Beanie and Biggles each have two distinct little brains. There’s the normal doggy brain that knows how to behave well, do all sorts of sports and tricks and listen to mum and dad. Then there’s the hunting brain that knows how to track, chase and kill….and of course make lots and lots of noise in the process.
The doggy brains are easy to work with. But those hunting brains have us stumped and it’s restricting life for all of us. One by one, sports that we all enjoy so much fall by the wayside as they fall prey to those little hunting brains. Typically it’s a case of leaving before being asked to leave, or before the dogs do themselves an injury!
Over the years we’ve discovered that their hunting brain is oblivious to us. If during an onlead walk (is there any other kind?) they pick up a scent they both go into a frenzy of baying, lunging and pulling. Experts advise that we simply stand still and refuse to move until the dog calms down. The theory being that as going forward is the thing the dog wants most in all the world then it’s easy to very heavily reward the behaviour that you want – calmness. After spending a great deal of my life rooted to the spot with a little beagle that’s only getting louder and more frustrated by the minute I figured there must be a flaw in the theory. In actual fact they are capable of responding to us in this mode. We can get them to briefly sit in exchange for being allowed to move forward. But we haven’t managed to progress much further than that. Asking for calmness, quiet or even a minute reduction in excitement levels, seems to be a step to far for those little hunting brains.
The other day Paul wrote about the tuggy game that Heather Smith had prescribed to help teach the dogs self-control. Both Beanie and Biggles found it very easy to switch between calm and excitement and that got us wondering if the game was the route towards controlling those little hunting brains.
Yesterday we took the game forward a little by associating it with lure coursing – something guaranteed to switch off the doggy brains and put the hunting brains firmly in control. We had done this a little bit previously to get things warmed up, but this time the focus of the game was chasing the lure. We used a lunge whip with Mr Raccoon tied to the end of it. Boy was that fun – there was much yelping, baying and squealing:
Beanie is by far the fastest and most athletic chaser, but it was Biggles that always managed to catch the lure quickest. No matter how erratically I tried to move the lure he’d quickly figure out what route it was going to take and would lie in wait and pounce.
Every time they caught the lure we’d have a high energy game of tuggy
before telling them to release the toy and chill.
Both calmed down instantly and sat as good as gold waiting for the instruction to begin the chase again. In fact, in just one session we even got to the point where we could put them in a ‘sit-wait’ and start the lure moving. They were intently focused on the lure but didn’t give chase until told to.
We thought we’d cracked it. Lets fact it, it’s only a small step between this and being able to calm the dogs when they pick up a scent. We went to the park with Mr Racoon on a lunge line and the dogs in harness. Taking one dog at a time, the plan was for paul to slowly drag Mr Racoon across the ground. I’d let the dog, still attached to me, run after it. Then on command we’d stop and get them to ‘chill’. We took it in very tiny steps so that it progressed almost seamlessly from the game we’d played in the garden yesterday. It was a complete and utter disaster!!! They simply could not calm down no matter what we tried.
We certainly provided a superb spectacle though. Picture the scene: Biggles tied to a tree in the middle of the park baying his head off (and actually pruning branches of the tree with his teeth he was so frustrated) ; Paul running around the tree dragging a lunge whip with a toy racoon attached; Beanie in hot pursuit baying her head off followed by me getting increasingly more ratty with Paul as things descended further and further into chaos.
We did get a better insight into what was going on though. We discovered that if we let the dogs catch the lure and play a game of tuggy it was very easy to get them to sit nice and calmly waiting for the next chase. In fact, as in the garden yesterday we could even get them to wait for a release command even when the lure was moving. They can’t calm down if the ‘hunt’ isn’t allowed to go to conclusion.
We’ve thought long and hard about this. Tuggy is in fact a very calming activity for a Beagle. It might be fun, but it’s a release of pent up energy. Seeing a small fury thing flying past releases a whole bunch of ‘chase’ hormones and chemicals into their blood stream. A chase goes some way to blotting up those chemicals, but it takes either a very long chase or a ‘kill’ (tuggy) to get them out of the system thus allowing a calm, balanced state to resume.
I think the main thing we have to do is make sure that in all situations where we don’t want their hunting instincts kicking in we have to work very hard at keeping them calm and focused on us. So stop them going into hunt mode. They can do plenty of lure coursing and drag hunting to satisfy their instincts but it’ll be strictly under our control. For canicross I think we need to stay well away from parkruns and stimulating group runs (relaxed runs with calm dogs will be fine). We want them to learn that a run is a relaxed thing. Once they get that we can teach some commands and enter the odd race.
And for the situations where that fails we’ll work on the tuggy game so when the frenzied baying starts we can whip out a tuggy and use that to get them calmed down. I think we also need to work on getting them to respond to us when in a frenzy. We’ll never get them to calm down from this state but if we can get them to respond to a ‘wait’ command it gives us a chance to intervene.
A few more piccies of the fun in the garden yesterday.