Spare time: Dog daze in Hammersmith

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The Independent Online
Who's being drilled - the pets or their owners? Mike Higgins joins a dog-training class in west London.

A dozen dogs are crashing about in a church hall in west London. At the eye of this canine storm stands the tall, bespectacled organiser of the Hammersmith Dog Training Club. Surveying the apparent pandemonium with a broad grin, Pat White presides over owners and dogs alike with a missionary zeal. "Come on now," she exhorts her timid-looking class, "just let dogs be dogs".

As the various Alsatians, poodles and terriers take her advice to heart, the layman might think that the only discipline evident is the patience of the anxious owners, hanging on Pat White's every word. "Stress does not improve learning. I want owners to begin to look at dogs as dogs, and I want the dogs to learn to calm down, because if the dogs are stressed they're not going to learn anything."

If the thought of dog-training evokes visions of a wayward hound being chastised by a crusty dowager, the Hammersmith Dog Training Club's evangelical emphasis on owner and dog working in harmony comes as a pleasant surprise: "We think dogs should be part of people's lives. We're a dog training club, not an obedience club - obedience is the kind of thing you see at Cruft's."

November marks the fifth anniversary of the Kennel Club's Good Citizen Dog Scheme, which, according to its publicity blurb, has trained around 23,000 dogs, each of whom "will walk and sit in a controlled manner on the lead, will lie down on command, will allow its owner to clean and groom and inspect its feet. The dog must also be able to be positioned by its owner for examination. Lastly, the dog must come to hand when called."

Pat White's club is one of more than 870 dog-training outfits whose goal is to achieve these criteria for a "socially acceptable" dog. The test, taken after six to 10 weeks training, is designed to meet the needs of dogs and their owners leading busy lives. Increasingly, dogs must be able to cope with periods of isolation as well as encounters with other dogs or crowds of people. As Pat warns, if a dog turns a walk in the park into an ordeal for its owner, there may be serious implications for its well- being: "A dog which is out of control in a pet situation is really going to find a visit to the vet difficult. And if the vet can't touch the dog because it's going berserk, he's never going to be able to give the dog injections if it is ill.

"People's perceptions of their dogs are not always my perception of their dogs," she says. And it's the short leash for anyone who doesn't see eye to eye with this straight-talking 58-year-old literary agent from New York. The Hammersmith Dog Training Club's six-week beginners' course reflects both the necessity of establishing a disciplined, understanding relationship between owner and dog, and its organiser's frank nature.

"Do I train their dogs? No, they train their dogs and that's very important. There are people who come here, hand me the lead and say `When can I pick up the dog?' People have very different ideas about how much work they're willing to put in - and work is what it's about because I have these people 45 minutes a week but they have their dogs seven days a week."

Those turning up for their weekly 45-minute evening classes can expect the expert tuition attention of Pat herself - who has been training dogs for 40 years - two further trainers and three assistants. Like more and more dog training associations around the country, the Hammersmith club has rejected the rough-and-ready punitive approach and has adopted food- induced training. Every time the dog performs an action to the satisfaction of its owner, it gets a titbit in return.

A fistful of dog biscuits is only the start, however. With a club trainer on the end of the lead, David, 31, halfway through the beginners' course, claims that his six-month-old schnauzer Dillon is a different dog. "But when I'm in the park with Dillon and I think I'm doing all the right things, he just ignores me." To keep the momentum going until the next class, the diligent are supplied with detailed handouts, Pat White's telephone number in case of a canine emergency, and the advice that practice, a little but often, will make perfect. David confesses that he neglects his homework a little: "It's nothing to do with the dog. All dogs sense when you're not sure about something," he sighs. "This is a class for owners - it's us being trained."

Not that Pat and her trainers have any difficulty bringing the wide variety of owners to heel. From teenage boys to OAPs, David and his classmates are as cheerfully disparate as Dillon and his pals, Monty (a West Highland Terrier pup), Zebedee (a fully grown Monty) and Homer (an edgy Jack Russell). Pat insists that her classes are usually the same in one respect, though. "Do most people say `I'll go out and train my dog?' No, they'll wait until there's a problem." The neatly groomed Dillon, for instance, can't help chasing kids "which is obviously worrying for the parents, worrying for the child and worrying for me," frets David.

Pat points out an excitable crossbreed barely under the control of its adolescent owner. "So few people take the advice of a trainer before getting a dog," she concludes wearily. "People see an Afghan and think `Oh, aren't they gorgeous!', so I'll have them talk to someone who owns an Afghan and even get them one for an evening. There are dogs that are inappropriate and dogs that are appropriate in a pet situation."

I'm just pondering this last point when I spot a spaniel with glowing devil's horns attached to its head. "Both beginners' classes are over now, and we're throwing a party." For the dogs? "Oh yes," says Pat. "We do Christmas and Valentine parties as well."

If you're interested in owning a dog or looking to find out more about your own, the Discover Dogs Exhibition (29-30 November at Earls Court in London) is recommended. Organised by the Kennel Club, the exhibition gives members of the public the chance to consult with owners of more than 160 breeds of pedigree dog. Adults pounds 7, OAPs pounds 4, children pounds 3.50. Ticket Hotline 0171 518 1012.

The Good Citizen Dog Scheme has plans for Very Good and Excellent Dog Schemes. For details on all three, ring the Kennel Club 0171-518 1011.

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