To lighten the mood: A dog training book that is chock-full of love

This may be one of the best obedience books ever written, and it tells virtually nothing about how to train. I read it for the first time when I was about ten and it made such a huge impression on me that I still have passages memorized. It’s basically the story of a guy with a dog and the dog was pretty well a genius, but the guy didn’t know how to train him. Every time he tried, the dog ignored him. And he never really did figure out how to train his dog; he just talked to him a lot. Constantly. In a quiet, conversational tone. He broke every rule of obedience that has been written before and since, and his dog went on to be an enormous figure in Cocker Spaniel history. His owner was not a hunter, but Prince Tom won the Cocker National Field Trial, which had never before been won by an American Cocker. He was titled to his U.D., which was the terminal degree at the time.

Who knows what details I’m leaving out – I haven’t read the book in probably twenty years – but what has stayed with me is the sense of joy that comes with just TALKING to your dog. Tom Clute’s success with Prince Tom would now be described using words like “continuous use of reinforcing bridging words” and “dog facial interpretation and mirroring” and “anticipatory behaviors” and a whole bunch of stuff that really all boils down to that they were best buds, and the dog liked hearing Clute talk and Clute liked talking to his dog.

DogRead, which is a Yahoo group I’ve been part of for several years, had Kayce Cover as the author a few months ago; she strongly believes that we should be using signals the whole time, continually, as long as the dog is performing the behavior. Sort of like Tom Clute did with his dog. She actually uses a series of g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g sounds, like “good good good good” compressed into one syllable, from the moment the dog begins the behavior until it’s done. That drove me crazy when I tried it, but there’s no question in my mind that the dogs understand the difference between “good, continue” and “good, done” words, and that they get a LOT out of just being talked to.

When I was walking all three dogs this morning, I got embarrassed by the fact that I never stop chattering to them, which must sound to people walking by like I am completely nutso. It goes “Clue, you’re getting too far ahead, slow down a little, oh, that’s excellent, that’s exactly where I want you. What a great job you just did. Ginny, stay with me, NICE job, perfect. Bronte, silly, you got all tangled. Can you move that leg? GREAT DOG. GOOD DOG. That’s just what I wanted. No, Clue, you can’t roll here, please catch up,” and they all really do know who I’m talking to, and whoever it is pays attention and the other two don’t follow the same command, and the whole time we’re briskly walking. So I guess I do believe in and follow constant bridging (and WOW do I break the rule of only using the command word once; I say it constantly as they’re performing the behavior), though I go about it in what I am sure is a totally bizarre way.

Digression: Also bizarre: Clue has nine nipples. Four on the right side, five on the other. Maybe her puppies will grow up to be left-brained. End digression.

Whenever I write a post that even touches on obedience, it takes me hours and hours and I get really nervous about it, because I am (seriously) such a BAD obedience trainer. I just cannot bring myself to get excited about a good heel; I actually think the current heel style with the dog’s head up looks crazy and completely dysfunctional – isn’t the dog supposed to be looking for danger ahead? Isn’t the dog supposed to be watching for, say, Sarlacc pits, and maybe he’s going to fall in and get digested over a period of a thousand years if his face is pressed into my belly and the only half an eye he’s got visible is focused on my chin? And the very fact that I just said that totally makes me an idiot, doesn’t it?

The answer doesn’t really matter, because I’m telling you right now I AM an idiot about obedience. I’ve never titled a dog in classical obedience; I seriously doubt I ever will. The only place that I feel I am allowed to make any comment is, seriously, on the level of “how to housebreak a puppy.” I am somewhat comforted by the fact that housebreaking is actually the foundation of your entire daily life with the dog (i.e., it’s dependent on YOU, not on the dog; you don’t ever let the dog fail and the dog will do nothing but succeed; you don’t correct the dog until you are sure the dog knows the appropriate behavior).  I can talk a little bit about the psychology of it, the behavior aspect of it, on predictability and consistency. I will talk, sniffle, and talk some more, for a really long time, about the crazy high that comes when you can take a dog who used to fight you and was terrified of everything, and you go for a long hike and the dog has as much fun as you do.

SPEAKING OF… my dog whose nine nipples should be in some kind of museum of the strange needs to go out. I’m going to send her out to the end of the leash and chatter to her the whole time – hey, I’m trusting her to watch out for Sarlacc pits.


11 thoughts on “To lighten the mood: A dog training book that is chock-full of love

  1. Hee hee hee. My dog trainer says that I constantly talk to my standard poodle like he was a seven year old boy.

    Of course, I firmly believe he completely understands most of what I’m saying and usually does it, which is why I continue to do so. 🙂

    Dog talkers unite!

    • My dad always told me that the herding dogs had to live in the house, while cats and other animals could live outside because herding dogs need to learn English.

      My Petey responds too well to conversational suggestions for it to be coincidence.

      eg, conversationally, “I’m busy right now, go ask Dad”, and he will immediately run directly to my husband.

  2. The fact that you have gotten sarlaac pits (spelled correctly, even!) and obedience into the same post has filled me with awe. (And possibly dread, as when my two fandoms (oh hush, dogs are totally a fandom ;P) collide, the end is near.)

    Also, I have counted the nipples of every female dog in this house at the moment except for the one who is locked in the guest room and the only one who has an even number is the spayed bitch. Do they cut one off when they do that or is there something in the water down here?

  3. *scratches head* I think all my dogs have always had even numbers of nipples. Lizzie has 10, thank goodness, there’s even a spare! LOL

  4. Would you believe that “Prince Tom” was the book that made me want to grow up and be a “dog person” someday? I had the paperback that I ordered at school from Scholastic Books and read until it fell apart. Of course I read all of the Terhune books as well, but it was Prince Tom and his titles that grabbed me.

    I still remember the banner:
    Prince Tom III CD CDX UD NFTC

    I’m quite a bit older than you so the book was probably newer then

  5. I too was inspired by Prince Tom. That book was a big reason my Mom brought Robin (Cocker Spaniel) home. I read it many times growing up, and have even read it to Dea. So sweet, and inspiring.

    I talk to my dogs all the time, like they’re people, and agree, each knows who I’m talking to at the time, and people are always amazed when they respond to the oddest of verbal cues- most they respond to simply through my body language (And good guesses).

    I’m really bad about formal obedience, though I have titled dogs, and made it to state level in 4-H obedience. I’m more interested in the bare naked bonding though, which is what I focus on in the classes I’ve taught. Base groundwork for obedience, but I enjoy focusing on teaching people how to have a relationship with their dogs, which many people don’t understand the base concept of. I personally own dogs for the companionship, and bonding. I say ‘when I grow up’ I’ll do obedience again, but am too lazy, and tired from kidlet now ;0P

    And heeling… it’s MY least favorite exercise. I prefer the dog slightly in front of me, on a loose lead, so I can easily see them. With Cove who’s taller it’s one thing, but for littler dogs, I’ve been known in the past to stumble into them if their glued to my side (Poor Robbie!), so I teach heel as a command, like sit, down, etc, and not as an all-around, do all the time trait. I call it “heeling- schmeeling” ;0P

  6. oh, what a RELIEF to read this from y’all (I’m including the comments)! I talk to EllieMae all the time and I’ve wondered if it’s what helped her bond with me and settle after her 2 years in rescue, or if she’s just *that good* a dog. She is such an eager-to-communicate dog, it’s fun to learn her language and see how she’s learning to understand mine/ours.

    I think that’s why I like Siamese cats too, because they love to talk and tell you about their day!

  7. Yay, I’m glad a dog-person I respect so much is a chatterbox too!!!! My partner’s always giving me heck for talking to the dogs all the time. Full sentences, with “please” and “thank you” thrown in for good measure. I remember sitting out on our back deck with my stepdad, who gaped at Gracie with a fully-dropped jaw after she trotted up the stairs and dropped a plastic dish at my feet after I said “Gracie, can you please bring that up bowl up here to me?” Hee.

    Only Gracie has done formal OB, and she enjoyed it, but we’re more concerned with having socialized, well- mannered and stable dogs, rather than ones with flawless heels.

    FWIW, I’ve never counted Gracie or Jaida’s nipples (too much fur, couldn’t be bothered), but nearly-naked Heidi definitely has an even 10 😛

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