Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Small Dog Syndrome...

One of our classes had a very small and shy female Maltese Poodle puppy. The first day this little thing just huddled underneath its owner's feet and shivered. It was much smaller than any other puppy in the class. So we encouraged the owner to use Tellington Touch strokes to calm and get her pup used to the new environment, people and other puppies.

The dilemma we faced was where to draw the fine line between molly coddling a puppy but not allowing it to become too overwhelmed and fearful. We observed the puppy became more confident with each class but her owner unwittingly continued to be over protective.

When we felt the dog was showing enough confidence, we asked the owner not to pick up her dog at all for an entire class. She found this incredibly difficult but the little pup actually coped quite well (under the trainer's watchful eye).

It took a lot of persuasion before the Maltese poodle owner eventually stopped picking up her dog during class and allowed her to stand on her own four feet. We explained that by being over protective, she was sending a message to her dog that fearful behaviour was an acceptable way to deal with the world. Her puppy would never learn self confidence this way. In fact what the owner was doing was counter productive. She was not helping her dog become more socialised, less fearful and better able to deal with what it would encounter in future. She had to learn to let go.

During the course this puppy finally reached a stage where it ran around and engaged with other people and puppies.

While doing some research, I came across an article about the "Small Dog Syndrome".

Behavioural problems arise in small dogs when owners, because of the dog's cute little size, allow them to get away with murder! The rule of thumb is that little dogs should not be allowed to behave in a way that one would not accept from any other dog. If you do allow this, it is likely to have a negative effect on the temperament and behaviour of the dog. All dogs should be treated as equals no matter what their size!

There are many small dogs who do not realise that they are small. I remember encountering a miniature Dachshund puppy at a Bed & Breakfast I was staying at on my travels. This little thing fitted into the scoop of my hands and was dwarfed by my beagles. But it had absolutely no fear at all and interacted with my dogs as an equal.
Hmmm.... wonder if he is ruling the B&B now!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Way to go Jamie and Jemma!

Jamie and Jemma came 21st and 24th out of 50 Beagles according to this year's Beagle Hunt results!

Not bad for "newbeags" who actually only starting finishing scent trails two months into the Hunt's season when they finally understood what to do. We also missed half a month when we were away. So they accumulated their points during 3.5 months out of 6 months. Yup, I'm proud of them!

Last weekend we had a beagle social at Walkhaven ( a park devoted specifically to dogs). The idea is for the beagles to continue to socialise with each other off season. This means that when the new Hunt season starts next winter, the dogs will be thoroughly familiar with each other and this will give the pack cohesion.

There were about 16 beagles there and they had a ball. So we will continue to meet up a least once a month to stay in touch. Nice also for the owners to re-connect and catch up.

The dangers of short term memory loss!

Ever since my puppies jumped through a burglar proofed window into the bedroom, dragged medication from the side table and scattered tablets all over the garden, I have been vigilant.

I always keep medication locked away in a cupboard and keep the door closed. The windows are kept slightly ajar, never fully open.

The other day, I renewed the prescription. I returned home and placed everything on the bedroom side table reminding myself to put it away as soon as possible. I closed the bedroom door.

It had been a tiring day and I ended up dozing off on my couch only to be woken at about 5.30pm by the ringing telephone. I staggered up in a dazed state to find medication pills scattered all over the carpet.

Heart rate spike!

Jamie and Jemma had chewed three different containers of medicine!

Trying to keep my dogs at bay, I desperately counted every single pill. I had to find out how many were missing.

I established that 3.5 sleeping pills had disappeared. But had they been swallowed by Jamie or Jemma? Neither of them were showing any side effects yet so I decided to feed them at 6.10pm.
Then Jamie began acting strangely almost as if he was hallucinating. Tail between his legs, he began barking at a piece of plastic on the carpet and then at the pink glitter on my sandals and non-existent things in the garden.

By 6.15pm I was on the phone to the vet. They wanted to know details about the make, dosage and ingredients of the pills. Well Jamie or Jemma had destroyed the box. So I had to scrabble through my cupboard to find an old box. Then scrabble through my handbag to find glasses because the print was too small to read.

In the middle of all of this, I was trying to corner Jamie so that I could observe him and describe his symptoms the the veterinary nurse. Thank goodness because I observed him vomiting up his supper and hopefully some of the drug. The nurse said she would consult a vet and get back to me.

When the vet called back, I went through the whole story again. I remember her saying that it takes 40 minutes for a drug to be absorbed and that it was a good sign that Jamie had vomited. She would research the drug and the dosage I assumed he had swallowed. If she felt the situation was dangerous, she would phone me back to bring him in. But if she did not get back to me that meant I was not to worry. In the meantime I was to keep an eye on him.

So what was I supposed to look out for? Well the drug would affect his central nervous system so if he continued vomiting, had diarrhea, became drowsy and disorientated - that meant trouble.

Well, I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the vet to phone but she did not call back.

Jamie appeared OK for the rest of the evening, but I did check him several times during the night to make sure he was still breathing!

I also discovered that not only had I forgotten to put the drugs away in my cupboard but I had forgotten to close my bedroom door. When I eventually returned the phone call that had woke me up, I had to do quite a bit of explaining.

The moral of the story - If you suffer from short term memory loss, do everything important immediately and make lists all the time. And you can never stop dog proofing your house no matter how old your dogs!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My attack of Separation Anxiety!

I went to the Berg for a week to celebrate a family event. Unfortunately (like so many places) we were all booked into a non pet-friendly place. I was faced with a dilemma. What was I going to do with my babies for a week?

I did have the option of sending them to a great kennel, but finally decided on a house sitter who would stay overnight and with whom they were very familiar. But she worked during the day. So Jamie and Jemma were going to be home alone for a whole week (at least from 6.30am to 5.30pm).

I remember going on a hike in the Berg (beautiful!) and suddenly having a panic attack about my dogs. What if something went wrong! What if there was an emergency and they had to be rushed to the vet! What if my house sitter discovered this too late! Who would I call to get my dog to a vet asap!

I suddenly realised that I was working myself up into a crazy, negative state over something that might never happen. I spent the rest of the walk thinking positive thoughts about my dogs and trying to calm myself.

When I returned home, all was absolutely fine. My house sitter said that Jamie and Jemma had behaved well (except for stealing her underwear). They seemed none the worse for our week long separation. They say dogs have no concept of time (but I am not sure if that is a proven fact).

But what a relief to know that we can all survive being separated!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The problem with short term memory loss...

Who would have thought being a Puppy Instructor trainee could be so challenging?

I thought having two puppies was tiring. Try dealing with about 20 puppies all wanting to play non stop. Their owners are still learning how to "recall" their beloved munchkins so when it comes to putting all pups back on their leads, let's just say it gets very noisy. Pups have the attention span of a gnat so getting them to come when called is very challenging especially if they don't yet recognise their own name!

Last Saturday we had three classes in a row. I was meeting everybody for the first time.
Now I am one of those people who when confronted with a big group of people for the first time, have difficulty remembering everyone's name. People are very flattered when you do remember their name but slightly insulted if you don't.

At Puppy School you have to remember each owner's name (and the rest of the family who come to watch), their puppy's name and its sex. If you multiply this by 20, you have at least 60 variables to remember. Not good if you suffer from short term memory loss!

Someone gave me a sneaky tip. Just surreptiously fondle the puppy's underside while talking to the owner and this should give you a good idea of the sex. At least you can get that right while you try to remember his or her name. Last week there was quite a parade of names from Snoekie, Storm, Milaika, Bear, Dube, Zoey, Yusef to Gun. Shew!

Short of writing names on the palm of my hand, I am going to need to get some magic muti to boost my memory cells.

A solution to my Beagle Battle Blues!

Behaviourist, Karin Landsberg of ThinkingPets sent me this great advice about how to tackle the Battle of the Kingdom of the Couch:

Of course, a compromise can be reached - what about designating one couch with a distinctive cover over it as the 'doggy couch?'. This way, the Beagles can do their thing without all your couches needing covers or constant management.

Easy to teach - if they approach the wrong couch, give a no reward signal, and guide them to the correct couch. Encourage them on to that one, then give a settle cue and let them chill out there. You don't really even need treats as the comfortable lying down will be its own reward.

Thanks Karin for the great advice. Now to implement it!

(P.S. A no-reward signal is not shouting or smacking the perpetrator, but a calm verbal command like uh-uh or if you want to add some South African flavour - sies tog!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Battle I have lost...

There is one battle with my dogs that I have failed to win. That is preventing them thinking that couches are far more comfortable than the floor.

I have spent almost 18 months fighting this battle. I put obstacles on the couches in my lounge with the aim of discouraging Jamie and Jemma from making themselves at home on my furniture, but to no avail.

Now the behaviourists say that to change a dog's behaviour you have to be absolutely consistent and catch them in the act each and every time. I admit this did not always happen. They are very good at taking the gap when your guard is down.
You also have to give them an alternative behaviour like lying on a nice warm blanket in front of the fire or an extra tasty treat for staying on the floor. I tried this but they still preferred the couch.

In fact I tried everything including shouting and shutting them out of the lounge (Shouting is not OK but time-out for very short periods is OK).
But the truth be told it became too exhausting spending every night in constant battle for the kingdom of the couch.

It also showed me how strong the imprinting period is during the first 4 months of a puppy's life.
Jemma was born in a home where all the beagles had a room filled with old couches and comfy chairs on which they slept. So she grew up seeing her elders ensconced in comfort and believes that this is her right in life. Nothing I have done so far has changed her mind and now Jamie thinks if Jemma can do it, so can I.

So 18 months down the line, I have decided if you can't beat them, join them. I have put a protective cover over one of the couches which all three of us share (with me squashed in the middle). The other two couches have their cushions up ended to discourage any deviant behaviour. It does not look pretty and offends my sense of order. But rather that than endless squabbling with my dogs.

I could have opted to permanently shut them out of the lounge altogether. But that defeats the purpose of why I got them in the first place - to enjoy their company.

However I have drawn the line at the bedroom. I know Jemma loves beds, but no one is allowed in there even if it means keeping the door permanently closed day and night. In fact I still have to keep all the doors in my house closed because one little slip and I still find things disappearing and shredded all over the garden.

My Dad sent me an article about keeping fresh air circulating through your home to keep it hygienic and clean as opposed to stale and yuk.

Huh! Wonder if I will ever get to do that?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Insightful comment on "hunting"...

I thought that I would publish this comment on my blog because I think it is very relevant. I would hate there to be any confusion about my intentions when I take my beagles "hunting".

Hi, I'm a bit confused by your blog ... how can you support / participate in anything associated with a hunt if you are an animal lover as you say in your profile? I'm hoping for some form of clarity here, as I too am a passionate animal lover and a hunt goes against all those values.
September 13, 2010 10:27 AM

I quite agree. I would not participate in a hunt where any live (or dead) animals were involved. Though the organisers call it a "hunt", what the dogs do is follow scent trails that are laid out by dragging a bag filled with tinned pilchards across the ground. This leaves a scent that does not disperse quickly and is easy for the beagles to follow. I am comfortable with this as I know that it is unlikely that my beagles will make a career out of hunting live fish. I just have to be careful about avoiding rubbish dumps (beagle heaven).

Beagles have a strong olfactory sense so this "hunt" challenges that talent. It also exercises the dogs in a way impossible to do by only walking them at the end of a lead. If you go back to all my blog posts related to the "hunts" you will see how and why my interest developed.

As a dog lover, one of my greatest concerns is how to give working dog breeds that are city pets, adequate stimulation and exercise. This is a huge problem as so many of them live in the limited confines of city gardens and apartments. They develop problems because they are bored and under stimulated.

Scent trails or "hunting" is one way of enriching my beagles' lives. They are very active dogs with a highly developed sense of smell (they are used in narcotics detection). They need a lot of exercise and mental stimulation.

This is no easy task and is a constant challenge I face as a Johannesburg city dweller trying to keep my pets happy and content. They have loved been out in the African bush running and following scent trails (albeit mackerel fish) and I have loved been out of smog city under a clear African sky. A win win situation!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Last Hunt of the Season coming up...

Jamie in yellow (behind) with a friend

Jemma looking pretty in pink.

There is only one more hunt of the season on Sunday 12 September. After that we will miss all the fun enormously. I am still stressing about what we are going to do until the new season starts again next winter.

There is a final competition run at the very end on the season for only the most experienced and fastest beagles called "The Top Ten". They follow a 5 to 7 kilometre long trail non stop. Last year only five beagles finished. This is quite an achievement as the normal trail is about 1 kilometre long but the tough terrain adds to the difficulty. We normally do five of these trails back to back but with a break in between each one for water and rest.
Jemma works much harder than Jamie because she completes the trail and then returns to where the owners are waiting at the start. Jamie (oh sly one!) has learnt to stay at the finish of the trail and wait for all the owners to trickle in. Very clever! So he does not work nearly as hard as Jemma.

In October there will be a Beagle Ball attended by owners who (for a change) get all dressed up and have a swell time. People often don't recognise each other when they are decked out in all their finery. We are used to dressing in very unglamourous, thick protective clothing to keep us warm against the early morning cold and looking bleary eyed and blue in the face because of the 5.00am wake up call.

Trophies and prizes get awarded to the top ten beagles who have won the most points for coming in consistently in top places during the season. I also think it is a reward for all those dedicated owners who have given up so many Sunday morning "lie-ins" so that their beagles could have some fun.

Next year I will be entering Jamie and Jemma as a team because I think they will have a good shot at doing well in the team category. But in the meantime I am going to have to work on my fitness training programme with them during summer. My sporty sister has advised me to get them to build endurance by following me at a trot on a bike in the park. On the in between days she suggest we do sprints around the complex. But first I will have to work on my own fitness to follow this strenuous programme!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's OK to be sad...

The community of owners who take their dogs to the Beagle Hunt is very loose, laid back and there is no pressure to do anything but enjoy watching your dogs run. Most of us don't remember every one's names but we do know the names of the beagles (prominently displayed on their bibs).

The Hunt has a blog which keeps everyone in touch with the latest news, how the last hunt went, photos of our dogs competing and the occasional call for a home for a rescue beagle.
But last week one the most well known beagles on the Hunt, Basil, died in a freak accident.
He was a real character, larger than life both figuratively and literally.

There was a burglary at Basil's home. During the ensuing chaos when the security service arrived on the scene, the gate was left open. Basil ran into the road and was run over.

The outpouring of support by the owners was quite amazing! I had tears running down my cheeks as I read the comments. Why did I react that way?
Perhaps it was because I remembered what it was like to lose my own dogs, perhaps it was repressed grief at the memory.

I think we so seldom acknowledge that losing a pet is something important in our lives, something people genuinely grieve about. It is so often brushed aside because of course there are much bigger and harder issues to deal with in life than the loss of a pet.

But here people were acknowledging a pet owner's loss and grief. Everyone wrote a kind testimonial about Basil and each comment was signed with the owner's name and that of their beagle.
It's nice to belong to a community of people that understands that it's OK to be sad when you lose a pet.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Going back to Puppy School without Jamie or Jemma

When I started writing this blog about me and my dogs, I didn't realise that it would take me into a whole new world. Taking Jamie and Jemma to Puppy School opened a door for me that has taken me off into a whole new direction.
I decided I wanted to learn more.

So last year I spent nine months studying canine behaviour through the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology in the UK. I learnt that the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. I learnt that the world of dog behaviour is surprisingly complex. There are many different schools of thought amongst the academics. And when it comes to the business side of things, it is highly policised and competitive just like most other industries.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learnt is that there are two ends to a leash. There's a dog on one end and a human on the other end. Most of the time canine behaviour is the result of how the human behaves and how much the human really understands their dog.

Everything in life always comes back to Homo sapiens, even canine behaviour!

This year I have embarked on my studies to become a dog trainer starting out as a Puppy Instructor trainee. I wrote my exam last weekend and will embark on several months of practical training during which we are constantly evaluated before we are given the green light as a trainer.

It is interesting to observe that the puppies are always so innocent and delightful. The challenge is usually how to help the humans. Luckily it was not so long ago that I was one of those clumsy, fallible and ignorant owners, so I can empathise with most of them. Though there are a few who, shall we say, present an interesting challenge! But that is a story for another time.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The man with five dogs...

A little while ago I wrote about the man with four dogs. He now has five dogs.

The story of his latest rescue dog is just as bizarre as the stories of the others.

This dog came from a couple who where going through a divorce. They could not agree as to who would take the dog. So they decided that since neither was prepared to take on the responsibility, the best solution was to euthanize the dog.

I guess if King Solomon had decided to cut the dog in half, unlike the biblical tale where the real mother would rather give up her child that let him die, in this case the dog would have been dead. How incredibly twisted is that!

Two women both claimed to be the mother of a child and brought their case before King Solomon. After some deliberation, King Solomon called for a sword to be brought before him. He declared that there is only one fair solution: the live son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child. Upon hearing this terrible verdict, the boy's true mother cried out, "Please, My Lord, give her the live child—do not kill him!" However, the liar, in her bitter jealousy, exclaimed, "It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!" Solomon instantly gave the live baby to the real mother, realizing that the true mother's instincts were to protect her child, while the liar revealed that she did not truly love the child.

Some one rescued the dog from its owners, but her flat was too small for a lively beagle.
So now the man with a big heart has five dogs!

Beagle Wonderland

Beagle Hunts have become a highlight both for me and my beagles. Jemma and Jamie are now successfully completing 90% of the scent "lines". I have been amazed that they are tackling the very tough ones which wind over koppies with very rough, rocky terrain. It is very satisfying hearing the hunt leader read out the names of the dogs that have crossed the finish line and to hear that Jamie and Jemma have made it.

I am also enjoying the walking and talking to all the other owners who come from far and wide for the Hunt. I enjoy passing on tips to those whose beagles do not run immediately (like mine). There are a lucky few whose dogs run first time, but many owners become discouraged when their beagles don't succeed right away. There are several factors that I have learnt have to be taken into account:
  1. Your beagle needs to get used to the idea that it is allowed to leave you and disappear from sight. From a small age we teach them not to get lost, not to leave our side. Now they have to learn that it is OK to do this at a Beagle Hunt.
  2. Most dogs are not used to being in packs (at least 30 dogs) nor to the incredible barking and howling as the experienced dogs bark in excitement at the start line. It can be quite intimidating and takes some getting used to.
  3. They need to learn to run with the pack.
  4. They need to learn to follow a scent trail (a mackerel scent trail). When the going gets hard and the pack breaks up, it is often the dogs that really know how to follow a scent who finish the trail. Many dogs only keep up with the pack because they are fast and fit, but when the pack breaks up, they lose their way.
  5. Your dogs need to be lean and fit. If they are carrying too much weight or have not developed stamina and speed, they get left behind by the pack.
  6. They need to develop callouses on their paw pads. Most of our dogs are used to soft grassy gardens and parks. Now they are expected to race over bush veld and rocky terrain and their paws need to get used to that.

At the moment I have put my beagles on a diet as they need to lose at least a kilogram or two. I also need to work out how to make them fitter and faster. I admit that I do not get my dogs to the park as often as I should because it is suck a "trek" to get there. What I am going to try to do is to increase the intensity of their training by getting them to follow me on a mountain bike.

They currently keep up with my walking speed with ease and spend a lot of time exploring different scents and smells. If I could introduce a bit of "speed training" and encourage them to sprint after my bike, the outing might be a bit more challenging for them.

Anyway that is the long term plan which hopefully will come together when I get a bike! I also have to plan what we are going to do when the Hunt season comes to an end. I will have to find something else to keep them entertained during the summer!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Can you spot number 91 and 92?

Spot Jamie and Jemma! They are doing well at the Beagle Hunt and their bib numbers are 91 and 92 respectively.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vuvuzela controversy...

Yup, even our dogs have been affected by Soccer World Cup fevah! These two are keeping warm in their national colours.

Initially the vuvuzela was a huge point of controversy with wide debate about whether it should be banned at the World Cup stadiums. But half way through the tournament they are now an accepted part of the African experience.

I personally attended a Bafana Bafana match with some trepidation and earplugs at the ready. Instead it was an unforgettable experience. There is nothing quite like the vibrating energy generated by thousands of vuvuzelas. As one of of our players put it "We could feel the wind of your lungs supporting us". In fact it is quite liberating to be able to scream invective at the opposition and the referee knowing that no one can really hear what you say. Otherwise I would have been red carded out of the stadium!

So far it has been a Soccer World Cup of upsets and surprises, despair and elation. At first many (including players) complained that the cacophony was undermining their concentration during the game. Strangely, I have not noticed complaints from the winning teams. There is no doubt in my mind that the vuvuzela has added something different and special to this event. Vuvuzelas are fast becoming a South African national sporting symbol and being exported just as fast around the world. Nor can manufacturers meet the demand fast enough (much of which is from foreign fans). Mark my words, the vuvuzela will start appearing in other stadiums around the globe.

I did have a chuckle when I heard that the the white haired dons of Wimbledon have issued an edict banning the vuvuzela from the tournament. Ah well, Wimbledon would not be Wimbledon if it was not restrained and ever so polite.
My attitude has changed about the vuvuzela complainers. Either put up or shut up! This is Africa, get used to it!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jamie and Jemma finish their first "line"...

The temperature was sub zero and the veld white with frost. I had to pry my eyes open with pliers at 5.00am in order to hit the road. The round trip to the Beagle Hunt is about 100 kilometers and my motivation about the whole exercise needed a boost. I had become despondent about the fact that Jemma and Jamie had not yet finished a full scent trail. The whole point of the Beagle Hunt is to get them to run really hard with the pack and use their incredible olfactory sense. But so far they had not achieved this. We might as well walk closer to home at a more civilised hour, I grumbled as we drove in the dark trying to avoid the ubiquitous potholes. I needed Jamie and Jemma to finish a scent trail.

Today they received their new race bibs with their own name and number. Jamie was number 91 and Jemma 92. Now they looked the part, they just needed to act the part.

Nothing happened on the first trail. But the second trail of the day was downhill through short grass. I noticed that for the first time Jamie and Jemma were watching the people laying the trail - a good sign that they were aware something was up. As the horn blew, the pack raced off sticking together because they could see each other and disappeared around a koppie. After about five minutes Jemma and Jamie returned with the rest of the beagles. When everyone was accounted for, we walked to the end of the trail where the judges were waiting to read out the list of beagles that had crossed the finish line. Jamie and Jemma had arrived in second place! I thought this was just too good to be true and double checked with the judges that it was not other beagles with the same name that had finished. "Yes," they confirmed " Number 91 and 92 finished well".
Suddenly the effort of getting up that freezing Sunday morning in the dark was all worth it.

The rest of the trails that day were very tough following a line up and over steep, rocky koppies. Here the pack began to break up and only the most well trained and experienced finished.
So I have realised a couple of things:
Hunting a scent may be instinctive but your beagle still needs to learn how to use that instinct.
Most of the beagles actually just follow the pack or other beagles who know what they are doing.
There are only about 10 to 15 beagles who actually follow the scent and they have learnt this through lots of experience or with the help of training by their owners.
So like everything else, one has to put effort into this sport. Although I had hoped that Jamie and Jemma would do everything naturally while I sat back and drank hot coffee, it is going to take a bit more dedication on my part.

I was chatting to someone who owns a husky and joined a group who go "sledding" i.e. train their huskies to pull a variety of contraptions from go-carts to bicycles. She was also told that this was something her dog would do instinctively. But this was definitely not the case. She said her dog was all over the place so she quit and has returned to walking in the park.

We will see if I can hang in there because there is no doubt Jemma and Jamie love The Hunt.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Vetkoek and Beagles...

There is nothing quite like a baying beagle ready to hunt the trail!

Ready, set....


Vetkoek, cheese, savoury mince and a variety of jams for tea after the hunt. Yum!

There were also a lot of hungry beagles tired of sniffing elusive pilchards on the scent trail and hoping the vetkoek was more accessible.
One hundred vetkoeke were devoured by hungry people and beagles alike after the hunt. The catering was courtesy of two chefs who run a cooking school in Johannesburg. However their beagles, tough competitors on the trail, are kept lean and mean. No vetkoek for Poppadom and Roti!
Jemma and Jamie are disappearing for longer periods of time but are yet to finish "a line" (a scent trail).
Each trail is about a kilometre long and over pretty rough terrain. Your beagles need to be fit and healthy to do this sport. I think Jamie (the previously anorexic puppy now greedy beagle) needs to lose a bit of weight!
This weekend I decided to try and do a bit of "home" training to see if it would help Jemma and Jamie get a better idea of what they are supposed to do. I roped in Santacruz and Little Helper as assistants.
Our first attempts were not very successful. I dragged a bag of pilchards a short distance and then hid, but we found that Jemma and Jamie were tracking me by following my scent and not that of the pilchards. When I was down wind from them, they battled to find me.
So we started from scratch. Santacruz persuaded them to watch and follow the bag of pilchards as she pulled it behind her. I slowly disappeared off the scene because my presence was a distraction. Also we needed them to cut the apron strings and realise it was OK to follow a scent trail being set by a stranger.
Eventually Santacruz and Little Helper started playing hide and seek with Jemma and Jamie again. Little Helper, being small and easy to hide, would drag the bag and disappear in the long grass. Each time Jemma and Jamie found her, they received a treat.
Our final conclusion at the end of the exercise was that they were beginning to associate the smell of pilchards in the morning with seeking people... one step closer to understanding the meaning of The Hunt!
I will have to try and get another practise session before the next Hunt. Let's hope it it helps improve their performance!
Thank you Santacruz and Little Helper for your generous time and patience with Jemma and Jamie!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The man with four dogs...

I met a man at the Beagle Hunt who owned four dogs - three beagles and a basset. Two of his beagles had been rescued. One was from the SPCA, the other from owners who wanted to get rid of their 5 month old puppy. But these dogs' background stories were heartbreaking.

One had been rescued after jumping out of a taxi in Johannesburg. She had a microchip (her original owners must have cared enough to implant one in her as a puppy). The chip was traced to Cape Town but the company that had registered it was now defunct. So the SPCA was unable to find her original owners. Imagine losing your dog and never knowing what her fate was. So check that your microchip in your dog is still traceable!

"She still bears the scars to this day" said her new owner and it was really upsetting to see such a "sad" looking beagle. Beagles are usually so cheerful and friendly by nature. But at least this beagle has finally found a caring home.

His second beagle is now a 13 month old male. The circumstances surrounding how he ended up being re homed were very disconcerting. He was bred by Onderstepoort Veterinary University where they use beagles to educate student vets. They sometimes sell their male puppies to raise funds for the university and these puppies are not cheap nor are they plentiful.

He was bought by a couple who wanted a puppy as a playmate for their 4 and 6 year old children.

Mistake Number 1: A puppy is not a soft toy to be handled by children too young to know what they are doing. This family decided to get rid of their 5 month old puppy because it apparently "bit" one of the children.

Now anyone with half a brain cell knows that puppies are highly active, destructive chewing machines. They chew all the time on anything and everything.

Bite inhibition is learnt by puppies when they interact with their litter mates. If they bite too hard, it hurts and so they learn to play more gently. But we owners remove them while they are still learning and it is up to us to continue their bite inhibition education. That's why puppy school or socialisation is so important. We learn how to teach "cute looking" puppies to grow up into well behaved, happy dogs without destroying their spirit or essential nature. It takes many scratches and bites before your puppy learns that when you squeak "Ow" and ignore them for a while that they must be more gentle while playing with you.

But it takes an adult to teach this and other lessons to your puppy. It's an adult responsibility. How ignorant can you be to think you can hand over the care and education of a small puppy to a small child?

Mistake Number 2: Puppies are usually sold at 2 months. After having the puppy for only three months, the new owners decided "Oh Dear! we've made a mistake. Let's get rid of it". This puppy's most important "imprinting" period, his first 4 months when he learns how to behave through socialisation and habituation, were mismanaged by thoughtless humans. The puppy was very nervous and insecure when he arrived at his next home. Luckily he has been taken on by someone who is patient and understanding.

Perhaps Onderstepoort should vet the people who buy their puppies as stringently as do many of the top breeders?

But while dishing out the onions on this issue, I also have to give Onderstepoort a bouquet. Two of their students came along to observe the beagle hunt. My understanding was that they are looking at possible ways of enriching the lives of the dogs they keep there. It is good to know that Onderstepoort is trying to improve their beagles' quality of life beyond cages and concrete floors.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Huntmaster Scenting the Hounds (with a smelly bag of pilchards)

Setting the Scent Trail & Blowing the Start Horn (size does not count)

Beagle Hunt Sequel...

Unlike most sequel events, Beagle Hunt II turned out to be slightly better than the first event.

Jamie and Jemma got into the swing of the rush of the pack from the start line. But when the pack broke up to search for the scent trail, they lost the plot and returned back to the waiting line of owners.

But this time Jamie and Jemma did disappear for longer in the knee high grass. And they did not seek me out immediately which means that the apron strings are slowly loosening. This needs to happen said the more experienced owners: the realisation that it is OK to leave MABeagle for a while.

Meanwhile I casually asked other owners for more winning tips (I had to be subtle because some owners are quite competitive!). The champions Roti and Poppadom had first been trained at home by playing hide and seek. Dad would make a big fuss and go and hide until Mom eventually let them go to seek out their master. Then on the hunt, Dad made a big fuss of his dogs and made sure they saw him leaving with the party that was laying the scent trail. So they knew that he had gone ahead and had to find him.

Some one else advised me to find a consistent finisher whose pace matched that of your own beagle. Stick your beagle next to the more experienced beagle at the start line in the hopes that they would stay together until the finish.

Fitness definitely plays a role if one wants to keep up with top dogs like Roti and Poppadom who get exercise every day. Their Dad also confided that they had been a bit overweight (typical of beagles) and when they lost a few kilograms, their speed increased. These two cleaned up again winning every heat. So if one is prepared to put the time into training them, your dogs can catch on faster.

Jamie and I broke the rules by crossing the start line before the horn was sounded. I was not concentrating and in the melee he slipped out of my grasp. He would have been disqualified not only for a false start but for distracting the other beagles. But the fact that he was a total non starter got him off the hook. He casually wandered off to the side to lift his leg. He was so busy doing his business that it took him a while to realise that the pack had left him in their dust! Luckily, as a newcomer his race bib does not bear his name yet. So when this happened a second time, I quietly disowned him.

One of the organisers who comes regularly has a beagle called Snoopy. He is yet to finish a heat and yet they still keep coming. That's what I call dedication. For some it is not about winning or even finishing, just having fun. There were a lot of new faces and I saw some bibs with numbers up in the 80's so there are a lot of members. But an average of about 20 to 30 beagles show up regularly. When it gets colder and more difficult to get up in the dark, it will be interesting to see who will hang in there (including yours truly). I think I need to pull finger and try and do some more home training before the next hunt. But there is a whole season of winter months ahead to see what happens.

Next time around they are arranging a "koeksuster" tea after the hunt. This South African sweet sticky treat will go down very well on a cold winter's day after getting up at 5.00am with nothing but a cup of coffee in the stomach!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Things that go bump in the night...

Jamie is the sweetest dog. I love him to bits but he does have some strange neuroses.
Firstly there is the fact that he still hates the car. This despite an intensive desensitisation programme on my part. It means that every outing is a bit of a chore because it takes ages to get Jamie into the car. (I know he gets car sick but it is pointless giving him anti nausea medication unless the trip is more than a hour in duration.)

Secondly he is afraid of large, strange objects. I think this goes back to his puppy hood. He was frightened by one of those big black garbage bins as it rumbled noisily down a pathway. Ever since then, if Jamie sees anyone carrying something large like a box, suitcase or furniture, he runs in the opposite direction.

Winter has definitely announced its arrival in Gauteng, South Africa. So heaters are becoming a necessity. But bearing in mind that we are about to be hit by huge hikes in our electricity bills, I have trundled out my gas heater and kept the electric heaters in storage. But the gas heater just happens to be big and black.

Jamie has refused to join us in the lounge since this heater made its appearance. Despite treats and endearments, he is unwilling to come very far into the room or he sits close to the door where he can make a quick escape.

Well Jamie might just end up having a chilly winter unless he comes to terms with the strange new object in the lounge. It is going to be the only source of heat this winter!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Beagle Hunt Gathering...

Getting used to wearing race bibs...

Ready to Race...

Beagle Hunt!

My dogs were very surprised to woken at 5.00am by me instead of the other way around. Dog bowl, water, coffee, sandwiches and directions in hand, we set off for the country side. The terrain was a mix of hillocks, trees and tall green grass.

Gathered under a cool sky were between 20 to 30 beagles and their owners. Most of us were "newbeags" and not exactly sure what to expect.

We were given instructions by the "hunt" leader about how to handle our beagles before the start of each hunt. Then we set off to the start of the first trail. Each beagle is given a sniff of the bag of pilchards by the hunt leader. He then sets off dragging the bag behind him to create a scent trail. When he reaches the end point, it is communicated back to a team member at the start. A piece of string is the indicator of where to line up your dogs. You have to carefully get their leads off and hold onto their collars until a horn is blown and then the dogs are set loose.

The veteran beagles knew exactly what was about to happen and began excited barking and baying which the "newbeags" found confusing. What was all the excitement about? The owners were warned to keep absolutely quiet and still so as not to distract the beagles from being swept up by the rush from the start line.

The horn blew, I let go of Jemma and Jamie and.........nothing. They sat looking a bit confused at first, rushed off for about 20 metres, then turned back to rejoin the group of owners - a reaction that was typical of most of the "newbeags".

The end of the first scent trail became the beginning of the next trail and we did a total of six trails that day. The owners and beagles left behind would wait until the beagles (who knew what they were doing) reached the finishing line. Then we would walk the shortest route to the end (as the crow flies).

Each dog wears a bib with its name and number so that the judges at the finish know who has crossed the line and award them points. There were two beagles named Roti and Poppadom who were the clear winners each time. Their owner is apparently a chef and they are obviously after the winners title this year. I asked the chef how long it takes for a beagle to learn what to do. He explained that because we spend most of our time training our dogs to stick close to us, not to wander off and to obey a recall, their first hunts are a bit confusing. To suddenly be allowed to go off on their own and leave their owners behind takes a bit of getting used to. Sometimes their pack instinct will kick in but most people have a single beagle, so they have never experienced the call of a baying pack.

One owner of a "newbeag" said that he was going to train his beagle to follow a scent trail by dragging a pilchard bag behind his golf cart! There is no doubt that if you have the time and space, you could train your beagles by yourself. (I must ask the chef what his secret is).

But many owners say that it can take a season or two before your beagle will click (and some never do!). I met the owner of a 10 year old beagle who was too old to run but just came for the fun of the day. And there were two "newbeags" who cracked the trail first time around.

I have a feeling that Jamie may click because though he did not follow the scent trail and stayed with the human/beagle pack, he often disappeared from sight and I would only find him when we arrived at the end point. Jemma on the other hand nearly got lost the first time and headed off in the opposite direction back to the car park. Luckily my red whistle re-orientated her back to me. But after that she tended to keep me in her sights.

But whether your beagle succeeded on the scent trail or not, did not seem hugely important. Everyone (dogs and owners) had loads of fun socialising, sniffing and walking. The mood of the day was very relaxed and enjoyable. And it was wonderful to be out of the city!

All in all it was a great day in the country side. I got more exercise than I bargained for and my beagles less than I expected. But by the time we headed home, Jamie, Jemma and I were all pooped and spent the entire afternoon snoozing. I am really looking forward to next event!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How to exercise your dogs and not kill yourself in the process...

You may have read my post where I was whining about how difficult it is to truly exercise a working dog in the city. Well I might have found a solution. There is a group of beagle owners who organise a bi-monthly "Beagle Hunt". Before the bunny-huggers squeak in protest, just like I did at the thought of a "blood sport", it is nothing like that.

There are no live animals or blood involved except a very smelly sack of pilchards (dead that is).
These fish are excellent for laying a strong scent trail through the bush and the idea is to tap into the beagles' breed trait of a strong sense of smell and working well together in packs.

There are strict rules about how the "hunt" is run but it is apparently all done with the dog's best interests at heart and is relaxed and fun for owners. It is also out in the countryside!
So the idea is that they follow the scent trail to the finish and are awarded points (if they finish) and the overall winners are announced at a Beagle Ball at the end of the season.

Apparently they don't need to be trained but it can take a while before they catch on. But I have started giving Jamie and Jemma the occasional pilchard as a treat just so they recognise the smell and know that it should lead to something tasty and nice.

What appeals to me is that the owners sit back and wait for their dogs to return. So my dogs are not restricted by my level of fitness. They have several heats and your dogs can do as many as they want. At the end of the morning there is a bit of a social get together with sandwiches and coffee for dogs and owners alike. We will be doing our first hunt soon - so will keep you posted.

I think the concept of creating a relaxed event around what a particular breed of dog enjoys doing and which is also enjoyable for the owner, is great. Another brilliant solution to the problem of how to mentally and physically stimulate your dog!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Why does curiosity only kill cats and not dogs?

It was only a matter of time before Jemma figured out how to empty the trash can in my kitchen. Now that she knows the trick, no garbage container will ever be safe again in my house.
She loves ones with a pedal that she can paw or lids that she can push open with her nose.

This particular day, I had woken up at 4.30am and staggered to work before sparrows for an exhausting 12 hour shift. I had thrown some marrow bones at the terrible twins to keep them occupied and switched the radio to soothing classical music. But while the Boss Cat is away the dogs did play.

As I crawled home in the thick traffic, all that kept me going was the thought of a hot bath and bed. But when I opened my door, what greeted me was not a pretty sight. A tornado of garbage debris was everywhere. As I picked my way through the smelly, sticky putrid mess, I noticed that Jamie and Jemma looked ominously bloated.

So instead of a hot bath and bed, I had to pull on the rubber gloves and force myself to start the back breaking task of picking up the garbage.

Whenever there is monkey business in my house, the main instigator is usually Jemma. She is far too bright and curious for her own good. She is literally always sticking her nose into my business.
She is often the unlucky recipient of a tongue lashing. Then I feel guilty. But I don't know why because quizzy-lizzy is soon up to her tricks again.

It seems curiosity does indeed only kill cats because my dogs are immune to this fate.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Back to Reality!

After a whole month of freedom to roam when and where they wanted at our cottage by the sea, Jemma and Jamie found it a real shock returning to city suburbia with walls and boring gardens. Once again they are dependent on me for mental and physical stimulation.

It has been equally traumatic for me. I had to jump on to the roller coaster ride that is 2010 going from 0 to 100 km per hour in a millisecond. I am now juggling life and the ever present guilt of finding the time and energy to take my dogs out.

In the city this is no mean feat. Taking them for a walk on a lead has become an unpleasant option for both of us. They feel reined in and I feel like I'm being drawn and quartered as they pull me in opposite directions. So we prefer a park where we can all do our own thing.

But first you have to find a suitable park, then you have to organise the outing with military precision. Check for dog whistle, poop scoop bags, treats, water, a bowl, collars and leads, a hat, walking shoes, and a cash tip for the car park guard. Then I have to lock up the house and persuade Jamie to get into the car (he is still reluctant to get in this machine that makes him feel car sick).

All of this takes at least half an hour and must be achieved by 3.30pm before peak hour traffic. Sitting bumper to bumper in a Johannesburg traffic jam is not good for the nerves. It is a half hour drive to the big parks where we walk for an hour and another half hour drive back (traffic permitting). So a dog walk is a two and a half hour operation!

When I can't take them, I suffer the consequences. They run around my house and property like banshees possessed. This is usually accompanied by loud, excitable barking which is an additional stressor as I wait for a call from an irritated neighbour. They do not care that this is a dog's version of happy hour. Mind you, even after a walk they are so revved up that they still run around the house like banshees for at least an hour afterwards!

On weekends I have devised a way to compensate for my lack of fitness as I would need to run a marathon before they would eventually tire! I walk for an hour then find myself a spot to sit where there are lots of passing dogs and their owners. Jemma and Jamie keep themselves busy saying hallo to every new comer while I read the Sunday newspaper and drink coffee. Works for me!