With a soft clatter of paws, an Airedale, a schnauzer, two West Highland terriers, three spaniels (a cocker, a King Charles and a cavalier King Charles), a smooth-haired terrier and a German shepherd trot into the centre of the hall and nose each other. Their anxious owners lean forward in their chairs in the horseshoe. "Now call, your dogs," they are told, "but remember, other dogs may be more interesting to your dog than you are. Use your voice, titbits or toys to make it worthwhile coming back to you."
All the dogs come back, not necessarily immediately but without barks, growls or compulsion. Above all, they appear to do so quite happily.
This is very cheering to those of us sitting watching, for we are witnessing lesson four of Patricia White's six-week beginners' course in dog training and are about to embark on lesson one. Each of the novices, up to a maximum of 10 per class, will have filled in a form beforehand; Pat and her assistants will already know every dog's name, sex, diet, exercise schedule and something of its medical records. The owner will also have indicated how the dog scores on a list of problems such as being aggressive towards other people, barking too much, or pulling on the lead.
"I need to know how dogs are looked after and what problems the owners think they have," Pat White explains, "since basically I am training both ends of the lead."
As we make our way in to register, the owners seem far more apprehensive than the dogs. While Suzanne Collins, the other trainer, and the two assistants settle any dog that seems restless, Pat checks each one for sensitivity of touch, sight and sound. She gets down to the dog's level. "Never tower above a strange dog when you want it to co-operate. The dog sees this as a dominating position and may respond aggressively."
To test a dog's sensitivity to touch, Pat lifts a front paw and with the flat of her finger gently presses between the toes and counts to 10. "Any sign of distress and we stop," she says. "But too great a response may indicate heightened sensitivity or a medical problem that needs looking at." To test sight, Pat stands behind the dog and sweeps a hand past its ear. "If a dog flinches," she says, "you need to be careful of moving too quickly around it." Then for hearing Pat, still standing behind the dog, claps her hands sharply. The dog should look up alertly, but not jump. If it doesn't, it may well be deaf and the owner will be advised to take it to a vet. "A distressing number of dogs today are partially deaf," Pat says, "an unfortunate consequence of over-breeding."
So here we are, on a winter evening in a church hall in a less than lovely part of west London, waiting for our lesson to begin. This time it's a novice group - a beagle, a border terrier, a smooth-haired fox terrier, a red setter, two labradors, a black cocker and a black-and-tan German shepherd. They have already had their sensitivities tested and been rewarded with praise and little pellets of dog food. "We all have pockets full of these titbits," Pat says. "My training is based on reward, and food is a sure way to a dog's heart. They only need a tiny taste - no fear we'll make them fat."
Our group comes in all ages, shapes and sizes, canine and human. Several dogs come with a pair of owners or with parents and children. Pat encourages families to come along together to make for consistency in the way their pet is treated. My dog for the night is Medlar, a slight and timid lurcher bitch. Recently rescued from a dog shelter, she could have problems relating to people.
Our dogs are then fitted with training collars. These are half-check collars made of cotton webbing, which does not wear down the animal's coat like chain or nylon can. The collar is fitted closely just behind the dog's ears, high on the neck in the groove behind the ears. It is clear of the dog's voicebox and, since the check is self-limiting, in no danger of choking it. A slight pull upwards gets the dog's attention. For those owners used to desperately yanking at the necks of strong dogs that run away with them, this is an agreeable surprise. Lowering the lead releases the check.
Once we have learnt how to put on the collars correctly, and have mastered the lead method of controlling the dog, the check and instant release of pressure, we sit in horseshoe formation, with dogs to our left sides and Pat in the middle. "When you sit in this way," she says, "the dogs can't eyeball each other directly, so they're far less likely to be aggressive."
Although, as Pat says, the only language we share with dogs is body language, we are going to teach our pets a few basic commands. The first, and most obvious, they should all have learnt already - their names. "But do remember," says Pat, "use only one name for your dog. And don't use it too often - over-using it generally results in the dog being desensitised to its name." There is little point in standing in the park shouting "Paddy, Paddy, Paddy" if that's the noise the dog hears you utter all day long.
We start with learning how to get our dog's attention. This may seem pretty basic, but look around any park and it's clear this is a lesson many owners have never mastered. With dogs on our left and leads wound round our right hands, we hold a titbit clenched in the fingers of our right hands and call the dog's name - trying to sound cheerful and encouraging. As soon as the dog responds, it will get the titbit.
Everyone is nervous, their concentration fixed solely on their own pet. Some speak too quietly, some too loudly. With the encouragement of the trainers, bright voices soon ring out and gradually all the dogs respond. The tension dissipates. We have all passed the first test.
Next we teach our dogs to "sit", also a fairly basic point of obedience but particularly important when you are outside. Once again we sit, dogs on left, leads held firmly - not to say clutched - in our right hands. Like many people, I would have ordered Medlar to "Sit" and, if she ignored me, would have pressed her firmly on the lower back and repeated "Sit!"
This would have been wrong. Pressing like that would have borne down on the dog's kidneys and bladder, which is very uncomfortable or even painful, possibly dangerous. Pat takes care never to let her students attempt an exercise before she has shown them the correct way.
Pat kneels on the floor, dog on the left, lead under her knees. She runs her hand gently along the dog's back, tucks it under the bottom, behind the knees, and says quietly, "Sit". The dog sits, looking up at her with trust. We all practise earnestly, rewarding the dogs with titbits. Soft cries of "Good dog", "Oh, goood dog!" resound around the room.
After that, logically enough, we teach our dogs to "stand" on command, then at heel - and there endeth the first lesson. Exhausted but encouraged, owners collect their homework and spill into the night, as a new class arrives for training.
Every Thursday evening Patricia White runs three classes, lasting 45 minutes each, in this bare church hall. Two are in basic training, one in obedience. The club comes with impressive recommendations - from the British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers, the Kennel Club, the Blue Cross, the RSPCA, the National Canine Defence League, the UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists, the Anglo-American Dog Trainers' Association and many vets. It's not unusual for owners with problems to be referred to her classes by their vets.
In six lessons, the dogs will learn to walk by their owner's side without pulling, sit and lie down on command, come when called (even if romping outside, off the lead) and socialise with other dogs. Individual problem- solving is part of the course. Naturally, the lessons have to be reinforced with practice, hence our homework sheets. The basis of the course is a thorough understanding of the nature of dogs and their natural instinct to please the pack leader, ie, the owner. "Dogs are dogs, they are not people," explains Patricia White. "But they are more than willing to live in a human pack."
By day, Patricia White is a literary agent, a partner in Rogers, Coleridge and White. She is a New Yorker who came to London in 1968 to join Deborah Rogers in setting up the agency. She has been used to dogs all her life - her stepfather was an international show judge and she started out training running dogs, particularly greyhounds. Patricia is now leader of a pack of three: Damson, a Portuguese water dog, Rowan, a short-haired pointer/ labrador cross; and Medlar, my dog for the evening, which I would quite happily have run off with.
"I have a friend," Patricia White says, "who claims that all dogs grow like their names. Witness all those macho Tysons. I don't know what it must mean that my dogs are always called after fruit trees."
All three dogs - plus a cat - accompany her to work, thus avoiding the boredom that drives so many pets to destruction. Not too many owners can have this privilege, but then not many owners have such contented and well-behaved animals.
She has an extraordinary way with dogs. Not one in the three classes I saw displayed any nervousness or aggression at her touch. All sat quietly to have their mouths opened or their paws pressed. Pat White does not bark at dogs: she speaks to them quietly, brightly, above all fondly - and they respond with intent eyes and eager noses. Clearly, her methods are based on affection as well as a wealth of experience in handling dogs.
"Handling" is the operative word. "Although we can teach our dogs a few verbal commands," she explains, "it's our hands that influence them most. Very often owners have problems with their animals because in their frustration they have been handling them too hard."
It goes without saying that you should never hit your dog. If it is going to do what you want, happily and without fuss, it must associate your touch with gratification. Withholding a reward is usually sanction enough, but in extreme cases (such as showing aggression towards people or other dogs) a quick burst behind the ear from a water pistol is enough to check it. I saw the effectiveness of this when one terrier bared its teeth and went for another. It jumped round, startled, not knowing where the attack had come from, abandoning its wayward ways at once.
But there are no absolute guarantees, says Pat White. "What you have is an animal. It makes sense to know as much about it as you possibly can before you bring it into your home.
"Lots of inadequacies in dogs today are attributable to over-breeding, especially for looks. So never buy a pedigree puppy without seeing its parents and ensuring that your reputable breeder will take the pup back if it develops any serious problems.
"Please, never get a dog as a knee-jerk reaction; you or your children may fall in love with a puppy but you must be sensible about how it will grow. And when you get your pup home, decide at once where your limits are. For the dog that gets its paw on your sofa one day will be lying on your pillow within a week."
LESSONS IN LANGUAGE
Dogs have a limited ability to understand human language. They respond best to short, clearly enunciated words. Give your dog a name of one or two syllables that is unlike other words you will be using as commands.
Dogs respond best to short, crisp commands spoken in a quiet and happy voice. Call the dog's name to attract its attention. Stand upright, with shoulders back; keep the dog's attention fixed on you. Hold a treat clenched in your hand as an incentive. The inflection in your voice is important. Smile and speak brightly when giving commands. Lower your voice and scowl if the dog disobeys.
Dogs are adept at reading human body language. If your dog misbehaves, assume a threatening posture. Stand above it, hands on hip, looking angry, and say "No!"
Conversely, do not stand over your dog and pat its head when you want to reward it. You are thereby assuming a dominant position and putting your dog in its place. Instead, stroke it along the side of its body.
Get down to your dog's level to encourage it. To teach it to come to you, kneel with your arms open and call "Come" in a welcoming voice.
When your dog does as you ask, praise it, stroke it along its body, give it a titbit or a toy. Most dogs love toys. For training purposes you should find one particular toy the dog loves that you can use to get its attention. But the toy belongs to you, the owner, as pack leader, and when you have finished playing, the toy it gets put away. Give the dog a chewbone to occupy it outside training times.
Pat White's training sessions take place at Hammersmith Dog Training Club, Askew Road Church Hall, London W12 (0171-610 2674 daytime, 0171- 727 9033 evenings).
Vets can frequently recommend a good local dog training programme, but it is a good idea to watch a class before signing up for a full course.
Other information is available from: British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers (01322 558599, evenings only); UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists (01203 452566).
The Complete Dog Training Manual by Dr Bruce Fogle, which uses Patricia White's training methods (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 14.99)
Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey (Hamlyn, pounds 8.99)
Training Your Dog by John Rogerson (Stanley Paul, pounds 15.99)
Your Dog, Your Baby by Silvia Hartman-Kent (Doghouse Publications, pounds 5.95)
The Complete Dog Training Manual, based on our expert Pat White's training methods, is available to Independent on Sunday readers by mail order at pounds 14.99 (post and packing free). Order on Credit Card Hotline 01442 882255, quoting reference DTM1. Or send a cheque, made payable to Dorling Kindersley Ltd, to: IBD, Campus 400, Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead, HP2 7EZ, again quoting reference DTM1.
Dogs respond best to short, clear commands. Don't constantly repeat commands since this will only confuse your pet. Dogs' ability to understand human language is limited, but they are adept at reading body language. Speak cheerfully and smile when pleased. Lower your voice and scowl if the dog disobeys.
ATTRACTING ATTENTION: Use the dog's name to attract attention. Smile and show it a food reward, held clenched in your fist, to keep its concentration focused on you.
WELCOMING BODY LANGUAGE: To encourage your dog to respond to you, get down to its level. Kneel on the floor, smile and use a friendly tone of voice, and hold your arms open to receive the dog. A welcome may be all the reward the dog needs, but it can be reinforced by a treat.
FIRM WORDS: Begin a rebuke as soon as your dog starts to misbehave. Lower your voice and say 'No' sharply. 'No' is one of the most important words your dog will learn, since it can prevent it from doing something dangerous.
STERN BODY LANGUAGE: If your dog misbehaves, assume a threatening position, scowl and look angry when saying 'No'. Standing above the dog reinforces your dominant position as the leader of the pack.
WALKING TO HEEL
Start the training in a quiet room, walking towards a door that doesn't lead outside.
1 Start the lesson with the dog sitting on your left. Hold the lead telescoped in your right hand, with a titbit in your right fist. Hold the other end of the lead lightly in your left hand, close to the dog's collar.
2 Using the dog's name and the command 'Heel', begin to walk, leading with your left foot. Keep the dog close to your left thigh. If it starts pulling too far in front, give light jerks on the lead to bring the dog back into the heel position.
3 Give the reward to your dog when it has walked properly to heel for a few paces.
SIT AND STAY
The commands 'Sit' and 'Stay' form the basis of responsible dog ownership and are useful forms of control during outdoor activity. Begin training in a quiet area; limit each session to 15 minutes.
1 With the dog on your left, hold the lead at waist level in your right hand and a food reward in your right fist. Give the command 'Sit'. Maintaining tension on the lead, step forward with your right foot and command 'Stay'.
2 Keeping eye contact with the dog move your left foot towards the right.
3 Exerting light pressure on the lead and holding it over the dog's head, turn to face the dog. Keep its concentration by holding the food reward high above its head. Repeat 'Stay'. When the dog manages to its feet together and shows no sign of jumping up, reward it with the food treat.
4 Now walk slowly around the dog, holding the lead above its head. Issue as few commands as possible so that you do not confuse the dog. Remem-ber: your dog is learning a new language. Keep the tone of your voice pleasant and don't expect the dog to understand commands immediately.
5 After several sessions, the dog should sit and stay while on the lead. Now drop the lead and repeat the previous four steps, always praising and rewarding the dog for good behaviour. Your pet should enjoy the training sessions and be aware when it has done something to please you.
6 When the dog obediently sits and stays with the lead dropped, give it a reward. It is important to give the dog rewards while it is doing what you have asked and not after it has moved. After no more than 15 minutes, release the dog from training by opening your arms and saying 'OK'.