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Training Teddy: A Lesson from a Falconer

I’d like to blame it on the autumnal frenzy of squirrels, but the fact that Teddy is refusing to come back when called probably has more to do with me than the fluffy grey smudges that he likes to chase.
I met a dog-walker while standing on Hampstead Heath and calling for my errant mutt. His advice? Training dogs is all about practice, mixing it up a bit and making sure that what’s offered as a lure (especially for a picky Mini Schnauzer like ours) is something fairly special.
So this is not news to me, but it took watching another trained animal perform for me to get with the programme.
Last weekend we visited Countrywide Falconry to fly some hawks and owls. Let’s do something different, we thought, as we loaded up the children and Teddy and journeyed away from London, into the open fields of the Kent countryside. Once Teddy had stretched his legs, we stowed this urban dog out of harm’s way, back in the car. He promptly went to sleep.
The falconer introduced us to his Harris Hawks. He showed us how to hold the birds on the glove, how to weigh them (they are only allowed to fly at a certain weight), and how to fly them. Then the training techniques began to ring some bells. We were told that when calling a Hawk to fly to you, “You never put your glove up to receive a bird unless you have some food for it.” Essentially, this is the same recall strategy with which we started training Teddy: don’t ask him to come unless you are going to give him a reward.
The Harris Hawks were powerful and elegant in the sky but, when some chicken bits fell to the floor, the three hawks whining and squabbling over food were positively pup’ish, especially when they looked up, squawking furiously, demanding more.
When whistled for or, amazingly, called by name, the Hawks swooped obediently back onto the glove for a small piece of chicken. The Bengal Eagle Owl, however, was more Teddy-like in her approach. When called, she looked the other way (the falconer put this down to owl stupidity – apparently they do not deserve their wise reputation) or screeched what sounded like ‘nah’. She appeared only to return to the glove when she considered the size of what was on offer worth her while. I admired her style.
And so for Teddy, I’ll have to up my game. Rather than a whole small chick (the owl’s favourite bait) I’ll try some roast chicken scraps, perhaps a bit of sausage, and hope that gets the recall back on track.

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