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Just what are you saying to your dog?

Mary Ann Nester has been out of agility for a little while and feels much has changed. Grades have been introduced. Independent shows are flourishing. And there is a new agility term on the circuit 'Shhh!'  She's recently heard this command in a number of different environments and is none the wiser.

I saw a small group of handlers standing in the corner of the exercise field with their dogs on lead. 'Shh! Shh! SHHHH!'. At first I thought they were telling their dogs to be quiet because they were barking. Then I realised that they were shushing their dogs when they weren't making a noise. Whatever they were trying to do, there were lots of  'Shh!' and I could not match the command to any specific canine behaviours. Their dogs were all doing different things. Mostly ignoring the 'Shhh!'. If 'Shh!' had produced a reaction at the start, it had been used too often and in too many different situations to continue to be meaningful to this bunch of dogs.

A few days later, I watched a handler who kept  saying 'Shhh!' to her dog. The dog looked a bit tense and was sniffing the ground as a stress busting activity. Every time, the dog sniffed, she shushed and the dog looked a bit more uncomfortable. I was not surprised to see the dog make a hurried escape out of the ring as soon as he was let off the lead. He was shushed and replied by cocking his leg on a nearby bush. I secretly applauded him. Neither the dog nor I had a clear idea what 'Shhh!' meant, but the dog did understand that taking off and ignoring the 'Shhh!' would get his handler to take a squeaky toy out of her pocket. Clever dog!

Not long after, I watched an agility round at a show. It was a baby class. I love seeing dogs starting out on an agility career. The little collie missed every down contact and was loudly shushed as he proceeded on to the next obstacle. Perhaps a  'Sh**t' was about to pop out of the handler's mouth, but he stopped it just in time, remembering that it's not cool to swear in front of the judge? Who knows? Certainly not the dog who was having a great time bouncing off the contacts and belting round the course.

And lastly, I was walking my dog on the lead across a car park. On the other side, stood a man with his dog on a long lead - about 12 foot coiled on the ground at his feet. His dog saw mine and made straight for what must have looked like a battery operated toy, but was, in fact, a miniature poodle. The line unravelled. I watched the man getting mad but he didn't call his dog. When the dog got to the end of the line, his frustration made him leap up in the air and he turned into a snapping, whirling dervish. And then, his owner finally did something. He went 'Shhh!' and reeled his dog fighting back into his side. Why wait so long to call his dog?  And 'Shh!'! What a very funny name for a pet!

So, what does 'Shhh!' mean?
To my eyes, the handlers seemed to be using it to try and stop their dogs doing things that they don't like. Crimes included eating grass and coming off contacts. Hardly hanging offences. But in most cases, 'Shh!' sounded more like nagging than a reprimand. I suspected that the first time the dogs heard  'Shh!' they reacted in a manner that pleased their owners, but repetition and inappropriate usage had deadened the effect. The owners didn't appear to be asking why their dogs were behaving badly. They seemed intent on looking for behaviours to correct with a shush. A picture was emerging of what they didn't want their dogs to do but everyone, including the dogs, were still in the dark about how they could make their handler smile with approval. The number of 'Shhh!'s far outnumbered the 'Good boy!'

So, is it old fashioned to teach your dog contacts so that you can praise him for a good performance? Should I no longer become the apple of my dog's eye so that he loves being with me?  Or should I just wait for my dog to disappear over the horizon for fun and frolics elsewhere and say 'Shhh'. And if my dog ever looks unhappy, not himself, stressed, pained or nervous, why investigate?  Just go 'Shhh'. It is easy to ignore what your dog may be trying to tell you about his health or mental state if you assume that all bad behaviour responds to a universal panacea. Say 'Shhh!'.

The Dog Whisperer
Oh! You are shushing because Caesar Milan does! Think. Don't imitate without good reason. I love this little Latino man and would happily wine and dine him on my couch any night or the week. He has the charm and authority that many handlers mistakenly think is theirs. And I am sure the advice he gives comes from the heart.

I have yet to meet anyone who works with dogs and doesn't want the best for them. If you have an extreme dog, a dog that is ruining your life or a dog that is on his last chance, Caesar is a good read and thought provoking.

If you want to have an agility dog, use all the training tools at your disposal judiciously and appropriately. 'Shhh!' is a trendy dog training word, but it is not the only word in your vocabulary. And just saying it is no guarantee that your playful and disorderly youngster will turn into an agility champion over night. Life just ain't that simple!

I remember the days when people looked hard for things about their dogs that were good. Mistakes? They happen despite the best intentions, but most of the old school handlers tried to make it easy for their pets to give them the behaviours they wanted so they could praise and treat them. And the results were pretty good!

About the author...
Mary Ann Nester
was born in the USA and came to Britain in 1972 as a student. In 1997 she set up Aslan Dog Training Club, named after her Lurcher and first agility dog, and has successfully passed the agility bug on to her many students.

Mary Ann's most successful dogs have been miniature poodles. Both Brillo Pad and Daz have both been agility finalists at Olympia and Crufts and have competed at international level. Brillo represented Great Britain at the World Agility Championships in Portugal 2001 and Daz in Germany 2002 and France 2003. A few years ago she caught the heelwork to music bug and started dancing with Twizzle, a parti-poodle. He wowed the crowds at Crufts 2009 and is busily preparing for 2010.

Formerly the Clinic Administrator for Vets Now Out of Hours Emergency Service, Mary Ann now concentrates on training her own dogs and writing.  She is the author of Agility Dog Training, available from Agility Warehouse, Six Smart Tricks for Dogs and Dancing with Dogs 2009.


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