Stratford dog trainer Cat Roe speaks to Gill Sutherland about her business and approach to training
Tell us how you came to be a dog trainer.
I studied marine biology at university in Bangor and then worked on conservation and coral reef projects in Fiji and the Caribbean.
When I came back to the UK I started working at aquariums and got involved in the training. You can’t manipulate a shark to do anything, you have to have a buy-in from your animals, and that’s done with positive reinforcement.
My husband, who is a personal trainer, did ambassador work the Guide Dogs and I started volunteering with them and really got into training, it is a fantastic place to work. I went freelance a couple of years ago. It’s amazing to see the difference you can make to some dogs’ lives, especially if they’re scared and unsure, then working with the family to help them become really confident dogs.
What is your approach to dog training?
I’m always doing courses to keep myself updated with what’s going on – there’ always new developments on training dogs, but basically it’s science-based. All the training I do is about positive reinforcement. What I want to teach the dogs is how to make good decisions themselves so fantastic things come their way. Reinforcement can be anything: playing with a ball, having a treat, a big fuss, or being told you’re the most amazing dog in the world. Different dogs are going to respond to different things, you have to make sure you’re working with what motivates that dog, not just what you expect should work with them.
I want my dogs to know that good things will continue to happen if they keep making good choices; that way you don’t keep having to say ‘now do this’ as they’ve really processed all the information and know what is expected of them.
With the rise in people getting puppies during lockdown are you seeing any particular problems?
A lot of the clients have been thinking of getting a dog for a long time and have really researched the breed. They’ve seen lockdown as an opportunity to spend time with their new puppies and get them settled. Most of my clients will get in contact with me even before they’ve brought the dog home. We’ll have a zoom call sometimes before the puppy arrives, just to check they are set up and any questions they might have.
It’s important that after lockdown ends, and people go back to work, that we’ve worked with the pups on being left on their own gradually building the time up, or perhaps going to dog day care or being visited by a dog walker.
What advice would you give on what type of dog to get?
Breed-wise it’s what suits your home life. For instance, we’re quite an active family and we’ve got two very athletic rottweiler crosses, we like to go on walking holidays, take them paddling boarding or running – our dogs suit our lifestyle so that’s the important thing. If you want a lap dog or one that chills in front of fire, then go by a breed that suits you rather than what a dog looks like. You have to think of the mental and physical needs of the dog.
Make sure you go to a good breeder, you can find one via the Kennel Club. Make sure you talk to the breeder thoroughly and ask any relevant questions. I would also expect a good breeder to ask lots of questions about the potential owner. And also that all the welfare needs are being met – so it should be microchipped and make sure vaccines are discussed.
Obviously at the moment people are cashing in on the high prices of puppies so make sure you are going through a reputable breeder. If you do have problems it is the law that within the first six months puppies must go back to the breeder, they can’t be sold on to anyone else.
Have you got any tips on welcoming the new puppy to your home?
Be prepared as it’s a big change for owners and for the puppy. Make sure everything is puppy-proofed – they will be investigating everything with their mouths so make sure nothing there’s nothing dangerous – put wires away. Also make sure everyone in the family is involved – with feeding, grooming and training.
When should training start?
As early as possible. ‘Training’ sounds very formal, but the best advice I can give is if the puppy volunteers a behaviour that you like make sure that you tell that puppy that was a good choice. So just something like the puppy was excited ran towards me and sat down – I would say ‘good boy, well done’, and keep my voice calm. It’s so easy to repeat ‘no don’t do that’ and then forget to praise good behaviour. Let the puppy know they made a good choice.
From the beginning we want to reinforce good behaviour and not unwanted ones – like jumping up, toileting in the house – those sort of things.
So with toileting take them out every 20 minutes to where you want your dog to toilet and then reward them. Toileting won’t be a consolidated behaviour until six months old but it’s important to start from the beginning so they can make the right behaviour. Really simple things can set up dog for future – the harder you work at the beginning the less you have to work long term.
What are the biggest struggles behaviour wise?
Generally lead walking and recall are the biggest ones. You can do some really easy things in the house ahead of them being allowed outside after their second vaccination. Practise basic skills like calling them to come and then reward them when they do and make it a fun game with little exercises. That way they are invested in coming to you.
Again, with lead walking, start in the house. They get a better understanding by practising in the home and then garden. When you do start heading to the park let them investigate the sights and smells that are going on – sometimes you might not make it to the end of the garden gate, that’s fine – it’s best that they are not overwhelmed.
As a professional trainer what’s your role?
I’ve worked with lots of puppies and regularly update my skills and I can come in and work with families and their dogs and offer objectivity. I find sometimes owners ask their puppies to do too many things all at once, or want things to be perfect right away.
If I’m calm then the puppy will be calm. And key is breaking down the behaviours into small manageable steps that the puppy enjoys achieving.
Is socialisation especially tricky at the moment?
People think this is about meeting other puppies but it’s also about setting your puppy up for life so that also includes popping into town – exposing them to things like that in a controlled way. Grab a coffee and sit on the Bancroft and calmly observe the world – with cars passing, etc.
Are rescue or older dogs especially challenging to train?
You can absolutely teach old dog new tricks – again it’s about working with the dog and finding what works to reinforce those behaviours that we want to see. If they are nervous we will work at a distance. With older dogs we often have to unpick old behaviours – giving them the good option. So rather than say ‘no’, say ‘do this’. It’s like you wouldn’t just say to a child stop watching tv – you would say, don’t’ watch tv but go outside and play instead.
Sleeping through is also an issue for puppy families, do you recommend ‘crating’?
Personally I really like a crate. It’s really valuable that they have a location where they feel safe and they can take themselves away to if they need private space. A lot of people worry about providing a crate because they put human emotions on it and think it’s like a cage – but think of it as a nice den, with their bed, toys and water and maybe they have a puppy blanket that smells of their mum in there. You don’t have to shut the door, put in some treats and just build up their confidence gradually.