150 Learning from Dogs-Articles from 1980s onwards in chronological order

by   David Hancock

I have just completed a year of living alone,with only my two dogs as companions.There are many of course who have spent any number of years doing likewise but in my case it was new and therefore more educational.I have been involved with dogs all my life,that is over fifty years,but always with the dogs in a working environment,or housed in an outhouse or with family being a higher priority.I thought that I had a great deal of knowledge and understanding of dogs from this but the last year of living closer to them than ever before and needing their companionship as much as they needed mine has really opened my eyes.With no other human to talk to in the house,no neighbours in my rather isolated country location and no social life away from work led to my spending much more time with my dogs,observing them more closely,understanding much better their very different philosophy of life and coming to acknowledge their little subtleties.

It is now much clearer to me how dogs think,react,anticipate and respond.I realise that they are far more sensitive than I had appreciated.I admit that I have been underestimating their capability,underrating their cleverness and undervaluing their potential...really throughout my life.I do wish that I had had the opportunity,the circumstances and the wit to have learned this a long time ago.Yet when I browse through my library of books on dog-training,especially those on gundog training,I find that time and time again even the acknowledged experts in their field lack the basic understanding of the mind and instincts of the domestic dog.The expressions they use like "dog-breaking","breaking to the gun" and "a touch of the whip" really offend me.

I have become very envious of those who centuries ago used the cleverness of dogs in a most enlightened way,often to their benefit admittedly,but usually in a mutually-dependent relationship.I am thinking of the shepherd in the days when he lived with his sheep and his sheepdogs,of the humbler hunter sharing his primitive dwelling with lurcher and of the waterside hunter's partnership with his gifted water-dogs and guileful decoy-dogs.Such men were so close to their dogs,knew how clever and valuable they were and were wise enough to appreciate the full potential of their dogs.It is extremely rare in modern society for dog-owners to need their dogs so much and to be so close to them.We forget too how all dogs love to work,to be employed,to be useful,to give service.But how we underuse them!Look down at your sleeping dog with greater empathy.

Last year I spent some time watching obedience work being demonstrated and witnessed a gundog working test.At the former,the dogs were expected to behave like well-drilled automatons,never to use their brains and their instinctive behaviour;their wish to please us even to their own discomfort was being exploited.I have nothing against obedience work but it does rather insult the intelligence of a thinking lively capable dog.At the gundog working test,the demands were different but so elementary that a clever corgi could have coped as well as the big retrievers on trial that day.I tried each of these exercises on my two working sheepdogs with an entirely predictable result.

Both dogs were intrigued,initially stimulated then puzzled at such requests coming their way.When instructed to walk with their heads glued to my left knee-cap they gently questioned the need.They walk beautifully to heel anyway,why make them either robot-like or act contrary to their instinctive way?My dogs are happier,more relaxed and more under control through a happy compromise between my requirements and their natural response.I don't want them to behave precisely and mechanically or automatically and unthinkingly.I want them alert not switched off.When I put them through the working gundog test,they were baffled...was that all I wanted of them?When was I going to give them something more worthy of them?I had disappointed them;for an intelligent sheepdog this was pretty ordinary stuff.

I wonder if down the ages the articulate, the scholarly, the academic and the literate elements of our society haven't been allowed to have the field to themselves far far too much.They feed off each other,read more than they experience,learn almost entirely from educated people and often distance themselves from unsophisticated wisdom,deeper understanding and more perceptive observation.Today the gundog fraternity know a great deal about the work of the labrador retriever and the springer spaniel,few of them have ever heard of the red decoy-dog or the great rough water-dog,animals far cleverer than the modern gundog.The much-quoted Dr.Caius,who four centuries ago wrote the first book on English dogs,was a scholar not a dogman and much of what he wrote on dogs came from his not knowing he was having his leg pulled by the sportsmen of his day.Yet he is extensively quoted as being authoritative.Celebrated writers like "Stonehenge" and "Idstone" in the last century are regarded as the great canine experts of their day by far too many researchers.Men like these never lived with dogs as say a shepherd did in their times...where is the voice of the shepherd?

Even quite knowledgeable modern gundog authors write about training methods which can only stop dogs thinking for themselves and thereby failing to bring their powerful innate skills into play.Some dog-training "experts" seem to be advocating dogs with keys on their backs and a motor instead of a heart.Certainly their views on discipline horrify me and I recall the words of Mark Hayton of Ilkley,Yorkshire,trainer of some of the world's finest sheepdogs over thirty years: "It is not by the boot,the   stick,the kennel and chain that a dog can be trained or mademan's loyal friend but only by love.For those who understand no explanation is needed;for those who do not,no explanation will prevail."

"Those who understand"are so often those who totally rely on the use of dogs for their livelihood rather than for sport or a pastime  but are mainly those who have spent long hours alone with their dogs.The miner with his whippet,the gypsy with his lurcher and the blind man with his guide-dog have a kinship with their dogs which is something special.Some old-time gamekeepers developed a similar rapport;many present-day gamekeepers seem to lack this extra dimension to their work with dogs.These words of mine are far removed from an indulgence in romanticising about times past or overlooking the need to have control over headstrong dogs;it is more a need to pass on to others the enlightenment which has come directly from a year spent in a new closeness to dogs.

I find I can now communicate with my dogs far better and by this I don't mean purely verbal communication.I carried out little trials in which for whole days I would not use my voice at all,but rely on the association of ideas through dress,gesture,activity,route and timetable.It was quite remarkable to discover that the spoken word was largely redundant.The dogs were nearly always ahead of me.For some years they have been telling me when other humans were around and when telephones were ringing and I obviously hadn't noticed,now they were reminding me of breaches in an established routine.Their powers of observation and then stored memory are really astounding.I needed to learn more lastingly too the degree to which we are sight-led whereas dogs utilise their powers of scent and hearing far far more.We all acknowledge such facts but rarely give them their true significance,their proper perspective.Perhaps that's the difference between cleverness and wisdom;some of the wisest people I know are those closest to nature and its simplicities.

  When I was in East Africa,I saw a bull-elephant which had been pushed out of the community of the herd through the ascendancy of a younger male.He lived a lonely solitary life until he died and was dubbed "El Wahido" as a result.I have more sympathy for him after the last year...but I am saved by the companionship of dogs.I am glad too that my dogs have each other.For just as we need human company as well as theirs,dogs need canine company as well as ours.Even scientists have come to appreciate the importance of canine company for humans living alone,without always being able to identify every reason for it.

  The main reason why I enjoy the companionship of dogs is that they have long realised and then applied the secret of true companionship...they love you for what you are! And the more I see of dogs the less regard have I for humans.