We read Catherine Brown's tale of her beloved Nester in an April issue of True Grit many years ago and cried for her loss. Terriers with Nester's grit, dedication, and determination should be the norm of this working breed, but usually one with his spirit is a rare and cherished gift. Nester, obviously, was one of those rare gifts, a once in a life time friend, and my heart aches for Catherine's loss. Part of Catherine's story, the part recounting the "26-foot long flexi lead," took me back several years to the frustration and anguish we experienced in trying to teach our favorite Jack Russell, David, to "come" when called.
David was the independent puppy in the litter from day one. He is very much like his mother, Molly, in that he is filled with bounce and exuberance for life. He has her eyes, dark pools of mischief, and he has her zest for living. It was evident at an early age he also inherited her love for hunting. When the other puppies were tussling with each other and exploring the woods in a pack, David was always off exploring by himself or tracking after his mother, nose to the ground. He was the first to unearth mice and moles in the pasture and the last to come back when called, disappearing for up to 30 minutes in the woods at the farm. He did come when called as a puppy, at least as well as most JR puppies come when called. But David would always study you for a moment before returning, as if deciding whether or not to cooperate.
We knew we were in trouble in July 1992. Mary Vale, Linda Cranford, Pete Littmann, and I went hunting in Pennsylvania the Sunday after the Mason-Dixon Terrier Trial. I, of course, took David. "Does he come when called?" asked Mary Vale. "Yes," I responded, "as well as any of them." We started off with four terriers, three of them ranging within 3-4 feet of each other, and David keeping at least a 20-25 foot distance from the other terriers.
It isn't that David wasn't a social dog. He simply wanted and needed his own space. The first 30 minutes or so, everyone stayed well within eye sight and I began to relax. Was that ever a mistake!! We heard a dog barking quite a ways off and when David heard it, he took off in a mad dash and disappeared. While the others went on with their terriers, I took off after David, calling him repeatedly in vain. After an hour or so, I gave up, praying he would eventually come back. When we returned to the car, there was David, waiting and barking, as if to say, "Where have you been? I've been here all along." Off again we went, and this time I was convinced David would stay closer. But David had other ideas and promptly disappeared again. We found him an hour or so later in a large sette in the corner of the pasture, baying his heart out. Back in the crate with you, buster.
Back in Virginia, it was evident we had our homework cut out for us. Lynn worked with David DAILY on a long line until every time he was called, he promptly ran to her. We thought we had the problem licked, that is until we turned him off the line. David is a smart terrier, and he instantly knew the difference between total freedom and that long line. He would come when called on the line, and even for the first 5-10 minutes after turned loose. But invariably, something would get his attention or a deeper longing would kick in and he would take off for hours.
Sometimes we would find him deep in a sette in the woods and sometimes we would simply have to wait on him to return home covered with dirt after hours of fruitless searching. Two things finally became evident to us. First, this terrier lived to hunt, and second, he did not believe we needed to be a part of this sport. Thank you very much, but he did just fine locating his own quarry. What the hell did he need humans for? He had never stuck close enough for Lynn and I to actively participate with him in the hunt field.
The result of our frustration was that we tried hunting him on a leash. Believe me, this was no solution. David was frustrated and we were frustrated. Finally, after a long weekend in Kentucky, Ken Chambers said, "Girls, you know I love you, but don't bring that dog back until he comes when you call him. It isn't fair to you and it isn't fair to the dog." That did it! Total humiliation. We knew Ken was right, but we also knew we had tried everything to get this terrier to come when called.
We telephoned every animal behaviorist and dog trainer we could find asking what we could do to get this terrier to come when called. They all told us to put the dog on a long line, a solution we had tried to no avail. It was obvious they didn't understand Jack Russells. Nancy Williams offered a different solution and responded that the answer to our problem was simple. Buy a shock collar. She had a similar experience with one of her Russells and a shock collar was the only answer. Lynn and I were horrified. A shock collar on our beloved terrier? Not a chance!! How inhumane. Our rejection of the idea was further reinforced when we priced the model 300 Tritronics shock collar (the only model light weight enough for a Jack Russell) at $400.00. A bit pricey for our blood. No thanks. We will keep working him on a long line and pray he comes around. That, of course, never happened.
Lynn phoned me one night at midnight in tears. "David has run off again, and I have searched everywhere for him." David had disappeared about 4 PM and there was no sign of him anywhere. He had never been gone that long. By 4 AM the next morning, we were convinced we would never see him again. However, at 7:30, just as Lynn shut the door to her truck to leave for work, up bounds David, barking and covered with mud and blood. While we had had a tearful, sleepless night, he had been having a night out hunting, and was obviously very proud of himself. That did it! We had to do something drastic.
Our choices were simple. We could either leave the dog in the kennel for life (a solution we quickly dismissed because he would have been miserable), or we could turn him loose and take our chances (a solution we also dismissed). There was a third possibility....a shock collar. We telephoned Nancy Williams again that evening to further discuss the shock collar and where we could purchase one. We finally realized that $400 was a small price to pay to save this terrier's life, and Lynn got out her trusty VISA card and ordered the collar from Tritronics the next morning.
When the collar arrived, we quickly realized we had no idea how to use the darned thing, so on the phone again to Nancy. Nancy worked with Lynn long distance, teaching her HOW to use the collar, what to do and what not to do, and always giving moral support. First, put the dog back on the long line with the shock collar.NEVER, NEVER begin to use the collar without having control of the terrier. As Nancy explained, when you shock him, his natural tendency is to try to run away from the shock. Lynn followed Nancy's instructions to the letter, frequently phoning her for advice and an update.
Lynn worked David daily on the long line and shock collar for weeks, even though it meant going out into the pasture in the dark in the middle of the cold winter with rain and snow pelting down on the two of them. I have never known anyone as dedicated as Lynn, never missing a single day with David's training. Finally, the day arrived when she cut him off of the long line. When Lynn would call, "David COME," he returned to her without fail every time. We both held our breath as she let him range farther and farther from us, but each time she called him he returned. Oh, once in a while, she had to shock him on low, but he always came back.
At this point, we felt much more secure in the knowledge that David would not disappear, but not secure enough to hunt him without the collar. We began to take him out in the field to hunt, but always with the shock collar on him. Christmas day 1992, we drove to Wytheville, VA to hunt in the National forest with our friend Eric Lindstrom. We collared the terriers, David, of course, with his locator collar and shock collar, and began to walk into the woods. The first two or three times Lynn called David, he returned to her immediately. But about a half hour later, he picked up a scent, put his nose to the ground and took off at a dead run.
Lynn yelled, "David, come." David, however, had obviously had enough of our slower pace, and never even looked back over his shoulder. Lynn yelled again and then hit the button on the control for low shock. David kept running. She then hit the button for medium shock. David kept running. "For God's sake, hit him on high," I yelled as his tail disappeared in the brush. Lynn raised her hand with the control in the air and hit the control on high, all the time yelling "David, come." That did it! We heard a high pitched yelp and David returned at lighting speed, tail between his legs, to sit in front of Lynn. We both almost broke into tears of relief. "Good boy," we told him. He was the best dog in the world, we told him. The rest of the day went without incident, and David began to learn that we were there to help him, not to hinder him.
Several times out in the field with the shock collar convinced David that we were part of his favorite sport and that indeed, we could be useful. We helped him find holes and dug him out. (We had to remove the shock collar before he could go in the ground and refastened it when he exited). He learned when we called, "come check it," it meant we had found a hole he had overlooked. Bottom line...he learned we could work as a team. We finally had the chance that he had never given us before to bond with him.
Charlie Sauter offered an additional suggestion to our training program. Charlie suggested we use a high pitched, audible whistle in the field when David began to get uncomfortably far away from us. The sound of the whistle breaks his concentration and allows him to listen to us. Because neither of us can whistle louder than a whisper, Charlie presented us with our first whistle. It worked and now we are rarely without a whistle. In fact, we have incorporated coming to a whistle as part of our puppy training program.
By January 1993, David was coming when called on a reliable basis and no longer needed the daily use of the shock collar. He is now the most reliable terrier we own. Once in a while, we still put the collar on him for a refresher lesson. His litter mate, Polo, went through the same program, as have several of our other terriers. Often, we will be away from home at a terrier trial, and we will put the shock collar on David to turn him loose to run. He never strays far and always returns when called regardless of the distractions. Ken Chambers and Mary Vale have been amazed at the difference in his attitude. David is a happy terrier, willing to please and return to us when called.
We are no longer frustrated and frightened of loosing him and he isn't frustrated by a leash. In fact, we now refer to the shock collar as "David's best friend." And it IS his best friend because he can now run in the woods and pasture on a daily basis without a leash or long line. He gets to hunt two or three times a week. We are now a team, and have learned to respect and trust each other.
We highly recommend the use of a shock collar, but only if you have exhausted other training methods. We much prefer to use a positive reinforcement or reward technique with a terrier, but in David's case, his desire to go off hunting far outweighed anything we could offer him as an incentive to come when called. The strong, innate instinct to hunt and the terrier's tenacity is the beauty of the Jack Russell, but it also at times makes training the terrier difficult at best.
We discovered at least two advantages of a shock collar that other training methods just cannot offer. First, the terrier never associates being shocked with the human trainer. He only knows if he doesn't respond, something stings him and, consequently, runs back to the human for protection. Second, once you complete your foundation work you can make a correction in the field when the terrier is at a distance. You do not have to chase him down and then correct him after the fact. Let's face it, it is futile to yell at a dog or hit him for not coming to you. By doing so, you are simply reinforcing in his mind that coming to you has negative consequences. Further, he never associates the correction with what he actually did wrong. In other words, by using a shock collar, the correction is timed to coincide with the undesirable behavior.
However, it is vital to work with someone who knows what he/she is doing--who is experienced in training methods using a shock collar. Please understand that if you don't know what you are doing, you can do more harm than good and can eventually ruin a dog's attitude. A shock collar, as we discovered, is NOT inhumane,IF IT IS USED PROPERLY! Just ask David. He will highly recommend it. He gets excited when we take the shock collar out of its carrier because he knows it means freedom in the field after being crated at a terrier trial or in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
We are grateful to Nancy Williams for diligently working with us to train US how to train our terrier. And we are grateful daily that when we call, "David, COME," he will return to us willingly, tail wagging, with a sparkle in his eye. He is now able to be an active participant in our lives rather than just living on the fringes. I take him almost everywhere I go. We look forward to many years of hunting with our friend. Like Catherine Brown's Nester, he is one in a million, a rare and cherished gift. I can't imagine life without him, and I'm not going to try!Good luck and good hunting!