How I'm Training My Rescued Border Collie, Izzy, to Do Agility Tricks
I never wanted a dog at all. In fact, it was the last thing I wanted, but when my fiancée (now my wife), Julie-Ann, and I bought a house together, she wanted one, as she had always lived with dogs. I wasn't convinced and thought a cat would be better. We compromised by deciding to have a look at a cat and a dog rescue -- looking wouldn't do any harm, right?
The day came and we set off to the rescue. I immediately fell in love with a one-eyed cat with liver problems; the kitty was so affectionate, but we learned she couldn't be rehomed. Julie-Ann suggested we visit a Greyhound rescue, as Greyhounds are very docile, easy to look after, don't need much exercise, and make ideal first dogs. We ended up with a six-year-old retired Greyhound called Patch. Patch, now 11 years old, is a wonderful chap. He's looking old now, and like all old men, he's started dribbling lots and groaning.
Two years ago, we were walking Patch when we saw a couple coming toward us with two Border Terriers and a young Border Collie pup. The Collie was bouncing everywhere and would throw herself belly-up onto the ground for a tickle when anyone walked past. "What a lovely dog," I said to Julie-Ann.
We stopped and talked to the couple. They told us that they were three-month-old Izzy's fourth home. They had gotten her from the dog warden, who had said that if Izzy didn't find a forever home soon, she would have to be put down. The couple had had her about five weeks, but during that time their circumstances had changed dramatically, as the wife had become pregnant. Moreover, one of their terriers wasn't getting on with Izzy. They felt they could not give this energetic puppy the time and attention she deserved, and knew it would be cruel to keep her with a family who couldn't care for her sufficiently, as Collies can develop mental health issues if they are not worked or given a job to do. They can destroy everything if they became bored. The couple was heartbroken.
I immediately shouted, "I'll have her!"
"You will not," said Julie-Ann, quick as a flash, but I'd already made up my mind.
Over the next few days, I spoke to lots of people about my intention to rehome the Collie. Everyone tried to warn me of the work and dedication such dogs need. "She will change your life." "You won't be able to just go away; it's like having a baby."
It is true that these dogs need a lot of work, and they do change your life, but no one told me it would be for the better.
I went straight to obedience lessons. Unfortunately, the first trainer was very old-school, only telling the dogs when they were doing something wrong rather than when they were doing something right. I didn't realize the difference until I read a book by Karen Pryor. "I'm doing this all wrong," I said to myself.
I immediately stopped tugging on the lead, and Izzy started walking by my side, and also became more passive toward other dogs. I also noticed that dogs are like antennas to your mood. If you stay calm, so does the dog. More often than not, you can anticipate how the dog might react to various situations, which helps you prepare for what might happen and avoid bad situations before they arise. I realized that dogs, like humans, prefer to be asked instead of shouted at. I have also learned about being consistent with cues and the values of rewards and praise.
Izzy is now two years old, and since having her I have become more patient. I have become an outdoor kind of person, as she taught me to love walking, and I've lost three stone in weight. I now go to a dog-training club in Sandbach called Dig It Dogs, where it's all about positive reinforcement. Izzy and I train together every day on our own. We also compete in agility, and have started working trials training. I love training her so much that I've enrolled in a distance-learning program to earn a degree in canine training.
Last winter, Izzy had to have her dew claws removed, and we were advised not to get the dressing wet. It rained for about two weeks nonstop after that, so to keep her from getting bored, we learned loads of tricks, and I ended up making a little video that I put on YouTube.
I hope you enjoy watching it, and I hope it makes people feel differently about rescue dogs. All dogs want to please, and all you've got to do is ask nicely and make it fun. Teaching tricks helps develop a strong bond -- and it's also useful when you can't be bothered to get off the sofa and you want the remote passed, the living room door shut, or your slippers and the post. It also helps when you and your partner just want to pass notes to each other between rooms, like, "Put the kettle on while you're in the kitchen."
Izzy is the best companion. She is always happy to see me. She knows when I'm upset and rests her head on my lap. She's never grumpy and always wants to go out and explore the world. Next summer, Izzy and I are going to walk the Pennine Way for charity. It's 268 miles and should take about 16 days. We are both really excited. Keep an eye on my YouTube, as I will be uploading new videos about the walk and more tricks as we learn them. At the moment, Izzy is learning to tightrope walk, and she's also working on a handstand.
As for the nice couple we got Izzy from, they live near us and see Izzy regularly. Izzy makes these weird excited squeaks when she sees them. She only makes the noises for them; I think it's her way of saying, "I love you, and thanks for saving my life."
About the author: Gareth lives in Cheshire with his wife, Julie-Ann; Patch the Greyhound; and Izzy the Border Collie. He is a freelance musician and drum teacher. Other than music and training dogs, his hobbies include avoiding DIY around the house, appearing to be busy, and singing uncontrollably loud in the car.