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A Rare Breed – Sainsbury’s The Magazine

Becoming a dog trainer was a bit of an accident for Mark Thompson. Mark, who was a freelance events organiser , used to take his own dog, a Springer Spaniel, for a charge around the park every day. Then, last July, a neighbour asked him if he could take her dog along, too, as did Mark’s brother Peter, who had just moved nearby with his difficult Dalmatian, Mark agreed.

Not long after the exercise sessions began, Peter took his dog along to the vet, who was amazed by the change in his patient’s behaviour; it didn’t bark madly or try to take pieces out of him as it had done on previous visits. Jokingly, the vet asked Peter what he had done – sent the dog to finishing school or something? So Peter explained Mark’s involvement.

‘The vet was very excited and called me up,’ says Mark, breaking off our conversation to tell a large Doberman to get back in his basket. ‘He said he had another client whose German shepherd kept attacking the postman and dragging his owner down the road as though she was water skiing. She was at the end of her tether and looking to re home him when the vet asked me if I could help. I wasn’t doing much at the time so I agreed, but I did say that I would have to charge her. I didn’t want to have to deal with some vicious dog that could kill me for nothing…..Anyway, that’s how it all started.’

Mark grew up in Wiltshire, at Midway Manor, a wild animal park owned by his stepfather Tim Walker, a former chairman of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. ‘It was like a crazy zoo,’ says Mark. ‘We had the largest contingent of Zebras in captivity in the world, plus various other beasts such as camels, flamingos, snowy owls and giraffes. It was known by the locals as Madway Manor.

His special rapport with animal became apparent early on; at the age of ten, he trained his Springer Spaniel to be a perfect gun dog – ‘The local gamekeepers were very impressed by the dog,’ remembers Mark – and by 13 he had befriended the zoo’s fierce sable antelopes. ‘Normally no one went near them but, unbeknown to anyone else, I started getting quite chummy with them,’

Now, 20 years on, Mark runs his own dog training and exercising business. He exercises eight dogs on a regular basis and usually has another two or three dogs in training. This is done in short burst so the dog doesn’t get bored and involves working both near its home and, once the dog has learned basic social skills, in the park with the rest of Mark’s charges. On average, Mark takes on two new dogs a week for training.

‘The problem is, most of the time it’s the owners fault that their dog is unruly,’ says Mark. ‘I find it easier to train the dog first and then the owner, so they learn to enforce what I’ve already taught the dog.’

Sometimes, depending on the degree of training an owner wants for his or her pet, a dog will come to board with Mark. ‘Three to four months is necessary to produce a good, reliable gun dog,’ says Mark, ‘and I prefer these dogs to be full boarders, or at least weekly boarders.’

The most common problem Mark deals with are dogs who continue to behave like puppies – eating furniture or jumping up on people – long after they have grown up. ‘The poor owners just can’t deal with it anymore,’ says Mark, who uses a combination of his own techniques plus methods he has learned from books to retrain these wayward pets.

‘Dogs are like children in that if they think you are a pushover they’ll take advantage,’ says Mark. ‘A dog usually wants to please its owner and, once it remembers that a damn good yank on the lead isn’t nice, it realises that life will be easier and more fun if it behaves.

‘But then it is much easier training someone else’s dog, ‘he says, looking pointedly at his own. As if on cue, Mark’s Spaniel, which has not taken a blind bit of notice of his master’s commands marches into the room holding his food bowl in his mouth.


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