Sunday, 17 July 2011

Houston we have a problem

By the time Billy was seven months old his predatory chase behaviour had become a serious problem.

In all other respects he was a normal Border Collie puppy.

I tried various tactics, some more succesful than others. 

One of my less than bright ideas - and I hereby make a public apology to Kim - was to tether him to another dog.  Both wore a harness with a short lead between them.  This meant that he could have a good run but he would have to come back when I called.  I'm sure I read somewhere that this is how foxhounds are trained, by being tethered to an experienced hound and we did do this many years ago with a young Letitia, my Afghan hound and my daughter's German Shepherd Ash - and yes it was Ash that had the recall and Letitia that didn't.

Anyway all went well for a while, we stayed away from the woods end of the field and Billy ran along side Kim without any problems.  About 5 minutes into the exercise Billy switched into prey drive and he was off running down the field towards the woods.  I called Kim and bless him he tried so hard to turn and come back to me but Billy's drive had gathered monentum and Kim just couldn't turn him.  They got to the fence into the woods and as I wasn't far behind I felt sure that if Billy did manage to get through the fence, he wouldn't get far on the other side. Sure enough he went straight through a fox run and as I got there poor Kim was just about holding his own on this side of the fence.  It reminded me of one of those  treasury tags  that I use to keep my bank statements together.  Poor Kim was being pulled against the fence.  Before I  got there and had a chance to take the lead from Kim and get Billy back throught the fence Kim was suddenly free and came running to me with an apologetic look on his face for not recalling and an empty harness in tow.

From then on Billy was on a 50ft trailing line when we were in the field.  Kat & Fly both loved to chase and grab the line so as well as providing entertainment for them they were also very useful at stopping him for me.  As long as we stayed well away from the woods end of the field, I was able to keep Billy with us and out of trouble.

On the line he was a little subdued, I guess because of the weight of it, especially when it was wet and would often just sit and wait for me to pick it up before moving so after a while, because he was being so good  I reduced it to a 10 foot one, just enough for me to stand on should he decide to go.

A day or two later we were in the field as usual, well away from the woods, Kat & Fly on high alert to catch the end of the line if necessary when Billy switched into prey drive as he often did after a crow. He couldn't go far and would always turn and come back once the crow had exited our airspace.  If he didn't then we'd catch him up within a few seconds where he would be sniffing in the hedge looking all sweet and innocent.

But Billy was nowhere to be seen this time.  My heart was thumping as I suddenly realised that Billy had squeezed through the bars of the metal five-bar gate on to the road.  Damn that crow for flying in a straight line.

Billy spent the next hour and a half running through the estate in front of our house, across the common, into the woods, even into our drive and back out again.  He went in every direction except to go up the road towards the main road and that was the only reason that I forgave him for the incredible amount of stress and heartache he was causing me.

It was starting to get dark and all I could do was follow the sound of his barking until he eventually got tired enough to stop.  I heard a dog barking on the estate and headed in that direction but then realised that it wasn't Billy's bark.  I kept going that way though as by now I had no idea where he was.  Imagine my relief when I saw that the owner of the dog I had heard had hold of Billy's line.  Billy had gone into their garden to say hello to their dog and he had thankfully realised that he was a lost dog.

I thanked him profusely for catching him and then added as an afterthought "I need a good dog trainer.  You don't know one do you?"  To which he replied "Yes.  There is one over there" and pointed to my house.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Early Days

I had taken Billy in when his previous owner was no longer able to keep him.  He seemed to be the perfect puppy and settled in as if he had always been here.  I had aquired new training skills since I last trained a youngster for agility and was really looking forward to teaching Billy all of the foundation exercises that he would need to be a great agility dog.

Billy and Raife - Best friends from the start.

It was the height of the agility season when Billy joined our family and a few days later we were off in the camper for a whole week of agility at the UKA Nationals.

Billy loved everyone and consequently our roll of sheep netting that had been perfectly adequate fencing around the camper to contain eleven collies, a lurcher and a large sighthound was now no match for a four month old Border Collie. Every time someone walked past he would be under the fence and away, a quick hello to the passer by and then off to check out the agility rings.  No big deal, we had a bag of metal tent pegs and so the fence was securely pinned to the ground to Billyproof it.

Not to be outdone he just put his head through the fence, then his feet, usually through a different hole and if he was lucky enough not to get tangled in the fence he would be out and off again.

On one occasion he put his head through the fence and before I could remove him he had spun around and within seconds the nylon cord was so tight around his neck that I had to cut him out with scissors, which of course meant he now had a bigger hole to get through.

He soon developed a more efficient technique though and would leap at the fence squashing it to the ground so that he could just walk over it before it sprang back up again.

It was this first week that the phrase "Billy's bogged off again" was coined, words that, unbeknown to me at the time were going to become so familiar over the next few months.

We had a couple of windbreakers on one side of the garden for privacy so a quick whip round amongst our friends and we were able to fence all of our garden with 5 feet windbreakers.  Didn't do much for our view but it kept Billy in.... for all of half a day. 

He wanted to be where the action was and nothing was going to stop him.  He might not be able to see the people and dogs but he could hear them so he would run at the fence, up the windbreaker and over the top.

This became a great source of amusement for our fellow campers but didn't do a lot for my stress levels.

Exercising the dogs at agility shows has always been relatively trouble free.  We would walk the dogs in groups of four or five.  At any one time there would be several groups of dogs with their owners walking around the exercise area with everyone pretty much minding their own business and staying in their groups.

I've never had a Border Collie that didn't want to follow me and I assumed that Billy would be no different.  At home, in the field, those first few days, he had been great but of course now the group of dogs and people on the horizon were far more interesting than us.  By day two Billy was on a long trailing line on the exercise area. By day three I was holding the line.

The whole week for me became a complicated exercise in looking after Billy without losing him.

Don had a good week though.  Tig came 10th in the National Finals and was placed in every class, winning six out of the eleven Champ classes that he ran in.

A very proud Tig with his weeks's winnings.  Actually he couldn't give a monkeys but we were proud of him!

That week set the standard for Billy's behaviour.  Most weekends throughout the summer were spent at agility shows and our camper looked like Fort Knox.  Billy would be exercised on his own on a line and he was also getting all of his food from my hand outside in the hope that this would make a difference.

At home Billy continued with the fence climbing.  Everytime a bird dared to fly over the garden, or someone was in the field next to the house, or a pheasant screeched in the woods behind the house or next door's dog barked Billy could be seen atop the wooden fence hanging over it by his front legs.  Because the other side of the fence of the dog garden was still on our property he couldn't go anywhere if he did go over so my only concern was for him hurting himself when he landed. 

I took this video a few days before Billy snapped a fence post and then started jumping over.  As you can see from the height of the old cattery roof there is a considerable drop on the other side.  So out in the garden on lead only from here on in.

I can't remember what happened the first time that we lost Billy.  There were so many incidents.  We have woods that run along the back of our property and the field where we exercise the dogs.  The field is securely fenced all around but if a fox can get in then Billy can get out.   Billy could be out with some of the other dogs or out there with me on his own happily playing, doing some training, (yes I was training him!!) and it would be as if someone had thrown a switch, in an instant he would be gone into the woods at lightening speed after something that he had heard or smelled. 

Once he had gone it was a waiting game.  I could go into the woods after him or around to the other side of the woods in case he went that way and he could pass within inches of me and not see me.  I remember one of the first times, I was stood still, listening to him him barking in the distance and hearing him getting closer and thinking that if he comes this way, he'll see me and come to me.  I could hear him coming so I stood in the middle of the path and almost got knocked over by the deer that he was chasing and of course there was no way he was stopping when he saw me, if indeed he did see me.

It made no difference if he trailed a line, he was so quick that the end of the line was just a speck in the distance. 

Billy was being hand fed all of his food outside in the garden or out in the field whilst working on recall. He had a great recall (in normal mode). I was clicker training him, had been from the start and his default behaviour was to make eye contact with me.  This is a behaviour that I had clicked and treated from day one and in the house I frequently caught him looking at me.

Outside he had learned to go through the tunnel, was targetting a pringles lid for his contacts, had a great forward focus over poles on the ground but it had got to the point where I couldn't do any of his training off lead for fear of something triggering the switch and him bogging off.

Billy was still less than 6 months old and I don't think it had really dawned on me that this could be a serious problem.  He was just a difficult puppy but it was nothing that couldn't be easily overcome... I am a dog trainer after all.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

When Sally met Billy

My first blog.  Don't know how this works yet but I'm sure I'll learn along the way.

This is a blog about a Border Collie.  I wanted to document how I worked with Billy and his predatory chase behaviour. 

I first met Billy, almost a year ago, when he was 12 weeks old.  He came along to our Saturday morning puppy romp with his owner.  I try not to be breedist, actually truth is, I don’t try very hard when I see a Border Collie pup.  I’d oooed and aaahed over him and smothered him in kisses.

Billy had started his puppy class and was attending the puppy romp for off lead socialising and was doing well.

I had spent some time on that first Saturday talking to his owner about the pros and cons of having a Border Collie in the family.  She had been a little worried  but I assured her that she would cope fine.

It was four weeks later on a Monday morning that I had a telephone call from his tearful owner.  She had been taken ill and her husband suffered from MS.  They had spent the whole weekend crying over Billy but had made the difficult decision to find him a new home whilst he was still a pup.

I promised them that I would help them and find him a great home, maybe one where he would be able to do agility.  I needed another dog like I needed a hole in the head but I offered to take him in that morning and look after him for her to save them too much heartache for which she was very grateful.

Looking  back I think I had already decided he was a keeper by the time he arrived on my doorstep.  We were currently on our maximum of twelve dogs but we had previously been on our maximum of nine dogs and then ten and we had even for a short spell had fourteen before losing two of our precious oldies in the summer of 2009, so it seemed like a silly rule to me.

We had a houseful of dogs, most unwanted by previous owners, most badly bred unfortunately.  Bo had needed very expensive surgery for OCD after we took him in, Lucy had hip dysplasia, Ayla had patella problems on and off, Chip had a morbid appetite for children, not to mention a Borzoi with a broken leg. 

So here was I with my one agility dog Kim coming up to 8 years old and Don with his two dogs, Tig and Dee plus his new baby Fly and I thought what the heck I need me a good agility dog, one with no behaviour problems that need fixing so that was it….   I was keeping Billy. 

Little did I know.................