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I sent my dog to an A-list boarding school

The Times Weekend

by Helen Kirwan Taylor

Forget bragging about your child’s exam success, what matters now is how clever your pet is. That’s why I packed mine off to the experts, says Helen Kirwan-Taylor.

I thought I had just about left the rat race that is mothering when my children went to university. Mine was the first generation of “Mozart” baby monitors, supertutors and visits to educational psychologists (who always rank your child in the top 1 percentile). Those days were fading to black until I re-entered the rat race and got a dog.

Of course, no one simply “gets” a dog any more. One researches, selects, adopts, borrows for educational purposes, hires a dog consultant, etc. It took seven years for me to choose the perfect breed. In the end, I went for a cairn terrier because I love its scruffy look and the fact the breed has gone out of fashion. This means it is no longer puppy farmed, which many desirable breeds still are, and hence highly intelligent. We named him Wilson, after the volleyball in Castaway, which many mistake for Winston (because he shows such leadership skills).

Dog owners once competed over cuteness, but groups such as Dognition (an organisation that analyses dogs’ intelligence in a laboratory-style environment through play and observation) are now training dogs for more important tasks, such as helping the elderly, while offering services to test your pet’s intelligence. When they say dogs are the new children, I don’t disagree. Dogs have gone from being pets to fully fledged citizens with designer wardrobes, life insurance and burial plots (there are more “dannies” in Notting Hill, west London, than there are nannies). Dogs always get mentioned by name on Christmas cards (Wilson gets his own full-page photograph). As their lifespan expands so does their status. My boys are away at university, but Wilson is sitting right here on our best white-linen sofa, leaning his adorable head on a cashmere cushion.

Wilson has a pedigree that goes back at least three generations (we have the family coat of arms). We observed him closely with his mother before making our final selection. He was neither bouncing off the walls nor glued to Mama’s teat. This is more or less the same criteria that competitive nurseries use. Intelligent children are curious, but never extreme (they don’t bite the headmistress or refuse to look her in the eye). Wilson had good socialisation skills (tick), but also alertness (tick). He was neither the eldest nor the runt (middle children are creative, calm and adaptable).

We didn’t take any chances though. Before Wilson arrived we consulted a dog trainer who talked us through all the kit required and the schedule we would need to keep. Fortunately, she didn’t believe in night feeds. Dog training is a minefield because no two dog behavioural gurus seem to agree on anything. I found it almost as stressful as raising a toddler. The only rules we agreed on was that Wilson should never be fed from the table and would not be allowed upstairs.

Like our sons, Wilson was put down for boarding school as soon as he was born. The Dog House in Wales is more selective than Eton. It is one of the only dog hotels in Britain that offers comprehensive training and deals with difficult behaviour (Mark Thompson, the founder, is often called a dog whisperer). Many Dog House canine residents recognise each other in parks because they spend every Christmas and summer there — with a bit of top-up training thrown in. Their owners often book their dogs in first, then make holiday arrangements afterwards. Many of my friends’ dogs failed to get in — there’s a very long application form and connections really help.

Mark and Gillian, his wife, train the dogs of royals, celebrities (such as Felicity Kendal) and most of London’s international elite (dogs have been known to arrive by helicopter).

Some of my friends bring their puppy to the Dog House’s Hammersmith pick-up address when it is 12 weeks old and retrieve it fully trained three months later (the weekly bill of £400 for puppies does not include food, transportation, facials or gun training). To its credit, the Dog House is the only dog hotel that will take a dog that has not been toilet-trained or neutered.

I’d like to point out that Wilson came so highly recommended that Mark drove to London to collect him for his three-week immersion course (he had to spend 45 minutes consoling me first). At the end of the three weeks I drove the full five hours to their 350-acre estate to collect him and receive a full day’s debrief, as well as a five-page school report, which, I am not kidding, included a page on his toilet habits (gold stars, of course). Wilson, says Gillian, was their “brightest” pup. “He was supremely enthusiastic about play” and “not entirely motivated by squirrels”.

Wilson interfaced brilliantly with their cat and chickens, and scored top marks in swimming, obstacle-course training and “controlled” tug. The Dog House’s clients are extremely competitive about their dog’s final marks. “My clients are euphoric when their dog scores four out of five,” says Gillian (Wilson scored five, of course). They taught him commands such as “ready”, which means bark (followed by “quiet” or “SHUUUUT UP!”), but I taught him paw, crawl, roll over and the difficult “dead” command by watching YouTube (none of my friends’ dogs can do dead).

The Thompsons started the Dog House because there was a gap in the market. Most dog hotels offer no training and walk them on leads.

“Play dead”DAVID YEO
Wilson’s routine was this: up at 8am and out for a little walk. Every two hours he was taken out again (he was being toilet trained), with play, nap and training periods in between until 10pm, when he was put to bed in their home, although they moved him around so he got used to different environments. Older dogs get two walks a day off-lead. They share rooms with underfloor heating.

One of the Thompsons’ top tips for teaching a dog recall is to hide behind trees and wait for the puppy to look frightened. Then you step out from behind the tree and call “here”. When he arrives, out comes the liver or raw meat, so he thinks nothing in the world could be better in life than coming when called.

Sadly, since his return, Wilson often doesn’t respond to the command “here” because he knows full well that I don’t have a treat, let alone a ball or liver and that, mostly, I want to go home from the park. These days he says “Show me the money” first, as would any intelligent person.

Admittedly, Wilson is not being trained to retrieve my Alzheimer’s drugs or sniff out colon cancer (which is the higher purpose of organisations such as Dognition), and he’s no goody-goody either. Smart dogs, like smart children, decide for themselves whether or not they’re going to please you. He comes to the command “here” when “here” is a place he wants to be (that does not include park gates).

Last week it took five adults to remove one tennis ball from Wilson’s grasp. Silly humans expect their dogs to behave like children and “share” their toys. When someone comes up to me in the park and says “would you please ask your dog to give my dog back his ball”, I give them a lecture on evolution. Wilson is a Scottish ratter; in the absence of crawling under mounds of rocks to flush out vermin using his very high-pitched bark), he chases moving balls. Of course, he knows how to “drop” a ball for you to toss (he is marvellously clever), but only if he wants to. Just because your dog’s name is written in block letters on your identical orange squishy ball (dogs have poor vision, they chase scents not things), does not mean he will give it back. Wilson does not “leave” anything unless offered something better (such as filet mignon). Would you?