My biggest training challenges


Whenever I mention that I do dog training I inevitably get asked what's the most impressive trick, or the hardest thing I have taught my dog. My answer for Zest is simple…….a recall. It is by far the thing I am most proud of with her and the thing that has caused the most heartache, tears and frustration on my behalf. It has taken the most ingenious training solutions, the best games and the biggest rewards.


Agility training by comparison is a breeze to training her a recall.


Now, when I got Zest I had trained other dogs recalls; our multiple family dogs, helping other people with recalls and even helped with recalls in agility classes. I assumed, very wrongly, that I had recall training cracked! Zest came home at 8 weeks and was crazy. Most puppies are really interested in interacting with people, especially after having just left mum they want lots of contact. Not Zest…. I was in the process of packing up to move home from University, she ran round my flat for 3 hours straight in mad crazies….. over everything up everything like a little fluffy whirlwind. Perhaps at this point I should have realised she was not going to be your average dog…..


She stayed inside or in my arms outside until she was around 12 weeks, at that point I like to take them down to the beach early in the morning when the tide has just gone out. Very few interesting smells, or interesting objects and very few people or dogs. I put them down and run in the other direction to engage their chase drive and when they catch me we have massive treats. The Natures Menu meaty treats are great to break down for small puppy mouths, and toy play. I have never had this tactic fail... before Zest. She played once then decided it was far more interesting to run in every other direction, or herd me.


Over the coming 4 months, I struggled with recalls massively. She loved everything but me - the value was with other people or dogs that she didn’t know. I used a long line to control this and trained the recall on the long line, then once I was 100% confident our recall was solid I would let her off the long line. The issue was after a few days she reverted back to going to visit other people and dogs rather than recalling… So, we went back to the long line and built trust again, for the same thing to happen again. These 4 months were more frustrating than any other dog training experience I have had… I tried every kind of treat or toy but nothing worked.


In truth, I just didn’t understand how her brain worked. My current agility dog came from rescue and was starved as a puppy, and as such her value for food was so high it overrode everything else. Other dogs had loved people and interaction; one of our other family dogs was ill as a youngster before we took her on, and spent time in the vets and built bonds with people. In truth, I think I had been lucky and just the normal recall tricks such as running in the other direction, building repetitions on a long line to prevent failure and using great rewards and exciting voices just worked. Not with Zest!


Her instincts for herding, chasing and greeting far overrode any value I put into me. So, I started to break things down for her. To start, we built value for me holding her collar, and touching her collar meant excellent things happened. I built value for turning her head back to me on a verbal cue, I built value for chasing me. But one of the big things I learnt about was permission…. I was never ever going to have a bigger value than a remote control car, duck or squirrel. I started teaching her self-control around things she wanted and showing her that she could have them, but she needed to earn them, otherwise she wouldn’t get to engage with those things.


Gradually, from 6 months onwards, we started progressing ever so slowly. We had lots of failures, but they became less frequent and the rewards for her and me increased in value. I learnt not to care about using a silly voice to recall my dog with other people around, or running at full pace through a park. I learnt to recognise when situations were going to be too complex for her to get the right “answer” to what I was asking for, and not put her in that position.


Nicola's puppy Zest, now 16 months old.

This week at 16 months old I can finally see how far we have come. On one walk she saw a rabbit and began to chase I called and she turned away from the chase as I ran in the other direction… I wouldn’t have even bothered attempting to call a few months ago. We had massive playtime and she forgot all about the rabbit! Then, only a couple of minutes later around 20 ducks were all around the path. These ducks are very tame so won’t be moved! I called Zest to do an off lead heel by my side surrounded by ducks - she did so incredibly well. We sat in the middle of the ducks and then I let her go chase (she hasn’t a clue what to do if she corners one…. I don’t think she knows they are in her food). This was her ultimate reward. I then called and she returned from the chase straight away to a heel. It was a massive triumph for our training and bond we were building together. In the same week we were walking towards a pedestrian bridge on a blind corner and a remote control car shot across it at speed. The dog who had once run the length of two football pitches to chase a remote control car looked to me for permission to chase which wasn’t given. I replaced that with the reward of saying hi to the child in control of the car (with permission) as she adores children.


I am sure she will continue to challenge me in every way to up my dog training game….. I am very grateful that I am now twice the dog trainer I was and have plenty of tricks up my sleeve for my next puppy.

 dog training, agility, puppy training