A trip to the beach and a test of self-control!

by Jenny Mee // December 2017

A trip to the beach and a test of self-control!

This blog was inspired by my working Springer Spaniel, Betsy-Jane (yes I am sad and gave my dog a middle name!). She is a typical working spaniel, very driven and needs to be kept busy. So I knew I would need to work on her self-control from a young age. But what exactly do we mean by self-control? The dictionary definition of self-control suggests it is “the ability to exercise restraint or control over one's feelings, emotions, reactions, etc” – which basically means being able to NOT do something, even if we really, really want to! For me this might be having the willpower to say no to an extra glass of wine or resisting the biscuit tin. For your dog it could be anything they find exciting or particularly interesting, from other dogs, people, food, toys or even interesting manure that your dog just MUST go and roll in!

My favourite explanation of self-control is that it is like a muscle – something that we can train in order to increase patience and will power.

It is all part of growing up for dogs, they need to learn that they can’t always have what they want when they want it. We can’t expect puppies or young dogs (or any dog who hasn’t been taught it!) to exercise self-control if we haven’t shown them how. In our classes we teach self-control exercises around lots of things (food, toys, doorways, other dogs) and we teach it to all age groups, because it is a skill that needs practising. 

For Betsy-Jane it is all about birds! Anything with feathers and wings is SUPER exciting to her – she wants to chase it, whether on the ground or in the sky, and we need to understand that every time she is “allowed” to do this (whether intentionally or not) she is self-rewarding AND practising. So in other words, the excitement of chasing becomes a massive reward in itself, and she is more likely to do this behaviour each time because of this. So I need to initially prevent it using management techniques, such as keeping her on a long line (an extra long lead that gives her freedom to run around, but also gives me the security to stop her running off!) when birds are likely to be nearby, and also train her in a positive way to develop her self-control.

“Ooh look Mum, seagulls…..”

As a young dog, I did lots of this with her – living on a farm, it was difficult to avoid birds, so I was regularly out with Betsy on her long line while we played fun recall games and I taught her that pheasants, partridges, pigeons, etc were not for chasing. And we did this until I trusted her enough off lead, and had a solid recall (every time I called her she came back). After that we progressed to my husband’s chickens! Again, on a long line (because he would not be happy if we had any accidents!!) and at a distance at which she could cope, until we got closer and closer with her staying calm and focused on me.

The ultimate test came when one of my children left a gate open while the chickens were free roaming and Betsy instinctively made a dash towards them. In desperation I called her name and was amazed when she skidded to a halt, about-turned and returned to me without hesitation. Hurray! I felt rather smug at this point, to be honest. I had succeeded in training self-control, and I allowed myself a self-congratulatory pat on the back. This would be a great time (for my ego, at least!) to finish the blog, but I think its important to show you that dog training is all about ups and downs, and most importantly learning from those downs!

Fast forward a few months later when we went on holiday with my “perfectly trained” dog, and I was brought back to earth with a bump. We were caravanning in Norfolk in the middle of the Summer holidays and enjoyed our first walk on the busy, family beach. Betsy was darting around, recalling back to me when I called her……but then she disappeared from sight. I scanned the horizon looking for her, and noticed families stopping mid-sandcastle and pointing out towards the sea. Then I heard a small child scream “Mummy, Mummy that doggy has caught a seagull!” Imagine my dread when I followed the stares to discover Betsy-Jane frolicking in the waves with the biggest seagull in her mouth, squawking away, wings flapping. I was horrified! Not only had she clearly chased after said seagull, she had also managed to catch it!  Luckily Betsy has a very soft mouth so I managed to get her back to me quite quickly and the seagull flew off with one last indignant squawk. But I felt like a complete failure. I did the walk of shame off the beach with children still pointing at us and loudly telling their parents “That’s the dog that caught the seagull!

“Anyway, throw my ball!”

So I went back to the caravan and licked my wounds, and after a short sulk and a soothing cuppa I planned for our next walk – luckily the long line was in the car! I had complacently thought that all of my self-control training would work in any situation, but from Betsy’s point of view that is not the case. Seagulls look, sound, move and smell completely differently to other birds and I needed to almost re-train her around them, and in a different environment, to get the same, desired reactions as I did at home. So we spent the rest of the holiday using the long line, taking any opportunity to train (even on family trips to the beach), and only letting her off when there were no seagulls around.

Fast forward (again) a few months to October half-term this year and we were heading off on another little break. My husband suggested we leave Betsy-Jane at home as she was “such an embarrassment” last time…….but when I told him it was more likely that he would be left behind he soon went quiet. And thankfully our training had paid off! I took it slow to start with (remembering to train that muscle!), keeping our distance from the seagulls while the children paddled in the sea, but by day 2 Betsy was happily sitting with me or playing ball and largely ignoring the seagulls.


So the morale of the story is that we are always learning, just as our dogs are. We need to ensure they are practising the behaviours we want to say. And, most importantly, if (and, most likely, when!) things go wrong – use them as an opportunity to alter, develop or proof your training.

Practising her settle at Sandringham Cafe while other dogs (and cheeky pigeons!) walked by and the girls enjoyed an ice cream.


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