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When I was growing up, I had the world's best dog. He was a huge border collie/husky cross called Joker. He was acquired from a farmer in Ballycastle as my 11th birthday present. He was, without question, the smartest dog ever. When I was little, he would 'herd' my friends and me in the street to keep us safe from cars. As I grew older I took him to the pub. When he decided that he (or I) had had enough he would go and find my coat, take the lead from my pocket and set it on the table. If that didn't work he would then go and fetch my coat and dump it on my lap. He walked to heel without a lead, knew all the obedience commands, and understood sign language. When he died of a stroke when I was 22 I grieved more for him than I ever have for any family member. I also swore I'd never get another dog.
Then, last year, along came Neelix. I acquired him from one of my best friends who (then) lived in Dublin. She'd got him when she saw him being thrown out of a car onto the dual carriageway. He's been badly beaten and someone had cack-handedly attempted to cut his tail off. With a carving knife. After a few years things between her and her abusive husband (that'll be the American arsehole who lumbered the poor dog with the Star Trek name 'Neelix') went badly awry and she moved back to Belfast. At this stage Neelix had been in kennels for nearly a year and was becoming traumatised. She badly needed a home for him, and I agreed to take him on.
In my innocence I thought that after a few weeks of stability Neelix would settle into his new lifestyle and become the ideal pet. Christ, was I wrong. Neelix is now nearly 6 but most people assume he's a puppy because of the sheer amount of boundless energy and joie de vivre he possesses. As an Alsatian/Terrier cross he seemingly managed to absorb all the negative points of each breed with none of the positives. In short, he is the world's worst dog. Don't believe me? Read on.
Very quickly, and because of the trauma of his upbringing and his stint in kennels, Neelix developed an incredibly strong bond with me. This manifests itself in separation anxiety, i.e., he is the only being in the world who absolutely cannot cope with the absence of me. If I walk across the room (even though I'm still in his eyeline) he gets up and follows me. If I go to the toilet he sits outside.
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When I'm in the shower he paces frantically outside the door. When I go to work he clambers onto the windowsill and barks for up to three hours (making me even less popular with the neighbours than I already was). In the early days he became so distressed when I left that he ate 3 sets of metal Venetian blinds, chewed the windowsill to bits, tore down curtains and ate his way through the phone book. He also became aggressive to anyone who tried to hug/touch me. Despite being (size-wise, not rubbish jokes-wise) the canine equivalent of Ronnie Corbett he will attack any dog within a 200 yard radius - once starting a fight with 2 bull terriers, an Alsatian and a Doberman simultaneously. Most people would have shot him at this stage, but he does have some redeeming features. He is full of fun and endlessly affectionate (well, to me, anyway), so much so that yesterday he was so completely overwhelmed with joy at seeing me come up the stairs that he got himself wedged in the banisters in his frenzy to greet me. He is hugely entertaining in a spacker kind of a way - when presented with the opportunity to play fetch he will work himself into such a frenzy of excitement that he gallops on the spot, cartoon dog style, and then runs headlong into a wall. He is intelligent, although chooses to use his powers for evil.
Training, therefore, was needed. My vet recommended Puppy School after commenting that Neelix was 'quite unlike anything I've ever seen before.' To give a wee bit of history, Puppy School aims to teach puppies and older dogs to behave appropriately around adults, children and other animals using a system of rewards and praise. Each trainer holds the franchise for their area and will hold classes (usually) on the weekend. The trainers are also available for home consultations (more of which later). I have to admit, I was initially sceptical of the 'praise and reward' system, especially as Neelix is a dog who generally only responds to me yelling 'NEELIX! FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, NO!' However, this was just after I had come home from work to find Neelix standing, triumphant, over the battered and shredded remains of my Hoover, so I was at the end of my tether.
I filled in the form which asks for details of your dog (and includes a little box for 'any problem behaviours'. I had to attach another two sides of A4, and even that was glossing over some things) and sent it off with a cheque for £60 (prices may vary from trainer to trainer according to demand). After a week or so the trainer, Robin, phoned and said that he thought Neelix may need a home visit. He arranged to come out the following week. When he rang the bell Neelix went into his usual frenzy of barking and throwing himself against the front door. As he came in, Robin explained that he would ignore the dog until he had calmed down, thus teaching him that he was rewarded only for a calm greeting. Well, there's no keeping a slightly crazed small dog down. Indefatigable as ever, Neelix sat for approximately a minute and obviously worked out that Robin was wearing a Barbour jacket with lots of pockets. Neelix then used the pockets of the coat to 'climb' Robin, until he was eye level with him and manically licking his face.
After blanching only slightly at this performance Robin proceeded to work through a lot of strategies that would improve Neelix's separation anxiety and aggression. These included tying him up in a central location so that he could see but not follow me, leaving him in one room and returning after short periods of time and giving him lots of praise, giving him rewards and praise only when he had performed a basic obedience command, and methods to prevent him from launching himself bodily at visitors. He was also honest about the problems that Neelix had, and didn't mince words when giving me a timescale for 'fixing' him. The cost of the home visit was £30 for the hour, which is more than I bloody get paid, but worth it, nonetheless.
The following week we started the classes. These are generally held in a church hall and run in cycles of 6 and aim to teach your dog a new skill every week. You will be asked to bring drinking water, a toy and some treats (all of which are for the dog. Nobody really cares about how well hydrated or entertained the humans are). On arrival at the first class we were early and stood outside to wait and met a few of the others. On that occasion Neelix assaulted a Jack Russell puppy, peed on another dog and snarled at a child who wanted to pat him. And yet, we weren't the worst there! Seeing a very nice (but very old) lady get pulled onto her knees by her absolutely fecking huge Alsatian and then towed, face down, across the gravel after him, made my day (that sounds a bit wrong, but seriously, it was a revelation).
Once inside Robin established whether it was food or toys that motivated the dogs and asked us to bring them into the middle of the hall and focus their attention on us. All the other dogs managed this. Neelix, however, seized the opportunity to run around the hall, stealing their toys and food while I ran after him, threatening to batter him. Eventually, though, he managed it. We were then shown how to use treats to get the dogs to sit and lie down on command. Amazingly, we were the best at this. We even got an 'everybody watch how well Neelix and Fiona are doing this.' My pride at this juncture knew no bounds. Needless to say, I was put firmly back in my place shortly afterwards when, as we were attempting the recall command, Neelix ran at full speed to the wrong woman, looked a bit bemused, realised it wasn't me and tried (enthusiastically) to bite her.
I'll not go through each class,because Neelix's catalogue of shame needs no further details, but so far (we're halfway through the course) Neelix has learnt to (reliably) sit, lie down, stay and recall. Walking to heel is a bit wobbly, but he's getting there. The best thing about the classes is that they are practical, i.e., you actually do the stuff with your dog, rather than watching someone else demonstrate. Everyone at the classes has been incredibly friendly and very supportive and they're all quite laid back when some of the dogs occasionally become a bit aggressive or start barking. On that point, by the second class Neelix was a lot less concerned with other dogs/people and much more focussed on me. He now can concentrate fully on me for an hour with only the very occasional snap/growl at another dog.
Robin always makes himself available for questions/concerns at the end of each class and will also take your dog through a particular command if it/you are struggling. In honesty, there hasn't been a road to Damascus style conversion for Neelix and it is likely that he will need another course of Puppy School. However, your dog is likely to be nowhere near as hyperactive/crazed/spackerish as him, so you might see results sooner. There has, though, been progress. Neelix is noticeably calmer than he was before embarking on the classes. He responds reliably to most of the obedience commands and taking him for a walk is much less stressful. In short, he's a nicer dog to have around.