In the Beginning There Was Child

May 2014

My family considers all youngsters “child”. Arriving with naturally built in repellent devices, “child” are to be avoided. They bite, chase and hang on with vigour and ferocity. Childs are much better company when they can have a conversation. sun2

Holding puppies produces opioids in my brain. Delicious. The only release from this addictive state is 10 of them for 10 weeks. Nature will deliver you from all desires and dreams of puppies by then.

It is five year since Child was part of the group. Life has revolved around a few oldies that had earned a peaceful retirement without Child hanging off their bodies.

It is near 20 years since Gordon child arrived from outside the group.

It was not planned.

I had been flirting with Other Breeds, but I will wash my mouth out for ever considering Other Breeds. There are only two: Border Collies and Gordon Setters.

Having been propositioned by copious amount of marketing from our Kennel Club to join their accredited breeders scheme I was interested to see who was bothering with the scheme and did they actually have an advantage in registering their puppies with the KC. Until the launch on this scheme there was a well-proven system of directly contacting the breed clubs and asking for the puppy register of their members. But this avenue was not well marketed to the incoming public. Breed clubs have always had their own list of breeders who abide by the carefully chosen and rigorous guidelines for their breed. These include recommended health testing, puppy packs and a life time’s advice and support. They will also run and support breed rescue. I am not sure that a global kennel club scheme is better, by its global nature it cannot be tailored to the breed requirements, but it does bear marketing weight.

I viewed the list of breeders with puppies, those that have registered puppies with the KC, and their accredited breeders were at the top of the list. Whoopee, not quite the same kudos as a Google ranking but by implication the “top of the list”.

There are no coincidences. In this list was a friend with a very interesting line of show-working Gordons that succeed in both arenas. Interesting.

Off popped the email.


She arrived some weeks later.

Child was not from the originally advertised litter but a second litter of seven bitches and three dogs. Goodness. If you are thinking “how cute”. Let me tell you not to be so gullible. This second litter was born in February, the earlier litter in November. The more familiar name for this period is mud season. Dark short days. Copious amounts of rain, cold and more rain. Nicki must have been nuts to tackle this challenge, but fate deals these challenges and I think both she, the girls and her garden are recovering.

It was a true luxury for me to visit, cuddle, greet and then drive away! Breeders are a sturdy bunch, but keeping on a home bred new puppy means that at the very time you should have energy to build a relationship you are either still juggling puppy pens or recovering from the stress loaded homing process.

I was fresh and enthusiastic, and in retrospect able to enjoy every moment, the delightful ones and the not so delightful 4am need-a-pee moments.

Nicki has a “working” set up that allows for the litter to be home reared, and at 6 weeks able to enjoy outdoors in a day kennel with frequent outings to this field. The pups quickly learned that grass represented shedding your litter siblings and running FREE ……first garden

On first contact with my grass the stimulus as the same effect of RUN! This necessitated a collar and Flexi lead – how handy. My garden was full of danger zones for a 7 week old with no sense of “run-to-mummy” in her brain.

Litters of 10 are chaotic. Personalities all jumbled. Even more so when they are all marked identically. Neat little Velcro collars assisted us all in identifying who was who. But standing amidst this flock was no way to select a puppy. One of the boys was eye catching, but spoken for. The girls was all very alike, no one pup shone and no one pup faded.

That’s good news. A strength of genetic compatibility across the litter. I am not always in favour of extremes within a litter. The parents only share a pinch of genetic commonality since papa is from Australia. Usually a wide gene pool will produce a wide range of types of puppies, but this litter is a good product of type to type breeding.

I chose that one. No that one, or was it that one – the brown collar? That’s brown with dirt from the other puppies, well it’s definitely not pink or green.

Her with “a” brown collar made the 4 hour journey from Devon to Gloucestershire. Only vomited twice. Love service stations that appear frequently.

I plan to keep young, bewildered pups near me for much of the early days. Everything of reference, routine and familiarity has disappeared. She slept at the bedside, able to feel a hand touch during the night. She had her own penned off area in the Barn with a queue of sitters.

Baby pups learn through tasting and resisting being tasted. With nine siblings biting to identify and defending are the agenda for every waking moment. This meant she arrived at seven and a half weeks with a highly developed bit reflex on touch and equally well developed diving bite for all movement.

The collies were appalled. Flink was the only accessible body Her to text her biting skills on and she spend 99% elevated out of reach. This meant my legs, feet, hands, shoes, fingers the main targets.

Having dropped the odd hint at the recent Conferences I travelled home with no less that 15 toys for her entertainment. IKEA providing some of the greatest successes.




Puppies study their environment with high level scrutiny, they are like mini-video cameras – they see everything. When I pick up the kettle I will walk to the sink. When the alarm goes off I will begin to stir. When the garden door opens birds will lift from the feeders.

Along with their observation skills I add “labels” to all activities, as if I was teaching a child our language. John Pilley in “Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words” carefully explains teaching Chaser from 8 weeks old the names of her toys and the activity she was doing, as she does it. Outstanding results. Although half my heart belongs to collies, I have no doubt many other types of dogs also learn our language – given the opportunity to do so.

Chaser’s proven results means we need to be thoughtful about how many words we use, and when we use them.

Food on the floor

This took 7 meals to learn. As with any associative sounds it needs to be regularly topped up to elicit the response. I reserve this only for the conditions “food on the floor – hurry, hurry, it’s going fast”.

As a gang racing to the front gate to greet the deliveries I can “cuckoo-whistle” several times and drop food on the kitchen floor. It is not dependant on behaviour, but the last one there gets the least amount of food.

For many people this is the start of their recall cue. It should elicit a run towards you. Because I begin this with my own pups at about 4 weeks, there is a very strong response to find what is on offer. This is respondent conditioning. It is not dependant on the behaviour of the pup for food to be put to the floor. As I scatter raw mince on the floor, the pups begin to search around. I make my “cuckoo” whistle, over and over again. At 6 weeks my pups can go into the garden and roam around to explore because I have a secure “collect the litter” call. Merrick arrived without this response, hence a necessity for a Flexi to go in the garden. But with four meals a day, often split into 6, I had many opportunities to introduce the sound as food was put to the floor. She recognised my routine of food preparation within 2 meals, and I could begin the sound whenever she was aware that food was about to go to the floor. With a multi dog household, food was always fed in her pen/crate to prevent the other dogs having a taste. The “cuckoo-whistle” would then send her off to the crate in anticipation of the food.

 Upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside

Every route we take has a name. To begin with this occurs because the pup wants to follow you, or avoid being left behind. As you demonstrate your intent, you will see the pup anticipate your route and go ahead of you. If you approach your garden door you are most likely to open it and go out, not just dust the back of the door. As the pup goes ahead you can associate the name of the route. Useful when you need to pup to go downstairs ahead of you to avoid congestion. Useful because the pup can begin to learn words and sounds.

What you are doing

If we program our thinking to understanding the meaning of what we want, not what we don’t want, this begins our path to co-operative living, rather than restrictive living. I have a particular dislike of the term “leave” in a positive training environment. We may just as well teach “stop pulling”. It may be what we want, but it leaves the dog in a vacuum as to what to do. Are we walking towards B or going away from A? If we label it “go away from A” the dog may never arrive at B.Control your thinking into clear action – walk towards B – not open ended vacuums.I now can associate a cue “I’m busy”, when the toys are attractive and engaging for self-employment, and not me. This is not “settle down”. That would be a very specific way of lying down, or a specific location – in the crate. The only recommendation is that when you are “busy” you keep one ear open for ominous silence …. it usually means something undesirable is being extracted from the kitchen cupboard!

Most pups need a top up of “are we OK?” every 10 minutes, when they ask this question, respond, give them 10 seconds of Okay-ness and then turn away back to “I’m busy”. (I think a great cue for this would be “go do stuff”)

At the other end of the spectrum, I want to be able to work, eat, watch TV, and have the pup nearby but not interactive. I am busy. This is definitely a “go away from A” and you can please yourself what you do. I begin this when she is engaged with her toys, or playing with Nanny-dog, and I will be in the same room, but engaged in a non-pup activity. I differentiate between: sitting up at the table (eating, typing) and sitting back from the table (open to a pup conversation).

Not “leave” but “walk on by”, “look at me”, “walk this way” ……

This is labelled at every opportunity, what you should not be doing is never labelled. As I leave the kitchen and wish the pup to stay there, with the help of the puppy gate, I give the label “you wait there”. The same for the front gate when I go to feed the chickens. Going into her crate as I close the door, in the van crate. This will develop to a wait on the grooming table, as I turn to collect a different brush. It directly translates as “short term separation, you do not need to follow”.

At 15 weeks she has a building vocabulary:

Hurry-ups go pee, I am following you with the umbrella and in my slippers, so HURRY ……This is the classic association-by-doing cue, and is useful over the dog’s life 1000 times.

That’ll do end of game time, toys are going to bed.

Chase! Run after the thrown toy.

Ready? I’m about the throw the toy.

Tug-tug Let’s skin this rabbit, pull, share, tug.

Go find look for treats on the floor

Each toy is being named: dong-dong, chicken, bunny, rat, mouse, tom-tom, cucumber, banana, etc etc (I shop at IKEA children’s section). Make a note of the toy’s names – or as John Pilley recommends write the name of the toy on the toy in an indelible marker.

Destinations: off to bed (upstairs to her bedtime crate), in the car, kitchen, inside, outside.

My older dogs watching the kettle protocol: she make hot stuff, pick up and turn right, we’re staying in the kitchen, turn left and she’s going through to the lounge. As soon as I make the left turn they will have headed off to the lounge.

Actions: settle down (she is very readable when tired that she is looking for a place to flop, this will be: first choice: patch of sunshine, second choice: by my feet, third choice: her own bed.)

Walk on: when we are out and about and she is trotting along focussed on where we are going. This takes familiarity as at the moment “walk on” is about 2 metres before we respond to wildlife marketing.

Positions can be labelled: sitting, drop, standing

Am I teaching her a heel position or how to stand in a bowl? Absolutely not. Our most important learning is communication, language, relationship.

Labels to emotional states

Absolutely. I can see her getting tired, being full of joy, affectionate, alert, excited. I look for opportunities to associate my future reinforcers. When she charges towards me with her toy for a play time I clap. Feeding her treats I add a “yummy”, I use a whistle sound for celebration.

Love Person!!

Long before any scientist studied learning theory, the traditional naming of behaviours was by telling the animal what it was doing as it was being done. I have eighteenth and nineteenth century books on “dogge breaking”, and “sheepe dogs of the north” and this was the successful protocol. All writers understood that a stimulus must be effective to trigger the behaviour before a label could be associated. Move the sheep in such a way that the collie needs to move to their left to prevent escape = “come bye”, walk up onto the scent of a bird hidden in the grass = “steady-up”

For any action that continues over and over again you can repeat the label/cue, as the action is repeating. It takes an impressive short amount of time before the label can be used to begin the action.

Probably the one label that deserves the most thought is her name. The choosing of a name is worthy of several hours of consideration. It needs testing before the pup has any idea of its significance, it needs to be shouted in public. You think it to yourself as you are with this new soul and feel the “click” when you know this is who they are.

Child was “Merrell” for a couple of weeks, and one evening when she was sitting on my lap I discovered it was Merrick. A quick trundle around Google found “The Merrick”

“The Merrick is the highest summit in Southern Scotland and lies at the heart of the Galloway ranges. …..Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly”

Yep, that sounds about right! Scottish breed, knowledge, experience and skill to use correctly.

I have seen the recommended protocol of “say the pup’s name and give it a piece of food” become no more than association of food. Pup hears the name, stands passively and licks their lips. Huh?

I have no ambitions on becoming a food dispenser in my pup’s eyes.

I associate her name when: she is running towards me with all the joy and love a pup can have for “Person!!! Love ya!!”

When she is sitting on my lap having an affectionate cuddle.

When we re-unite after separation – our greeting sessions where we exchange promises of all good things.

When she hears me call her name I want an emotional response that encompasses connection and joy, not “got chicken huh”?

More articles of Merrick on Kay’s blog:



A variety of articles by Kay:


07 February 2017

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