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Written by Disha Ramanan
Dog training is both an art and a science. Ideally, every dog should be trained with the basics – from learning to walk on the leash to being comfortable with strangers and house guests.
In this article, Mr. Pritpal Singh, who has been a dog trainer for almost 48 years, joins us for a chat. Not only does he talk about some of his own experiences, he gives us some tips regarding training, his thoughts on the positive vs. negative reinforcement debate, busts some myths which have been around far too long and provides an insightful glimpse at how the times have changed.
What inspired you to begin in the field of dog training?
I'm originally from Punjab where I was surrounded with animals - all kinds of farm animals and dogs as well. I loved them all. And then in 1973, I came to Delhi to do some sightseeing. At the time, a relative of mine from the village was in Delhi. He was the first trainer for the Delhi Police dogs. I spent time with him, and I also saw a dog show here in the city. That was the time I realised my love for dogs and training them, and from then on, I would just assist my uncle and learn from him. I would go everywhere he went. He was my Guruji.
In a career spanning so many decades, what has been the most notable case?
I would probably say my most unique case happened when we were at a dog show in Lucknow. A Golden Retriever snapped at a judge and the judge immediately disqualified it from the show. He said that the breed itself was such that it wouldn't be able to fetch things like a raw egg. Then I began training a female Golden Retriever for a client and I trained her to retrieve anything - even a raw egg.
The man then persisted and said that this would never be possible with a breed like a German Shepherd. But I disproved that when I trained my next German Shepherd client to fetch a raw egg in his mouth. I ended up winning the Best Trainer Award in 1983, 1994 and 1998.
Can you discuss what your toughest case has been so far?
Well, I wouldn't really say any of my clients have been tough or easy. My Guruji taught me something which I've carried with me for my entire life. He said if I ever get angry or lose my patience with a dog, then I should either count from 1 to 10 or give myself a slap. That has always been the most important thing underpinning my training career - patience. That's the one thing you need to train dogs. If you can't have patience, no dog can be trained.
There is a lot of talk about positive vs. negative reinforcement training in the community. What are your thoughts regarding this?
I went to Europe in 1981 and I observed a couple of things - all their dogs are very well-trained. You'll find dogs everywhere and nobody makes a fuss. There are dogs playing on the beach with their families but not barking at each other or anybody else. The second thing I observed was that choke chains were completely banned. No dog is trained using this device. I stopped using it after that trip, since 1981. That's 38 whole years I have very successfully trained dogs without choke chains or any such negative reinforcement. Yes, to correct behaviour I do scold them or deliver a firm word when a dog does something wrong. But that is as far as I go. No hitting, no choke chains, no negative reinforcement.
Honestly speaking, people believe what they hear or what they are taught. If someone is told that negative reinforcement is the only way certain things can be achieved, then they believe that. If someone can’t make a dog heel, then they feel they must use choke chains. Then when the dog follows the command, it's entirely fear-based. The dog doesn’t want to listen to you. She's just scared you would hurt her more.
Could you give people with new dogs any tips? Especially from the beginning - what are some things that can be done to prevent issues early on?
I would say that everything begins with a good schedule and a set timetable for the dog or puppy. Feeding times, walk times and play times should be clearly marked in the day and ideally, these should be consistently followed. It provides structure and some discipline to the dog's life which is beneficial for him. When the dog knows what to expect, when to expect it as well as what he is supposed to do throughout the day, that's good for everybody - the humans as well as the dog.
This also helps in getting housebreaking done very smoothly. Once the dog has fixed feeding times in the day, the dog will also develop specific times to eliminate. So, place newspapers just outside the door and after every feeding, place the puppy or dog on the paper. Once he does his business, praise him (you can even give treats if you like). If he does it inside, lightly scold him so that he knows that's not acceptable. By 'scold', I don’t mean to scare the dog or make her feel bad. That would not accomplish anything. Instead, the dog starts feeling like she must eliminate behind your back, and she would continue to eliminate inside, she would just pick times when you're not looking.
Another thing I would suggest is getting the dog used to being tied for a little while during the day. Now I don't at all mean to keep him tied for hours and hours on end - I would never say that because restraining the dog causes aggression to develop. But doing so just for a little while is good for the dog. People have issues where for example, when the maid is cleaning up, the dog doesn't let her do her job etc - so it's always good if from a young age, the dog gets used to being tied for a little bit of time.
Can you give some tips for socialisation? How soon should the puppy begin to socialise?
If you have not gotten a dog for security purposes, I suggest starting socialisation as soon as possible, after the dog has been vaccinated fully. Make the dog meet every dog you see and know of. It's very important when you take it out that you don't throw stones or sticks at the other dogs. Don't drive any dogs away because your dog will mirror what you do. If you react aggressively to other dogs, so will your own dog. If other dogs are charging, feel free to speak in a clear, direct, firm and assertive tone to them. Your dog picks up cues from you. If you try to scare off others using stones, it's counterproductive to your own dog.
Also, regarding people, make sure your dog meets everybody. Be positive about the experience so that the dog can feel positive about it too. The only case you should refrain from socialising is when you want a guard dog.
Is it true that it's harder for some breeds to socialise than others?
No, I wouldn’t say that. For dogs to make friends with one another, it's all about their individual nature than breed. If a dog has a shy nature, he may not be able to trust enough to make friends. It's difficult in the case of shy dogs, because they don't tend to trust anybody except their families. They would need a lot of time.
Also, shy dogs are different from nervous dogs. Nervous dogs are more fearful than shy. I would say they can be trained quicker. They are not as suspicious by birth, so they learn to get over their fears when they are socialised.
There is a belief amongst many dog enthusiasts that certain dog breeds are more trainable than others or that certain breeds are not trainable at all. How true would you say that is?
It is all down to the individual dog. When I go to certain places in the city to train their dogs, street dogs come with the people. The people lovingly call them their "bodyguards". As and when I train the pet dog, the street dogs also come and get trained. So you see, it's not about anything else except the nature and temperament which is unique in every dog's case. Every breed of dog can be trained, in my opinion.
Another belief is that adult dogs are not as trainable as puppies. What are your thoughts on this?
No, I do not agree with this at all. Again, I would say it all depends on each dog's individual nature. I would say aggressive dogs are difficult to train - now there are a couple of issues to consider regarding this. I mean 'difficult' in the sense of being time-consuming. A trainer is presumably somebody the dog does not know and therefore months may be spent for the trainer to earn the dog's trust at first. That's obviously crucial if you want the dog to listen to you. But the thing is, the owners or family can train such a dog. That would be far better than getting a trainer. A trainer can advise regarding the strategies you could use.
I train adult dogs a lot. I also train older dogs. I recently trained an older Labrador who was 7-8 years old for a month. I've seen equal success with older dogs as well as younger ones.
The so-called 'trainability' of a dog rests with the dog's family too. I only train dogs if the owners take responsibility and an active interest in the process. If they don't do their homework, no dog of any age can learn.
What is the age that's ideal for training?
I would say 4 months plus would be the best age. While adult dogs are trainable, they have formed and cemented their own habits. We would need to take some time to break these old habits first so that newer ones can take their place. A puppy at 4 months+ learns quicker.
Can you comment on the importance of basic training?
When you're keeping a dog at home, it's good if the dog knows some things. For example, when you walk her, she shouldn't be pulling; she should come when she's called etc. It's better for the human, the dog and for visitors. You shouldn't tie a dog when guests come over because that makes them feel negative and become aggressive over time.
Issues may crop up later which may not be apparent at the puppy stage. A small example of this is when puppies jump up and greet us, we love it and we appreciate them with a "good boy" or "good girl" but when those dogs become bigger like in the case of bigger breeds, it becomes a huge problem when they jump on us the same way. They are only doing what they've been positively reinforced to do so it's not their fault.
People eventually let go of dogs because they are not trained or because it's difficult to train them. But that isn't the dog's fault; it's because the human didn't make the time to do it. In the EU and US, it's compulsory to have your dogs trained. They have training schools and dogs must get certifications.
Could you describe your experiences with sniffer dog training and possibly shed some light on how that differs from “normal” or basic training?
I train all kinds of dogs - for security, sniffer dogs, everything as per people's requirements. However, I wouldn't say that training sniffers is different from training any other dog. There are two reasons for this - basic training is done for everybody and is thus the same for all dogs and secondly, the underlying training methodology also stays the same.
With every one of my dogs, I begin with the "heel" command. That's the first lesson a dog should know. If a dog can walk by its handler on a leash, I would say that is already more than half the battle won.
I follow "heel" with "stay" and "fetch". Only those dogs that show an interest in "fetch" can become sniffer dogs.
What are some of the most common issues you are approached with?
There's puppy biting. Many people come to me with that issue.
Another one is dogs jumping on people, which is what I mentioned before.
A third issue is dogs being left alone at home and issues involving that.
Patience is the most basic and the most important thing. If you can't control and manage your own emotions, you can't train. You need patience. I am firm with dogs and I might even scold them. But never to the extent that it would get counterproductive.
Is there any specific Pet Parent training available for people?
Technically when we come to train the dog, it is training for the owner. Maybe even more than the dog. That is the main objective; to train the owner on how to train the dog and how to behave with it. As I mentioned before, for any dog's success, the owner must commit to doing the homework too.
Could you give us a snapshot of your typical day as a dog trainer?
I wake up at 4 am and I begin working at 8. I work till about 10.30 or 11 in the mornings. There are occasionally some dogs who I might go to in the evenings. Back in the day, I used to work all day. I used to go houses 100-150km away but now I only stay within the vicinity, say 30-40km these days. My son takes care of far-flung places.
As long as my body works, I will continue. I love this work. I don't want to do other things even remotely related to dogs. For example, I don't want to get into products or getting puppies for people etc. even though there is money in it. I'm very happy with what God has given me. I prefer to focus on my own training work and that alone.
What would you say is the best part of your career?
Aside from the obvious fact that I get to work with dogs all the time, I also feel gratified that even now, every day I learn something new. Every day is a different day and I'm constantly learning and evolving. I would say that's the best part.
Mr Pritpal Singh is a dog trainer with a career spanning nearly 48 years. The ever-humble man from Punjab has been awarded Best Trainer three times – in 1983, 1994 and 1998. He believes in working every single day with the same exuberance as he did when he first began.