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.............and learning.


In my article on temperament I described the very special nature of the ideal Beardie character, the need to breed selectively for it and the importance of providing the right environment for it to develop and flourish. Since, for me, this temperament is by far the most important, fascinating and loveable feature of our breed, I was delighted by the enthusiastic response of my readers. Thanks to their interest and the skill and enthusiasm of translators Eva-Maria Kramer, Martine Gsell and Hanna Martikainen the article has now been published in four languages – English, German, French and Finnish. (Update March 2010: Malgorzata Staniszewska is now translating both 'Temperament' and 'Learning' into Polish.)It is good to know that the precious Beardie character is so widely appreciated and I have been thinking for some time about writing more on the subject. So I am grateful to Lauri Martikainen of Finland for prodding me into action with the following letter:

“I just read your article about Beardie temperament and how you see the breed and I was positively surprised by it. The most interesting aspect of it is that you seem to love and care about your Beardies in a different way than most of the people who run around in dog shows etc. You see your Beardie as a friend more than anything else – you seem to respect your Beardies as your friends – and this raises a question in my mind. How do you train your Beardies? By this I mean how strict are you with them? Do you ever have to raise your voice with them? Or is it possible to train a Beardie with a more friendship-based method like encouraging them to do something “good” if they are doing something “bad”? I have a five-month-old Beardie puppy and I have been trying with a more friendly method to train, like if he is chewing a chair I take a bone and show it to him that the bone is better and more fun than the chair. “

Lauri’s deceptively simple question touches on the most fundamental aspects of our attitudes to dogs and our relationships with them and to answer it fully would require a book ( see endnote) rather than a website article, but I will try to explain the principles by which my Beardies learn to live happily with each other and with me and to interact sensibly with the other people and animals we meet. I don’t think of what I do as “training” but rather as providing opportunities to learn, because my aim is not to impose on my Beardies a way of living that is foreign to their nature but to build on their natural inclinations. Dogs, whether wild or domestic, are - like us - social mammals and have evolved to live as members of a group, the survival of which depends upon the ability of its members to co-operate with one another in hunting, rearing young, defending territory and so on. Some writers have distorted the significance of this by misrepresenting the social life of wild canids as a perpetual power struggle in which the ‘alpha’ individual maintains a position as pack leader by ferocious domination of the others. This sensationalized account has been used by some popular dog-trainers to suggest that the way to train a pet dog is for his owner to take on the role of a fearsome Alpha Wolf. But this is not borne out by my experience with dogs and those who have studied wolves and other wild canids suggest that is not true of them either. On the contrary, they describe pack life as essentially peaceful, co-operative and affectionate. Interestingly, the life of bullying and power struggles, erroneously attributed to the canids, is actually more typical of our closer relative, the chimpanzee -which might explain why young humans seem to be naturally inclined to rebel against authority, whereas dogs are natural co-operators.So although my Beardies clearly regard me as their leader, the relationship is one of trust, affection and co-operation, not fear or bullying. The relationships between the Beardies themselves are more complicated but there is certainly no hierarchy or "pecking order".

Yet even among some experienced dog owners, breeders and trainers, the idea persists that the rearing and training of domestic dogs is a matter of replacing natural dog behaviour with something more “civilized” and that this is best accomplished by removing the puppy from the influence of his canine family - especially his littermates. One popular book on the Beardie, written by a long-established British breeder, contains a stern warning against trying to rear two puppies together, insisting that they will only be interested in each other and will pay no attention to their owner. This is the reverse of my own experience, which is that although the Beardies enjoy playing together, they are always much more eager to be with me than with each other.I always keep at least two puppies from each litter and find that, far from being inattentive, they vie with one another for my attention. In addition, they benefit from having an ever-ready playmate and I have the delight of watching and learning from the interaction between them and the fascination of discovering the similarities and differences in their characters.

Litter mates Dooley,Nancy and Nan learn "sit-stay" together.

I am convinced that learning takes place almost from birth and that the experiences of the earliest weeks form the foundation for life. I handle, cuddle and talk to every puppy from the moment it is born, forming a strong bond with each individual. But growing up in a family of siblings, parents, grandparents etc, is also very important and my Beardies learn at least as much from each other as from me. Through interaction with each other and their older relatives, puppies discover that different individuals need to be treated differently – that one aunt might be indulgent and affectionate with puppies while another regards them as a nuisance not to be encouraged - or that big sister is always ready to play whereas Great-Grandmama will be very grumpy if she is woken from her afternoon nap. These early experiences develop basic social skills that will also help the puppy to understand that humans too vary in their attitudes and responses and that care must be taken to read the signs that might indicate a greeting, a threat or an invitation to play. Simply by being part of the group and its activities, puppies also absorb our family rules such as “property rights”, manners at mealtimes, behaviour when meeting strangers and so on.





As soon as they can toddle they are encouraged to explore beyond their nest and are soon going out into the garden. They house-train themselves simply by having the freedom to develop their instinctive desire to keep their "den" clean....and when the door is closed, they soon learn to use the dog-flap.

By five weeks they will be following the rest of the family out into the fields, where they start to learn one of the most important lessons of all –the need to ensure that they do not get lost. This is easy enough in the open fields but it is a different matter when, a couple of weeks later, they are strong enough to get to the bottom of the valley and into a particularly dense part of the forest. The usual course of events is that puppies rush off to explore in all directions and disappear among the trees, ferns and undergrowth. There will be a few yelps, squeaks and grunts as they crash into things, fall into holes and make contact with thorns and stinging nettles. I sit on a log to wait......... and usually there will soon be the familiar sad wail of at least one lost puppy...... One or two of the Beardie girls may go to look for the adventurers – the others will sit around me...... I resist the temptation to call to the babies but if I suspect any of being in serious difficulty I creep towards the wails to see whether the situation is life-threatening. If not, I leave it to the mother to decide on the best course of action. I have never had a puppy come to any harm from this and they soon learn that the price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance – and that the vigilance is their own responsibility.

As they grow I constantly reinforce this lesson by hiding behind a tree or suddenly changing direction whenever they go out of sight. Puppies learn not only to keep a close watch on me but also to use their noses to find me when I do manage to disappear. Far from becoming anxious, they grow increasingly confident and searching for me when I hide becomes a skilled and enjoyable game. My Beardie family and I spend hours every day wandering in the forest and I almost never need to call them. When they are ahead of me they constantly glance back to make sure that I am still following .......

 ........and when they come to a junction they wait to see which path I want to take.............

 When I need them under close control, I signal "heel" by holding my stick out to the side. Here we are about to join a public road. With us is Minna Kellomaki from Finland.Photo by Pertti Kellomaki.

 "Wait"....... until road is clear (above).......followed by "walk on" (below).   

Below; Update 2011; The family now numbers twelve - but the same rules apply.

Training is not a matter of dominating or reforming the dog but of building on his inborn social skills and desire to co-operate – qualities which are particularly well developed in the Beardie. Social mammals are, of necessity, communication experts, skilled in reading the body language, not only of their fellows but of other species too. So the domestic dog, and especially the Beardie, is well equipped with all the qualities needed to live happily with humans – an eagerness to fit in, to be accepted and to have a role in the group, and the ability to make sense of our behaviour and to predict our actions and responses (often so well that we think he must be reading our minds! ) It is sad that so few people learn to "read" their dogs as well as their dogs read them. 

Because the foundations are already in place most of my Beardies’ “training” is informal and integral to our living together. And, for me and my Beardie family, living together involves being active partners in almost everything that we do. But a partnership cannot be bought with bribes or achieved through coercion and two of my most important principles are:

1) I do not use food rewards or “treats”

2) I do not use any form of physical restraint – no collars, leads, cages, kennels, car crates etc. To use such restraints is to assume that the dog does not want to be where you want him to be or does not want to do what you want him to do. My dogs do want to be with me, to behave acceptably in the house, car or wherever we may be and are happy to respond to my requests – so why would I want to confine them? By being free they learn to control themselves and to take responsibility for their own behaviour and the psychological restraints that they develop are much more effective than any fence, cage or leash. I want to emphasize this point to avoid the sort of misunderstanding that one of my website visitors expressed when she wrote disapprovingly of my dogs “roaming the neighbourhood”. She had failed to realise that, although (or perhaps because ) they are physically free to do whatever they want to, their behaviour is self-governed by their own social understanding - and wandering away from me is just not a part of their behavioural repertory.

And this applies equally when we are away from home. Travelling in our  ”Beardie Bus”, for example, and stopping to stretch our legs in such unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environments as motorway service stations or town car parks, we still stay safely together without any need for leads etc.       Breaking the journey: at a motorway service station (above) and a roadside canal (below), where the Beardies queue politely to cross the lock on the way back to our Beardie Bus. 

Sadly, many dog owners do not trust their dogs to be free because they do not see them as intelligent, sensitive individuals with a desire to co-operate but as infants or idiots who must be restrained for their own safety. And, deprived of the opportunity to learn from his own experience, the unfortunate dog is likely to live up to his owner’s opinion of him. The old saying, “Give a dog a bad name......” is worth remembering.

Much as my Beardies and I enjoy our shared activities, we do not take part in competitions. There are two reasons for this : firstly, most competitions – especially obedience tests – require the dog to perform set tasks in a predefined way which encourages automatic responses and allows no opportunity for the dog to think, whereas I want my dogs to be constantly alert to unexpected requests and always ready to think for themselves – something which would be penalized in a competition. So, although we have a lot of fun with many of the activities used in obedience tests, agility competitions and working trials, I keep my dogs interested and alert by constantly changing the routines. My second concern about competition is that a competitive attitude can easily corrupt the owner’s attitude to his dog because the competition becomes a reason for having the dog. I am always wary when I receive enquiries from people who want to buy a Beardie “for agilty”, “for obedience” etc - or when I am asked what I use my dogs for. My dogs are not “for” anything – they are important for themselves and I encourage each individual to develop her own particular skills and potential as far as possible.

So much for principles – now let’s look at Lauri’s questions. I hope that I have already made clear that my dogs are active partners in the process of learning to live happily and freely together and that this involves all of us – human and Beardie - being constantly aware of the wishes and feelings of the others and responding appropriately with respect and consideration for one another. Lauri asks how strict I am and whether I ever raise my voice : some readers may have taken what I have said so far as an indication that I never correct my dogs at all but in fact I would say that I am very strict with them in the sense that I insist on good behaviour at all times. But this does not involve any punishment other than my disapproval – which I can make very plain without any need to raise my voice. Since my dogs’ hearing is infinitely more sensitive than my own, what reason would I have to shout at them? To shout at a dog is to make the same mistake as the notorious Englishman trying to communicate with a non-English speaker and believing that if he shouts loudly enough he will be understood. Of course it doesn’t work because the problem is not that the listener is deaf but that the wrong language is being used. So when a dog fails to respond as we wish when we speak to him, shouting will only make matters worse – we must try a different form of communication. I have also noticed that noisy people tend to have noisy dogs and since I find barking dogs very irritating, I am glad that my Beardies respond to a quiet voice and gentle manner by being quiet and gentle themselves.

By now it should be obvious that my method is exactly what Lauri suggests when he asks about using a positive approach and reinforcing desirable behaviour rather than punishing the undesirable. A Beardie with the right temperament is always eager to please and all that is necessary is to make sure that he knows what does please. I constantly praise my youngsters for good behaviour and this helps to build up their confidence in me and in themselves. It also means that when I do need to discourage undesirable behaviour, my body language and a quiet “No” is usually enough to tell them to stop what they are doing – which I immediately reward with praise.

I have said a lot about providing opportunities for learning rather than giving formal training and I have concentrated on what might be called “communal learning” but each Beardie is also an individual who both wants and needs opportunities to enjoy my undivided attention and to learn in a one-to-one situation. I try to ensure that time is set aside every day for each one to have an individual session with me, which might involve jumping, retrieving, agility, nose work, playing with puzzle toys or learning special tasks such as finding and fetching things (my slippers, glasses, gloves etc) for me in the house. 
But even these specialized activities are based on skills that the dogs have already learned for themselves as babies.

For example, our home-made agility course is left in the garden all year round and is a favourite play area for young puppies who spend many happy hours chasing each other through the tunnels, round the obstacles and even over a special baby A-frame.



. In the forest they frequently have to negotiate fallen branches and tree trunks, first by scrambling over and later by jumping ........


....and before long they will be climbing on timber stacks.....







 .............without falling off the top!

So they certainly don’t need to be taught to jump or negotiate obstacles and all I need to do is to get them to associate the action with an appropriate word so that I can ask them to respond as required. This is a very simple matter of – for example – saying “hup” whenever I see a puppy about to jump over an obstacle and “through you go” when he is about to squeeze under one. The retrieve, which is essential for so many interesting, enjoyable and useful tasks, is also based on experiences in early puppyhood. As soon as they start to play, puppies are provided with a wide variety of toys that can be rolled and carried – not just the easy balls and old socks but trickier objects such as squeezy bottles and screwtop plastic pots as well – and very quickly learn to enjoy a game of “fetch”.

Out in the fields and woods they will pick up anything they can manage to carry, which I encourage with lavish praise ( “What have you found? A lovely stick/pine cone/ dead mole/lump of horse dung! How lovely! Aren’t you clever.” ) No matter what it is, I don’t snatch it off him in horror – I want him to learn that bringing things to me is not only clever but fun as well. I recently read of a dog in Germany who, out for a walk with his owner, brought her a live hand-grenade he had found. Fortunately, he was a sensible dog and did as he was told when she asked him to put it back!

To those readers who may be sceptical about my methods and to others who would just like to see for themselves the results of my eccentric ways, I extend an invitation to visit us. The Beardies and I would be delighted to meet you.

; Dr Lynne Sharpe June 2009 copyright

The above article will be translated into German by Eva-Maria Kramer and will appear in the September issue of "Beardie Revue".                          

Endnote 1 ) My Creatures Like Us? (Imprint Academic 2005) is an examination of human/animal relationships and draws on my experience from a lifetime spent in the company of animals, including the Beardies, of course. But it is a work of philosophy, written to challenge the attitudes of other philosophers rather than to appeal to the general dog owner. For Beardie enthusiasts who do read it I should mention that most of it was written before 2001 and the start of my Working-Beardie project, so most of the Beardies mentioned are KC Breed Registered and not all of the same character as my present family.

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