Wednesday 25 April 2007

The one that introduces ASBO Jack (a cautionary tale) - warning very long!


As I write this I can see a small white blob vanishing into the heather, undoubtedly hunting pheasants. So I figure it may be time to introduce Jack properly.
The saga started about four years ago. I’d wanted a Jack Russell for years. Here on Exmoor they’re as common as mud, as essential as a 4x4 and Wellingtons. At the time we had a gorgeous boxer called Monty who had been a wedding present from my oldest and dearest school friend.
Before we moved to Exmoor, Monty’s best friend had been a teeny tiny JR called Spider who used to jump on his back and hitch a lift. It was hilarious to watch and they were such good mates, I wanted to get the same dynamic going.
Our ex-neighbour (wife of Mr ‘they don’t call it Sexmoor’) breeds Jack Russells (both the short legged ones and the original Parsons). One day she pitched up on our doorstep with a bundle of white and brown fur in her arms and said she’d brought him as a birthday present for James and a “thank you” for looking after her horses. I was over the moon.
He was a scrap of a dog, all punkish white hair and button bright eyes. James was five at the time and promptly named him Jack (imaginative child) and he became one of about ten “Jacks” in Exford.
If I knew then what I know now, I’d have beaten Mrs P away from our door with a broomstick. For Jack turned out to be the nightmare dog from hell, a purveyor of death and destruction. The dog that cost us our sleep, our sanity and something well over a thousand pounds. Think I’m joking? Sadly not. I’m going to relate the whole sorry tale as it might just sound a warning to anyone thinking of going the route we did….

It started, as most puppies do, with chewing. Our previous dogs have chewed (don’t all puppies?) but this one had Olympic potential. James’ enthusiasm waned as his toys were transformed into a warped series of atrocity dolls – “Land Mine Barbie” (no feet and a mangled hand); “Acid Attack Action Man” (no face), Guillotined Woody (never did find his head). We got out James’ old stair-gates and confined Jack to the kitchen.
We went out to do something or other and came back to find thermonuclear war had been declared on what used to be the kitchen floor. Floor had to be replaced.

1st April: Resolution = train Jack. Enrol for puppy classes at the village hall. Should have realised that there was something ominous about the date.
On our first puppy class we learn the etiquette of “clicker training”. When the dog does what you want, you press a small clicker and give the dog a treat. Idea being dog associates clicking (and good behaviour) with a chunk of liver. It works like a charm. Jack sits. Click. Jack downs. Click. Jack walks to heel. Click. Jack stays as I walk the length of the hall. Click. Piece of cake (or rather smelly liver down the fingernails). Cue total smugness and prim comments to friends about “responsible dog ownership”. The words “pride” and “fall” come to mind.

Next class. Jack sits, Jack downs, Jack pees up the piano leg.

Next class Jack takes a violent dislike to a black Labrador. We spend an hour walking up and down the car park, like the UN trying to broker a peace agreement. Jack won’t sit. Won’t down. Won’t do anything. Start to hate the sound of the clicker. And the smell of liver.

Last puppy class. The other dogs are eagerly invited to “graduate” to the next level. We’re politely shown the door.

So, nothing for it, we continue training at home. Jack will do virtually anything indoors but once outside he totally loses the plot. He’s getting bigger and faster now and soon the inevitable happens: a pheasant meets an unpleasant end in the hedgerow. Cue James in floods of tears. Cue stone-faced husband who has to finish off Jack’s dirty work. Cue pheasant for tea (well, at least it didn’t die in vain).

The weeks pass and the death toll rises. Exit two guinea fowl, a hen and three more pheasants. We hide all evidence from James and tell him it’s chicken stew (again). Decide Jack has to stay firmly on lead when outdoors.

It all goes well for a few weeks until Jack slips his lead and takes off. Comes back muddy, bedraggled and very pleased with himself. Our cockerel goes to the great coop in the sky.

Summer and I’m working in the kitchen when I hear a huge commotion. There’s a herd of heifers charging round our field, chased by a small white barking streak (don’t ask me how he got out – he must be able to walk through walls). Half the local farmers are trying to head them off and about six 4x4s are parked in the lane, watching the circus. I helplessly bleat “Jack, Jack” as the herd thunder past and crash pell-mell into our Christmas tree plantation. Finally peace is restored and the 12 year old son of a neighbouring farmer gives me a withering look and plonks a muddy yet jubilant Jack into my arms. Nobody says a word and I return red-faced and mortified to the house. Something has to change. Our neighbours are incredibly tolerant but even they won’t condone a stock chaser.

As always in times of trouble, I turn on the computer and trawl the web. While searching for tips on curtailing the terrorist tendencies of Jack Russells, I see the magical words: “residential dog training”. Click, click, double-click. It’s boot camp for dogs. You give them your dog and, so they promise, three weeks later he’s returned to you as a model canine citizen. It’s expensive (about £500) but cheaper than moving house. And easier, much easier than doing it ourselves. I send off an email, explaining the problem in graphic terms. Can they help? Yes, certainly, says the head trainer. We’re elated and book Jack in.

The training centre is in the middle of an industrial estate in South Wales but presumably they must use nearby countryside for anti-pheasant drill? Jack is taken in and we’re bundled out. Feel really awful – like a mother packing off her child to boarding school. However spirits perk up a bit when we realise that we have three weeks ahead of us without pheasant stew or furious neighbours pitching up with shotguns.

The first week passes, anxiously awaiting news of Jack. We phone and are told to expect an email. Finally we get the email and learn that Jack has passed his assessment and is considered trainable. Sighs of relief.

Week two and another email: “Jack is doing the basics of heel on lead, sit and down and we will next concentrate on the stays.” Hmm, OK. But he can do all that already - with bells on.

I meet a JR owner in the village who enquires after Jack. On explaining his whereabouts she snorts with disgust: “Utter waste of money,” she opines, “stupid idea.” Start to feel worried. Will they really be able to fix him?

Next email: “Jack has now learnt all the necessary exercises. The next step is to control this in various outdoor environments. This part can be tricky but I am sure he will proceed as expected.” Hmm, we’re not so confident.

Email from dog expert friend in London: “Residential training is not a great idea, Jane. Jack needs to be trained in his everyday environment. They should, at the very least, have assessed him on home ground.” Now very worried.

Email from training centre: “Unfortunately the last period of time has been relatively unsuccessful. The main problem has been that when in an open environment he is literally off.” Er, hello…at last they seem to realise the problem.

They say they’ll keep Jack back for a further period of training (at further cost to us). Apparently he’s the “second worst” dog they’ve ever had. We feel a curious kind of vindication (it’s not just us) and then sink into slough of despond. Consider buying “101 ways to cook a pheasant.”

Email from centre: “All training outside is now complete. He is responding 100%.” Yes! We crack open a bottle of wine and dance around the house.

Back to Wales to pick up Jack. Watch him perform with the trainer. He sits, he downs, he walks to heel (as he always did). They walk him through sheep and he doesn’t try to kill them. Impressive. They let him off the lead, he comes back. Very impressive. But no sight of a chicken, pheasant or even a stray pigeon. The trainer then shows my husband Adrian (whom we’ve decided will be prime trainer at home) how to work with Jack. No clickers. No treats. It’s all in the voice apparently. Adrian tries it. Jack bites Adrian. “Oh no, can’t have that,” barks the trainer. Jack, incidentally, can’t bark (he’s lost his voice) and is exceedingly stout (when we left him he was exceedingly trim). His bed is apparently “being washed” but they promise to forward it. It all seems a bit strange but we’re so thrilled to have our dog back we pay up (final bill nigh-on £600, no personal cheques accepted) and go.

Once home Adrian embarks on home training. Three sessions a day for the next six weeks. Key is “the voice” – bright and cheery when pleased with the dog (Adrian sounds like an overexcited Julian Clary); deep and gruff when displeased. Adrian finds this hard and rough on the throat. James and I find it extremely amusing.

Adrian persists with the training, which is hugely time-consuming given he’s trying to earn a crust at the same time. Jack is still nipping which worries us. But we persevere.

Finally it’s time for us to let Jack off lead. Call him and he comes. Good dog!
Next day Jack goes off lead. Pheasant calls from up the valley. Quick as a flash, Jack vanishes. No dog.

In deepest despair. £600 poorer and Jack no better than when he went away. In fact worse, because now he’s nipping, barking and won’t even sit, down and stay. Consider renaming our valley “Pheasants’ Doom”. Wail all over friend at aerobics class who makes soothing noises and gives me the number of Stuart, “the dog man”. “If he can’t fix a dog, it can’t be fixed,” she says. It’s supposed to be reassuring but sounds like a death sentence.

So I phone up Stuart. He arrives two hours later, looking grim and purposeful. Jack looks wary (he’s sussed within seconds that he might have met his match). We explain about the residential dog training and Stuart looks as if he’s just stepped in a pile of dog do. “It often fails,” he says, “because the trainer needs to see the dog in its home environment, to see where you’re going wrong. Unfortunately there simply aren’t any magic wands in dog training.” We sit and look sheepish because, yes, we had hoped for a quick fix.
Stuart puts us (as well as Jack) through our paces. We’ve got to learn to take our proper place in our family “pack” (in other words we should be top dogs, not pathetic puppies). He spends the whole evening with us and won’t take a penny in payment because he works for the Society for the Protection and Rehoming of Animals (SPRA) a small charity which rehomes animals (don’t tempt us!). “If we can prevent a dog from needing rehoming, we’ll do what it takes,” he says.

It was slow and hard but we did make progress. I don’t think Jack will ever be 100% off lead (he’s a Jack Russell, bred to hunt and chase) but he does almost know his place (and seems happier for it). The nipping is a thing of the past, praise be.
We tried very hard to coax out some kind of refund from the training centre – mainly so we could fence off a run for Jack and give a hefty donation to SPRA but they refused point blank. They eventually sent us a (thin cheap) bed to replace the one that had been ‘misplaced’ and a (cheap, broke in a week) lead to replace the one that had ‘disappeared’.

Sorry, this has gone on far longer than I intended. But I do think it’s worth telling in case anyone else is thinking about residential dog training. Maybe there are good centres out there – maybe they work well for certain dogs. All I know is that we spent a lot of money for absolutely nothing – and got a dog back who had more problems than when he went. I don’t think it helped that our boxer, Monty, died not long after we got Jack – he had leukaemia. Someone recently suggested another dog might be a good idea. But, heck, what if we just doubled the problem? If anyone has any ideas or experience of this, do let me know!


CAMILLA said...

Jane - dear girl, what an amazingly wonderful blog. I laughed so much I nearly wet myself, my hankie is now all soggy.
Will re-read again this evening, so good, as I have to pop out in a mo to collect my granddaughter from high school today, eek, mother's trying to park cars!! Jane, GORGEOUS pic of Asbo Jack, darling boy, although I think that is not the name you would prefer to use at present!! Warm Wishes.

CAMILLA said...

Oh my, my name has gone all fuzzy on this posting, it's not my eye sight, have'nt touched a drop yet!