I remember it vividly. I was genuinely nervous, my heart was in my mouth. Unable to bear the tension, I wanted to fast-forward what I was watching to see if he managed to do it, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the TV!
Here I was, watching a dog that I had never met, do something seemingly absurd, and I was captivated. My heart was pumping in my chest and I was slightly bemused at how invested I was in this amazing little story!
Of course it captivated many more than me – Sky 1’s Dogs Might Fly was a revelation. In case you missed it – yes, they taught a dog to fly a plane, and yes, you need to watch the whole series!
It’s only after the excitement died down once the series had ended that I realised just what had happened. Not only had some very talented and skilful trainers and behaviourists trained not one, but three, dogs to fly a plane. These were also not ‘ordinary’ dogs. They, and their 7 friends who completed some pretty amazing pre-pilot training too, were ALL rescue dogs.
Yes, I know!
Each one of these 10 unique characters were selected from a rescue or rehoming centre specifically for the show.
These dogs were unwanted.
They were the ultimate underdogs.
Oh, did I also mention that they were trained to this exceptional level in only a few months, using ONLY positive and reward based training methods.
Yes, I know!
For anyone who hasn’t seen the show I urge you to find it (legally, of course) and catch up on the series – it was a truly uplifting watch, and apart form making me incredibly jealous of all involved, it also did things in the entirely right way from a training and welfare perspective as far as I am concerned. Right down to finding each dog a hand-picked forever home after the filming had finished!
So, short of me professing my admiration for these wonderful dogs, their trainers and their new families, why am I mentioning this TV programme?
Well I thought it was the perfect example of how much you can do with positive training, how much you can be amazed by rescue dogs, and how much hope it must instil in trainers and owners of rescue dogs across the country.
Don’t worry – I am not saying by any means that we can all teach our dogs to fly planes, but there are some amazing lessons to learn from these flying dogs, and I thought that I would share how these lessons challenge some common assumptions about dogs in general, rescue dogs specifically and positive, reward-based training.
1. The sky is (literally) the limit for rescue dogs
Apart from the awful pun above, there is nothing not to like about this story. It proved that rescue dogs, with unknown pasts can be trained to an exceptional level, just like any other dog that hasn’t experienced life in rescue kennels. There is nothing intrinsically bad, or lesser, or wrong with dogs in rescue centres – indeed some come from loving homes that heart wrenchingly have to offer them for rehoming as they can no longer look after their dog themselves. Even those who are found on the street, with no microchip and no history available can be just as endearing, and are all definitely deserving of a second chance at a happy life.
Dog’s Might Fly proved in stylish fashion that each of the 10 dogs selected were capable of some truly extraordinary things – given the right attention, understanding, training and a big dose of patience.
2. The sky is (literally) the limit for positive, reward-based, training
Firstly, let me be clear. The trainers on the show are incredibly skilled and experienced in their field. Teaching a dog to fly a plane, or to do the host of the tricks that they each performed on the show, is not simple, and is not without challenges. I can only imagine the trials and tribulations along the way for each dog. One thing is important though, it was all achieved positively, with reward based methods. No force, no pain, no fear needed. Just an impressive grasp of the science behind how dogs learn, some undoubted skill in applying a handful of training techniques (and maybe some cheese and a clicker), and did I mention patience?!
There are still people who doubt the effectiveness or relevance of positive training, seeing it somehow as ‘soft’ or second rate, or ineffective. However there is little doubt that the feats achieved on this show, and many others that can be achieved using force-free training, are incredible.
They trained a dog to fly a plane for goodness sake!
Surely this must give us all hope that positive training should always be seen to be the best and only way to train our dogs, to do anything.
Not only is it impressively effective, it is also fun, enjoyable, and rewarding for both trainer and dog.
It’s a no-brainer surely!?
3. You can teach an old dog new tricks
The ages of the dogs on the show varied, but none could be classed as puppies, and the majority were fully mature adult dogs.
It was well and truly confirmed that you can teach an old dog new, and impressive, tricks. You can teach any dog new tricks given the right methods and the right tricks. Age is not a restriction to learning, and just because a rescue dog (or any dog) is 3, 5, 10 years old it doesn’t mean that it cannot learn from, and absolutely love, training.
All we need is something that will motivate the dog (usually a tasty food treat), some basic understanding of positive training methods, a bit of understanding of the dogs communication with us, and did I mention patience?
4. Rescue dogs are in no way lesser than their non-rescue counterparts
Rescue dogs come in all shapes and sizes, breeds and cross-breeds (and ‘mongrels’), ages and temperaments. The only thing than unites them all is that none of them have a forever home. They can be handed over by owners, found as strays, or rescued from sometimes horrendous circumstances.
They were all still born as dogs, still have (usually) four legs, a tail that can wag and the same need and desire for a real home with a human family. They just didn’t get it from day one.
They can be just as handsome, charming, funny, intelligent, beautiful, affectionate, awe-inspiring and loveable as any dog that has spent their whole life in a loving home.
The feats that these amazing dogs can acheive can only go to prove that rescue dogs aren’t really different at all – they are just unwanted.
Many rescue dogs end up where they are through no fault of their own, and even those with behavioural or training needs, didn’t develop those needs deliberately. Diamonds in the rough are still diamonds – some just need a bit of a polish!
5. All dogs can’t be trained to do the same thing (if you’re being fair)
Although the training of the dogs on the show was pretty incredible, what was more uplifting for me, as a trainer, was that no dog was forced to do it. Throughout the show, if a dog became too nervous or uncomfortable with the next level of training, it was stopped, and the dog was sent to their hand-picked forever home.
The trainers and hosts understood and respected the dogs body language and communication and didn’t push them past what they were comfortable with. This means, of course, that not all dogs want to fly planes!
It also means that not all dogs will be the best, or the most comfortable at learning certain exercises. Some dogs might love agility, some might be worried by it. If they are, I would hope to find something different and equally rewarding to train them in, except this time something that doesn’t worry or scare them.
Whereas we all want our dogs to be well behaved, happy and content – I think we should also understand that some will be better at some things than others, and if you’re being fair to the dog, you should try and find what they enjoy too – and train them in that as well!
6. It won’t always be easy
You may be forgiven up to now for thinking that I believe training a dog is an easy, blissful and wonderful experience every time (it can be sometimes!).
However I know full well how frustrating, draining and difficult it can be at times. This is not the dogs fault, but usually it is challenging and difficult because we are not training in the optimum way. As I mentioned before, I am sure the professionals involved in the show endured many difficult moments, especially as there will have been a deadline to complete all of this within!
Challenges and ‘off days’ are normal, especially if we are training our dogs to do something that they find difficult. However the more we do it, the easier it becomes, and it is (almost) always fun and enjoyable along the way.
Dogs are wonderful, wonderful animals. However owning, training and looking after one, especially one who may need extra training and behavioural help can be difficult. But it is always worth it. Some dogs probably end up in rescue centres because their first owners underestimated the time, emotional and financial investment that goes in to truly incorporating a dog into your family – every rescue dog deserves a chance to live with a family that is willing to make that commitment unreservedly.
So that’s my food for thought on this landmark achievement in dog training, and I hope it has provoked you to find out more about this wonderful story.
Above all, I hope that it continues to highlight that there will eternally be something special about rescue dogs, and something fundamentally superior about positive training methods.
I am so pleased that Dogs Might Fly proved, in public, to a mass audience that, using positive methods, with some patience, skill and lots of understanding, our rescue dogs can be taught to do some amazing things (let alone the basics to be happy and comfortable in a new home).
It also proved that a second chance, some understanding and the investment of some love and commitment can help ‘just a rescue’ blossom into a happy, fulfilled, content and loved dog.
But, to me, it didn’t prove that rescue dogs were special. They didn’t need to prove it.