Can an app really tame this hound?
Our art critic’s mutt keeps eating her heels.
Will smartphone technology help?
I couldn’t afford to send a child to Eton but I’m about to send my dog to the canine equivalent. The Dog House is launching a new training app. And the best news of all for those struggling with a boisterous new puppy or plagued by the bad habits of an old family pet, is that when this app is launched you will be able to download it if not completely free (it has cost tens of thousands to develop), then at least for an eminently affordable amount.
“I know it might sound like the worst business decision ever,” says Mark Thompson who, along with his wife Gillian Quek, are launching this venture, “but we have been running The Dog House for 20 years and, until now, we have only been able to help people who could send their dogs to us.”
Since a residential stay at their kennels-cum-five-star-canine-activity-holiday-centre in the wilds of Carmarthenshire costs upwards of £3,000 for six weeks, that option for most owners is prohibitive. Only city bankers with bonuses as out of control as their animals can really afford it. “But having a happy, well-trained dog shouldn’t be about money,” says Mark. “It’s a matter of having the right information. And that’s exactly what our new app will give. It will be like having your own personal dog trainer in your pocket.”
Is it that simple? Freya, the part-greyhound, part-Bedlington terrier, part-collie, part-Harrier-jump-jet puppy that I gave my daughter five months ago for her seventh birthday, is about to become also part guinea pig.
“The majority of the dogs which we train are pets which live in the city,” says Mark. “City dogs live in a very challenging environment. They are often left for long periods of time, for example. Separation becomes a big issue. It can lead to incessant barking or the home being ripped apart. Parks are not big spaces. Dangerous roads run by them. You have to know that your dog will come back when you call. You have to be sure that it won’t be frightened of, or attack, other pets. It can’t be allowed to chase runners or bicycles. An owner may all too easily find him or herself facing a lawsuit,” says Mark.
“Under The Dangerous Dogs Act, it’s illegal for a dog to be out of control. And what is out of control? It could be just jumping up at a stranger. One of our clients, a magistrate, was hauled through the courts and so couldn’t work for two years after a woman had brought a case against her for letting her dog leap up. The woman said the dog had scratched her and caused injury. The case went to the Crown Court.”
I live in the country. Freya may not have to face up to many of the urban challenges. However, training matters a lot — and not least when your animal does pretty much everything (except obey you) at 30mph. I don’t want to stand on the heights of a moor, yelling into the wind, while my four-legged companion disappears over the farthest horizon, a flock of frightened sheep bouncing madly about her, a farmer with a shotgun following along behind. Nor do I want another pair of Joseph Azagury sandals to double up as dog chews . . . or another poor chicken to be pounced on and treated — at least, until I had dropped the telephone in the middle of an interview with a (bemused, but thankfully sympathetic) museum curator and dashed out on to the lawn screaming —as a marvellous fluffy toy to be, mouthful by feathery mouthful, plucked. And my daughter, Katya, isn’t all that keen on being joyfully clawed in the face when she gets off the school bus or being left with hands red with rope burn every time her puppy spots something fascinating that it wants to inspect.
Still, to be frank, I’m more worried about how to handle the technology than how to manage the lurcher. I download the Beta version of the app . . . and then hand it to Katya. It’s her dog. She must train it. That was always the deal.
The two set off. The great advantage of the app over the dozens of training manuals that you will find in the bookshop is that it is highly portable. As soon as a problem crops up you can whip out your smart phone and nip it in the bud. Katya taps on the screen and selects from the home page the “loose lead” tile. In a picture, a big fluffy dog pulls its handler along like a water skier behind it. I often think that if an alien landed in one of our cities, saw all those four-legged canines towing hapless humans behind them, they would assume that our pets were the rulers of our planet.
Yet how do you transform a boisterous puppy into a happy companion that trots attentively beside you? A little “my toolkit” button tells you everything you will need before beginning this training exercise: a lead, a pocketful of doggy treats and “a spacious but initially distraction-free environment”. If you want more advice about any of these — which lead to choose, for example — there is a “beyond the basics” button.
And then you are ready to begin. A video demonstrates how to do it. It’s a minute or two long. However, it’s clear and simple and, judging by all the frenetic tail-wagging, fun. Freya definitely seems keen. Hardly surprising, you might think, when you know that a tin of branded Dog House treats has just been broached. “Crafted” by Michel Roux, and coming in flavours that range from ostrich with cherry to salmon with trout, they offer an eye-stretching glimpse of residential standards. No wonder the actress Felicity Kendal, posting a comment on The Dog House website, professes herself delighted at its contribution to George’s general education and care. However, you can easily make your own rewards, Mark assures me, as long as you vary what you give. The basic rationale behind this, he explains, is that if a dog is always given the same treat, it might spot a squawking pheasant, for example, and think: “Oh, I know I’ll get that bit of tripe eventually anyway, and chasing this bird right now would be so much more exciting.” If it is kept guessing, wondering whether this might be the moment it’s about to get a bonus treat, then it will be far more inclined to hang about. I think of myself as a fairly good dog trainer but random rewards was just one of several illuminating tips that I discovered via the app.
Katya meanwhile, armed with her fistful of exotic morsels, was having amazing success. After a bit of a slow start, Freya having decided that it would be far more fun to grab her lead in her mouth, lean back on her haunches and tug hard (if this happens, “Stop . . . make pulling an unrewarding experience”, the app advises) the pair of them were trotting in what looked to me like a passably good approximation of Crufts-style circles. And I’m not sure who looked keener: Freya with tail waving and snout lifted for gourmet smells, or Katya, grinning from ear to ear, as her puppy at long last did exactly what she hoped. And then, after six repeats and lots of praise (for both child and animal), the exercise was over. That’s another great thing: dogs and kids go well together because they share the same fleeting attention spans.
When you encounter a problem — on a later occasion, for instance, Katya issued all her commands on a hopeless repetitive loop — there’s a “remember” button to remind you what was wanted and, if that doesn’t fix it, a troubleshooting option that tends, explains Mark, to take you back to the basic idea of the bond. “Forging a bond between pet and owner is fundamental,” he says. “If you don’t have a bond with your dog, then it won’t want to listen to you.”
“It’s the owners as much as the animals that need training,” suggests Gillian. “At The Dog House we take the pets for six weeks and the owners for three days. It should be the other way around.” She and her husband believe that their app, sharing long years of training experience, will offer an at-home equivalent of the residential course which, bonding animals and owners, will add enormously to the pleasure of keeping a pet. And there are further issues that Gillian hopes it will address. “More and more dogs are abandoned because they are deemed uncontrollable,” she says, “because people don’t understand the importance of education in a dog’s routine. We would love to think that one of the legacies of our lives’ work is that fewer and fewer dogs will have to be rehomed.”
“It’s not a quick fix,” says Mark. However, if you log on to their site and see their motley crews of assorted canines galumphing through the countryside looking happy and healthy and under control, and its methods would seem to be proven. Certainly, having followed them with a puppy for ten days now, I would highly recommend it. Freya sits, walks to heel and comes back — at a speed of 30mph — when called. So that’s the pet dealt with.
Now, should I should put my daughter down for a term at The Dog House? Or is Tanya Byron thinking of launching a new child-training app?
For more details about The Dog House log on to thedoghousetrading.com