School for dogs where owners bone up on behaviour

Annabelle Ryan with her springer spaniel Ollie.  Picture: Sarah Standing (170471-9213)
Annabelle Ryan with her springer spaniel Ollie. Picture: Sarah Standing (170471-9213)
Gary Moreton-Jones and Ian Clarke  Picture: Johnny Black

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Every dog is different.

They may be man’s best friend but, like us, they can’t always be treated in the same way.

For years, dog owners have claimed to know best how to look after their pooches.

We think we know our pets so well that we can see inside their heads and know how they feel.

But can we?

You may stroll down to the park with your loveable companion and spot a fellow owner with their dog in the distance.

As you draw nearer, you notice that the owner has hurriedly got the dog on a lead and is veering away from you.

You make sure your dog doesn’t run off after them and pass the incident off, thinking that the dog isn’t a friendly dog and continue on your way.

But what if there was a bit more to it than that? What if the dog has a crippling fear of other animals, or even other humans?

What if its owner has spent the best part of two years trying to get their beloved pet under control only to realise that they have a ‘reactive’ dog. But what do they do? Where do they go?

The answer may just be Scallywags School For Dogs.

Based on lush green fields in Shedfield, near Wickham, Scallywags is a dog training business that has become a haven for owners of reactive dogs.

Dog owners come from all over Hampshire and West Sussex to seek Claire White-French’s help.

‘Each dog is different,’ she says. ‘There isn’t really a one size fits all strategy for dealing with dogs, particularly reactive dogs.’

Claire’s grounds are split into different sections, each representing different parts of dog training that Scallywags provides.

There’s space for agility training and small fences for the dogs to jump over as owners and their four-legged friends train for dog shows.

Scallywags also offers plenty of space for dogs to learn behavioural skills.

Claire says: ‘We seek to provide all different types of training here. It’s a place where people come from all over to learn with their dogs.

‘This is a place for people to really get to know their dogs, whether that’s with the aim of training them in agility or to uncover the troubles that they are having with them.

‘We don’t just have puppies as well. We get dogs of all different ages coming here who are all bringing their own needs.’

Claire has been a part of Scallywags for 23 years and has now in charge of the operation for the past four years.

Originally started as one of the first agility schools, it has blossomed into a much bigger and well-respected training school, with dozens of dogs coming to Claire for help or assistance.

‘There are weeks when I can get over 70 dogs coming to see me for aid,’ she says.

While she trains dog across the spectrum, it is reactive dogs that can take the longest time to see results.

‘With reactive dogs, I really do not think there is enough knowledge out there,’ she says.

‘The thing about dogs is that we care so much about them and we really do want the best for them, but it can be a real struggle to look after them and understand them. I’ve seen people at their wit’s end with them and come desperate to me for help.

‘This can be for a variety of reasons.’

I attended a reactive dog class with Claire to see her work in action. Each dog that was there was there for a reason.

‘Whether it’s a fear of other dogs, a constant anxiety to be outside or finding humans difficult to be with.

Claire says: ‘It is about creating a safe space for these dogs.

‘We provide a dog with what they need and allow them to feel comfortable.’

During the two-hour session, the class starts with the dog being allowed to make the most of its own space, to run around and feel settled within the confines of a field before moving around a course and then being introduced to the other dogs.

‘The dogs do not come close to one another if not comfortable, but instead are walked around the fields, such as in a single file format or in hokey-cokey style – this depends on the mood of the dogs at the time.

‘It needs to be in a way that they do not feel stressed,’ says Claire.

‘Making sure that they are relaxed is absolutely key. By keeping the dogs at a good distance from one another, it allows them to really get to grips with themselves. They can run and they can play and then they can learn to control their anxiety.

‘Very often, these dogs will get hassled in the park, so bringing them here allows them to de-stress.’

Sarah Standing takes beagle Roxy, two, to Scallywags every week.

She got the rescue dog at the age of 10 months, but has since faced a constant struggle to control Roxy’s anxiety as she finds meeting other dogs and people difficult.

Sarah says: ‘It is hard as Roxy is a dog that I love, but every day I am dealing with Groundhog Day.

‘I find myself getting up earlier than the early dog walkers as you don’t want to have to deal with the struggle of meeting other dogs at that hour of the morning.

‘Living with a reactive dog can be a challenge on a daily basis. Places like Scallywags have provided me with a sense of comfort for Roxy. Since we’ve been coming here she’s got better as she is able to run more in her own space.

‘Of course, there are good days and bad days as you’d expect.

‘But it’s going well and who knows what she’ll be like over the coming months.’

Claire adds: ‘How you build the relationship with your dog makes the difference. It’s really all about how you deal with it.

‘Dogs are difficult at the end of the day and we have to try our best to make them feel comfortable and that is not easy.

‘I think there is a element of ignorance among dog walkers and what I would say to those that do not know about reactive dogs is do not judge those who aren’t keen on letting their dogs come and play.

‘Dogs are intensely personal animals and all have their own quirks like us. Not every one of them is keen on saying hello.’

‘SCARED OF HIS OWN SHADOW’

Annabelle Ryan’s springer spaniel Ollie was ‘scared of his own shadow’ following an incident with another dog a few years ago.

Ollie and Annabelle have been coming to the classes for the past few months and now she is more relaxed about bringing Ollie.

She says: ‘Since we’ve been coming here, I do not panic any more. It was quite bad at the start and it was like I was in two years of purgatory as it would be very difficult to be able to go anywhere. I wouldn’t go to the beach as I knew it would be full of people. Almost everywhere I thought about going, suddenly I would have this fear about whether or not I could take Ollie.

‘I think there is a big element of naivety with people. They just don’t know about reactive dogs. I think if they did,it would make a world of a difference.

‘At the end of the day, it is a lack of awareness and until people have a reactive dog they will never know.’

WHAT CLASSES WOULD WORK FOR MY DOG?

Reactive dogs: These classes can vary but tend to take place on Fridays from 10am until 12pm on a weekly basis.

Puppies: Every Saturday and Thursday, puppy owners can attend a ‘puppy romp’ where they get to meet and socialise with other pups. A seven-week puppy course is also held which takes place in indoor venues in Wickham, Bursledon, Fareham and Swanwick. Those that graduate from that course can go on to an advanced six-week course at the same venues and at the training venue in Shedfield. There are also options for a four-week in-home training course or one-on-one sessions.

Agility classes: For those wanting to learn a new sport with their dog, agility might be the class for you. A one-hour beginners’ class takes place on Saturdays at Shedfield with advanced beginners starting at 2pm and beginners starting at 3.25pm. A class for small dogs of all levels takes place at 11am with one-on-one agility sessions taking place on weekdays for half an hour.

Private lessons: For those that need a private session for a dog, behaviour assessments and private training lessons can take place at Shedfield or a behaviour assessment can take place in your own home.

If you are interested about Scallywag and want to know more about the classes on offer or to find out more information, head to scallywagsdogs.com or give Claire a call on 01329 833 813, or e-mail office@scallywagsdogs.com.