that initially had me cringing with minor embarassment at my dogs shortfalls but it sank in very quickly and easily that any shortfalls of Flossie were my responsibility and ultimately fault. I take this on board with open arms and agree although it didn’t make it any easier for my ego. My “perfect” therapy dog has flaws. None of them are safety issues that would impinge her therapy career as such but she’s not squeeky clean.

From the outset, one of the pre-requisites had been for the dog to not pull on the lead. This is an issue I have battled with with Flossie since she was a mere pup. Now, I have known all along that I created this problem as it was the one problem I was worried about, thus self-perpetuating it, however, I recently decided to take the bull by the horns and see if there were any other ways to keep her by my side (literally!). I had tried a method offered by Mick Martin (of Dog Borstal) unsuccessfully and had used a canny collar (whilst it does stop the dog from pulling it of course doesn’t address the issue at all). Now I was trying clicker training (always go with your instinct and go with what you know!) which was how I initially worked in dog training and lo and behold the penny appeared to be dropping with the young lass. However, she still wasn’t quite there. During a morning break I shyly asked Nina if she had any suggestions and within a space of 20 minutes Floss was walking perfectly on the lead. My jaw was on the floor… no joke. What did she do? I hear you cry. Ah well you’ll have to ask Nina for that explanation. It was very simple (which didn’t really surprise me) and I chuckled when I heard Nina say “most of teaching a dog to walk on the lead properly involves standing still”. Sure enough the first 5-12 minutes involved lots of stop-starting. With a loud “thunk” and a hearty laugh, I can proudly announce she is now walking very nicely on the lead. Will it last? That’s up to me and whether the penny dropped with me sufficiently and with my using the technique correctly with Flossie. More importantly and relevantly to her work in therapy though, will she pull someone else? Flossie and I won’t really be walking much with other people but I am determined to ask friends and family to walk Flossie (having given them the basic technique) so she soon realises what is and is not acceptable. She’s very quick on the mark so I have every confidence in her success.

I will admit to once or twice, prior to the training, wondering whether I would be learning anything new. Whilst I dislike how cocky that sounds (please excuse the pun!), having been an assistant dog trainer I was very curious to see what we would be learning. In no uncertain terms it was a shifting of perspective. A VERY welcome one at that. I needed someone with an abstract or different perspective to open my own eyes to how to approach my work with Flossie in therapy or interacting with others on PAT visits. To give you an idea, we looked at tricks and things the dogs already knew. Now Flossie has a small repertoire of tricks she can do. I use these not only to entertain other people but more importantly to keep Flossie on her paws and using her little grey cells. Getting a dog to think is AS important as physically exercising them. So she can do high fives, roll over, leaving a treat and shaking paws. Shaking paws or giving a paw is perhaps the most common trick amongst companion dogs. What I hadn’t considered was HOW Flossie gave her paw. Working with people who are immuno-compromised, their skin may be thin and easily bruised or torn/ damaged. When Floss gives a paw her paw can be a little stiff with her claws being the first thing to touch you. The risk of scratching is increased and with that infection. Therefore, I am now trying to teach her to relax her paw when she does give it. Enlightenment no less!

I don’t want to give too much away or say too much about the course. You need to find it out for yourselves. But suffice to say that it is an EXCELLENT course that is worth doing with your dog if you are only even considering using them as a PAT or Blue Cross education dog. Working on our exercises and homework together, Flossie and I will be strengthening our bond and I can’t tell you what that means to me. Yes it’s great to have a therapy dog I can work with, but to have a companion dog first and foremost who I can share so much with is even more important to me. We are a team and I couldn’t be doing this without my girl!